Suriname’s tapirs: Conservation in the face of hunting and other threats

  • Despite being listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, tapirs are still hunted in Suriname, the only country in the region where tapir hunting is allowed during specific times and regions.
  • Conservation International Suriname (CIS) and WWF are working with local communities and Indigenous groups to raise awareness, support habitat conservation and promote responsible hunting practices in order to protect tapirs.
  • Gamekeepers face challenges in enforcing hunting regulations due to limited resources and personnel, leading to illegal hunting even outside the designated season.
  • Future goals for tapir protection in Suriname include updating the hunting calendar, conducting research on tapir populations and establishing an Indigenous and Community Conserved Area (ICCA) to protect tapir habitats.

Each year from June to August, it’s tapir hunting season in Suriname, the only country in South America that allows hunting the animal, which already faces a host of other threats to its survival.

This species, widely known in Suriname as bofru (Tapirus terrestris), is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to threats such as habitat loss, fragmentation and hunting. And even though hunting is regulated through the Hunting Law and the Hunting Decree, with a three-month open season and a bag limit of one, hunting is a problem outside the designated months too.

According to Conservation International Suriname (CIS), sport hunting poses the greatest threat to tapirs in Suriname. The second biggest threat is forest degradation due to gold mining, logging and disturbances, which shrink their habitat. According to the IUCN, conservation efforts including raising awareness and protecting the animal’s natural habitats are essential for the tapir’s survival.

Tapirs are found almost everywhere in the country, both in the coastal plain where most people live and in the southern part of the country, which is heavily forested and includes nature reserves where hunting is prohibited, giving tapirs a better chance of survival.

In Suriname, the hunting law establishes open and closed seasons for all hunted species. Tapirs are classified as game animals with a unique three-month open season due to their 13-month gestation period.

According to Anna Mohase, WWF landscape coordinator in Guyana and Suriname, tapir hunting is managed by the National Agency for Nature Conservation (Natuurbeheer), in accordance with the law and a well-defined hunting calendar, with support from WWF to safeguard the species. In addition to the regulated season, tapirs are also hunted for consumption by Indigenous and tribal communities.

Still, even with these regulations in place, tapirs are hunted outside the designated season, largely because Natuurbeheer gamekeepers are not adequately equipped to enforce the law. “In recent years,” says gamekeeper Haidy Bouman, “the number of people caught with tapirs outside the open season has decreased, because we carried out fewer checks for various reasons, such as a lack of finances.”

A tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in Kabalebo, Suriname.
A tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in Kabalebo, Suriname. Tapirs are found almost everywhere in Suriname, both in the coastal plain where most people live and in the southern part of the country, which is heavily forested and includes nature reserves. Image by Panning Out via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Funding shortfall for gamekeepers

There is a shortage of both funding and personnel. “Not only good transportation is needed but also sufficient fuel,” Bouman says. For example, if you receive 30 liters of fuel per week and you must check the pet shops, animal exporters and you still have to carry out controls in the interior. How far can you get?”

In Suriname, there are currently about 35 authorized active gamekeepers, not only in the protected areas but throughout the country. A new batch of 28 gamekeepers is being trained (after 11 years since the last group). “We hope that all 28 will stay and finish the training,” Bouman says. “Even then, there will still be a shortage — 98%of the current corps are over 50 years old.”

When hunters are caught with a tapir outside the hunting season, they are taken to the nearest police station, where they are handed over with the catch. The Public Prosecutor orders the catch to be given to Natuurbeheer, and then it is donated to a charity. The offender is then fined an amount determined by the Public Prosecutor. “Usually, they ask about the market price of the tapir, and then we give an indication, but the maximum penalty [imprisonment] is rarely chosen,” Bouman states. “The fines depend on the offense but are now high because the hunting law and hunting decree fall under the economic offense law, which has higher fines and longer penalties.”

However, according to her, there has been little enforcement of the hunting law in recent years due to COVID-19 and the financial crisis; most of the animals recently confiscated have been types of peccaries such as pingos (Tayassu pecari) and pakiras (Tayassu tajacu) as well as some tapirs.

A family of peccaries (Tayassu pecari)
A family of peccaries (Tayassu pecari), which are also hunted alongside tapirs. Image by sharloch via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Subsistence hunting

Bouman explains that in the northern part of Suriname, all hunting rules apply. And although the law is nationwide, exceptions are made for communities that live in the southern part of Suriname and rely on hunting for their food.

In those regions of Suriname, some Indigenous and Maroon communities (descendants of enslaved Africans) rely on hunting as a means of subsistence. These communities often live in or near the forest and have a more traditional way of life compared with people in the northern coastal areas, where urbanization and modernization are more prominent. These communities have inhabited these regions for generations and have deep connections to the land and its resources. Hunting plays a significant role in their daily lives, providing a source of protein and sustenance. Besides tapirs, they also hunt various other animals such as wild pigs, deer, peccaries and a variety of birds and fish.

In this southern zone, it is reasoned that people need protein but cannot go to the store as people in the northern parts can, so the hunting law only applies to totally protected species such as the red-faced spider monkey (Ateles paniscus) and the yellow-crowned amazon (Amazona ochrocephala). “If we are there, and a protected animal has been shot for cooking, we take it into account,” Bouman says, “but the basic rule is that [subsistence hunters] are not allowed to acquire in the south and transport it to the north for sale. Then all rules will apply to that person.”

A tapir.
Although the hunting law is nationwide, exceptions are made for communities that live in the southern part of Suriname and rely on hunting for their food. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The forest’s seed dispersers

Tapirs, often referred to as “gentle giants” of the rainforest, are remarkable mammals that inhabit dense jungles and forested areas. These herbivorous creatures are known for their distinctive appearance, with a stout body, a short trunk-like snout and a remarkable ability to swim. Tapirs play a crucial ecological role as seed dispersers, aiding in the growth of various plant species throughout their habitat. In addition to the sustenance tapirs provide some communities, it’s essential to appreciate these animals for their role in maintaining the biodiversity of the rainforest and the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Protecting tapirs also means safeguarding the rich biodiversity of the region they call home.

Official proponents of legalized hunting say they understand the need for conservation. The Association of Sports Hunters & Fishermen Suriname (SJVS) was founded in 2014 with the goal of promoting responsible sport hunting and fishing. This involves training hunters and fishers to respect nature, the environment and safety. In addition to holding club meetings, SJVS used to provide information in districts, but this has slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Helmond Proeve, SJVS’s president, explains they have a hunting guide explaining the legal rules, including hunting seasons and bag limits. He says the group emphasizes compliance with these rules and prioritizes safety, including responsible weapon handling. In addition, the association also provides legal assistance to hunters and fishers in trouble, such as when there are disputes over confiscated weapons or fines imposed on hunters.

Els van Lavieren, senior technical manager of the CIS wildlife and marine program, has a different view. She states that her organization is against the hunting of tapirs, with an exception for subsistence hunters. “The whole hunting calendar needs to be revised, and tapirs should be taken off it, due to their slow reproduction rate and vulnerability. We shouldn’t lag behind. It has long been proven that allowing hunting of tapirs is not a good idea,” she states.

Els van Lavieren and Helmond Proeve
(Left) Els van Lavieren, senior technical manager of the wildlife and marine program at Conservation International Suriname (CIS), and (right) Helmond Proeve, chairman of the Association of Sports Hunters & Fishermen Suriname. Images courtesy of Els van Lavieren and Helmond Proeve.

But Proeve disagrees that legalized sport hunting is the biggest threat to tapirs, and neither are subsistence hunters who, he says, are considerate of their environment and know how to interact with nature. Rather, he says, the biggest issue is people who do not follow the rules. He does not deny that association members also break rules, but he says if they are caught, they must face the consequences, if justified. Proeve states that sport hunters do not sell game, but rather shoot what they need for themselves. Commercial hunters, on the other hand, make a living from selling game.

“What is happening now is that everyone wants to be classified as a sport hunter, but does not know the rules, and it is mostly city people who do not follow the rules. For example, you are not allowed to hunt with artificial light; there is a fine for it, but it still happens,” says Proeve.

Proeve states that hunting is a controversial concept but still important. “It keeps the ecosystem in balance so that there is no excess of a particular animal. There are also not many hunters, so if you adhere to the bag limit, there is no problem. Most people dramatize the situation.” Therefore, Proeve says he does not think it is necessary to completely remove tapirs from the hunting calendar. “I am in favor of balance.”

He also says the government has a responsibility. For example, he explains, it is legally stipulated that sport hunters take an exam, but this doesn’t happen. “As a result, there are people who hunt but do not know the rules or laws, with all the consequences that this entails.”

A tapir eating a plant.
Tapirs play a crucial ecological role as seed dispersers, aiding in the growth of various plant species throughout their habitat. Image by Bernard DUPONT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
A forest in Suriname.
In addition to the sustenance tapirs provide some communities, it’s essential to appreciate these animals for their role in maintaining the biodiversity of the rainforest and the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Image by Hans Hillewaert via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Tapir conservation and need for research

There aren’t many organizations working on wildlife conservation in Suriname — and especially not for tapirs. CIS started its wildlife program in 2017. At the time, there was no NGO specifically focused on wildlife in general, as Green Heritage Fund Suriname focuses on anteaters, sloths, and marine species and WWF focuses on umbrella species.

The CIS wildlife program centers on nine animals, including tapirs, which were chosen because of the threats they face and because of their role in keeping the forest healthy due to seed dispersal. Another reason for including tapirs is their long gestation period of 13 months, resulting in slow recovery if hunted.

CIS collaborates with local communities and Indigenous groups in Suriname to promote species protection. When starting work in a village, the organization typically conducts assessments with subsistence and sport hunters to understand hunting pressures on various species, including tapirs, and the dependence of communities on the wildlife trade. Based on these assessments, CIS presents the results to the communities and conducts awareness activities, including educational programs in schools about wildlife and overhunting.

Van Lavieren acknowledges the need for tapir research due to lack of data, which is important to define conservation actions. She says they don’t currently have comprehensive assessments of tapir populations across Suriname. It would be good to start with an account of how many tapirs are hunted. “And if you know how many are hunted, you also know the impact. Then you can make predictions and estimates of the impact. We don’t know the average density now. But in general, it’s 1-6 individuals per square kilometer. And that won’t be very different here, I think, although we have fewer swamp areas than in Brazil,” she states.

Although it doesn’t have a special program for tapirs, WWF also plays a pivotal role in tapir conservation in Suriname. Collaborating closely with Natuurbeheer, WWF focuses on building capacity, disseminating vital information, providing education and awareness. WWF also offers training to key border control and monitoring staff, enhancing enforcement against illegal hunting and activities that pose a threat to tapirs, particularly outside the hunting season. “Currently, there are no specific ongoing WWF research projects exclusively dedicated to tapirs in Suriname. However, indirect data is collected through recent jaguar surveys, which also record other wildlife present in various habitats being studied,” Mohase says.

Mohase notes that the country has several protected areas and Multiple Use Management Areas (MUMAs) that offer adequate protection to tapirs and ensure safe habitats, as it is prohibited to hunt inside the MUMAs.

A tapir in Kabalebo, Suriname.
A tapir in Kabalebo, Suriname. Image by Panning Out via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Van Lavieren does not think it is necessary to have protected areas specifically for tapirs. “We have a very large country, which is very difficult to access. And when you do manage to reach it, it is very expensive, and we have few game wardens.” So her group’s priority is focusing on helping the Forest Management Service of the Ministry of Spatial Planning, Land and Forest Management “to manage the existing protected areas better. If we can achieve that, then it will be fine,” she says.

However, CIS has been working with other groups to create an Indigenous and Community Conserved Area (ICCA) with the Trio and Wayana Indigenous communities in south Suriname. If that new legislation passes, Indigenous communities will be able to protect and manage the area themselves. It involves 7.2 million hectares (17.8 million acres) of forest, a huge area — well beyond a third of the country — that is currently not protected.

Banner image: A female South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris). Image by Allan Hopkins via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The isolated tapirs of the Atlantic Forest face an uncertain future