Scientists know little about what’s driving the decline of endangered mountain tapirs, a mammal that lives in Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru.

One reason, said Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute research physiologist Dr. Budhan Pukazhenthi, is that they’re so difficult to track and find.

The mountain tapir is the most threatened of the five species of tapir (four in South and Central America, and one in Asia.) It has a woolly coat and white lips and at about 5 feet, 9 inches in length, looks a little like a cross between a black bear and an anteater.

Pukazhenthi estimates there are maybe 2,000 to 2,500 mountain tapirs in the wild, with only nine others housed in zoos in California, Colorado and Colombia.

“So there is very little known about them,” Pukazhenthi said.

Hoping to discover what’s causing the decline of wild tapirs, Pukazhenthi has joined fellow scientist Liza Dadone, vice president of mission & programs at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, in planning a series of expeditions to Ecuador to study the animals.

“I am one of the lead researchers on the project,” he said. “She and I came up with this idea and decided to pursue this project.”

To date, he said, their team of researchers has captured and collected about 15 animals. They plan to head back to Ecuador for two weeks in October to find some more and equip them with GPS collars to study their habits and habitats via satellite.

They have five collars, he said, “which means getting five animals, if we’re lucky.”

So far, he said, they’ve put collars on two animals, and others have been implanted with transponder chips.

Studying mountain tapirs means doing a lot of waiting around, said Pukazhenthi.

“We do a lot of hiking,” he said. “We hike several miles a day depending on where these animals may be.”

Their visit in October will start at sea level, he said, but they’ll climb up to about 11,000 to 14,000 feet in search of their test subjects.

“It’s fun, but it hurts,” he said. “Hiking is not a problem, I can do that.”

But he said higher elevations mean lower oxygen levels, which makes hiking more strenuous. The team is also bringing along three local trackers who used to be hunters.

“We use them to help us track these animals,” Pukazhenthi said.

“It’s a very rewarding experience to be able to capture these animals and collect samples to learn more about them,” he said.

The team is working with the Ecuadorian government on the study and will share any data they generate, Pukazhenthi said.

One especially interesting thing he said they learned about tapirs so far is how adaptive the animals are to the mountains of Ecuador. What takes humans a while to hike, the animals have no trouble traversing, he said.

One of the team’s goals is to learn how disease transmission from livestock in neighboring national parks and horse or cattle ranches might affect tapirs. Livestock are vaccinated against disease, he said, but tapirs wouldn’t have that protection.

In preparing for their upcoming trip, he said the team is collecting baseline data. That way, if a disease outbreak happens, they’ll be able to trace the source.

They’re also doing outreach with the Ecuadorian government to highlight what these species do and what roles they play in the natural environment. Locals don’t really hunt tapirs, he said, which is good, but makes him wonder what other threats are affecting the animals. He suspects threats might include deforestation leading to loss of habit, and possible mining activity around the area.

“These are really charismatic species,” he said, but there’s “very little known about them.”

What do they eat? Where do they go? What are their breeding systems like?

He said scientists don’t really know how long mountain tapirs hang out together. They plan to study the ecology of where the animals live, how much land area they cover, and any potential threats they face from plant life or other wildlife.

“None of that information is known about these guys in that area,” he said.

“[There’s] a lot of exciting science yet to come.”

For more information, visit the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute at https://nationalzoo.si.edu.

Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com