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ROMEO COMES TO U.S. January 15, 2008 > The First Baird’s Tapir Export in Three Decades

27 Mar 2009

The Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) is one of four species of tapirs and is found in Mexico, Central America, and the northeastern coast of Colombia. Like all species of tapirs, Baird’s tapirs are listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are regulated in international trade by CITES as Appendix I species. The IUCN Red List also lists them as endangered. There are approximately 114 Baird’s tapirs in 39 institutions reported in the Central American Tapir International Studbook (Roman, 2006), only 33 of which are in US zoos.
           In 2005a Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PVHA) workshop for Baird’s tapir was held in Belize, and it was at this time that the need for the development of a Central American Baird’s tapir SSP became apparent.   The El Nispero Zoo near El Valle, Panama volunteered to host a master-planning session for captive tapirs in range countries, and identification of tapirs appropriate and available for export from the Central American region was started.  The committee determined that a male from La Marina Wildlife Rescue Center in San Carlos, Costa Rica, and a female from the Summit Zoo in Panama City, Panama, would be the best choices for the first legal exports in over 30 years. Alan Shoemaker, Rick Barongi, Alberto Mendoza and other members of the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group felt that the Nashville Zoo in Tennessee would be a good setting for this genetically valuable pair asthe zoo was planning a multi-million dollar South American expansion. Tapirs, giant anteaters, giant otter, jaguars, jabiru storks, saki and howler monkeys are among the flagship species for this project. 
            The male tapir, Romeo would be imported first. Many permits and processes needed to be completed before the move could occur, including U.S. Endangered Species and CITES, Costa Rican CITES, USDA, Florida Fish and Wildlife, security clearance for zoo staff to accompany the tapir in the cargo plane, and a health certificate issued by the Ministry of Agriculture in Costa Rica. The tapir would need to be sprayed for external parasites between 3 and 14 days of departure from Costa Rica and sprayed again upon arrival in Miami. He also needed to pass the Senasa health inspection that was required no later than 3 days before departure.  Completing the requirements of all these permits within the correct time frame proved to be very challenging, and sending zoo personnel to Costa Rica to facilitate things was recommended.   In September of 2007, Nashville Zoo Curator of Mammals Tracy Sorensen and Animal Keeper Elena Lamar went to La Marina to help move the paperwork along, as well as to work with Romeo to get him acclimated to them. Paul Sudenfield, a friend of Juanjo Rojas, the owner of La Marina Wildlife Rescue Center, met them in San Jose and spent many hours driving them to and from La Marina and helping out in any way he could.  Sudenfield’s assistance was invaluable not just to Juanjo, Sorensen and Lamar, but to the tapir cause as well, and he would do everything he could to help.
            When they arrived at La Marina, two year old Romeo had just been separated from his sire, dam and younger sister. He was living in an area consisting of trees and heavy brush, a stream, and a partially open area where the shipping crate had been placed. He was rather shy and would tolerate the presence his keepers for a short time before moving awayAfter several days and many hours habituating him to their presence, and with help from many bananas, he would allow the Nashville Zoo staff to approach and scratch him down without moving away. Soon he would be waiting where he could see them approach, and would eventually meet them halfway. Preferred food of bananas, papaya, plantains, and yucca were used to draw him close to the crate although he never went in while people were around. His grain and produce were fed in the crate and he increasingly ate more and more in it overnight, although he often would pull the large food bowl out in the open to eat under the stars.
            In the meantime, the permits were being completed one by one, and the Senasa vets came out to witness Romeo being sprayed and to do the Health inspection. Three days before the scheduled departure the airline re-routed their cargo plane and informed the zoo that there would not be another cargo plane in San Jose for ten days. Furthermore, this plane would not allow zoo staff to accompany Romeo on the flight. Juanjo was not agreeable to Romeo flying alone for the trip. The airline would not guarantee that the flight to San Jose would not be cancelled again, and Sorensen and Lamar ended up coming back to Nashville empty-handed. This meant that the short-term permits would run out and parties in both countries would have to start the process over.
            The next possible time frame for import was in January, 2008. The colder weather in Nashville at this time of year was prohibitive for housing a tapir used to the warm rain forest atmosphere of Costa Rica, and plans were made to quarantine him at the Rum Creek Center for Tropical Ungulates in Punta Gorda, Florida.  Paul Sudenfield was once again able to meet staff there with an offer to help in any way he could. This time around most of the paperwork was easier to process.  A different airline was selected and there were high hopes that this one would not pull out at the last minute. The state vets witnessed Romeo being sprayed and filled out his health certificate. Juanjo and Sudenfield took the paperwork to the broker in San Jose and also met with the Ministry of Agriculture to finalize the export. Romeo was all set to fly out on early in the morning of January 15th
            On January 14th, a chute leading to the crate was fashioned out of metal roofing, and the keepers baited Romeo to within feet of the crate using bananas and papayas. When he would not enter the crate he was further encouraged with push boards made of metal roofing. Within an hour he was in and the crate was secured. Chains were fastened around the crate and it was lifted on to a small flatbed truck with a tractor. After a quick celebration and change of clothing they were on their way to San Jose.
            At the airport, the crate and supply of grain were placed on a metal pallet and secured with netting. Although it was doubtful that the food would get through Customs at the Miami port, it was worth a try in order to slowly transition him to his new U.S. diet. The pallet was loaded onto the aircraft and they were on their way at 3am, with one stop in Panama. When the plane landed, the pilot informed Sorensen that there had been engine trouble and that they would be in Panama for at least a day. He suggested that a quarantine facility to turn Romeo out be found because the cargo area would get quite hot while sitting on the tarmac. Sorensen tried to explain that letting him out of the crate would not be an option but it turned out that the Panamanian officials would not let Romeo off of the plane anyway because of quarantine restrictions. The cargo handlers were fascinated with Romeo and would have loved to have been able to pet him and otherwise stick body parts in the crate, and it was a long two hours while they unloaded and reloaded the plane. Romeo had traveled well until this point, but the noise, activity and number of people around his crate seemed to make him nervous. He was able to turn around in the crate several times but eventually settled down.  Sudenfield bribed one of the cargohandlers to buy several bunches of bananas at the nearest grocery, and Romeo was set for the layover. Luckily the plane only took a few hours to repair and they were on their way again later that morning. 
            Upon arrival in Miami, they were taken to clear Customs.  From there, Denise Spaulding and Mike Wilsonfrom Import Brokers took them to the USDA import site where Romeo had already arrived.  All hay and bedding was removed, Romeo was sprayed and inspected, a lecture about importing bananas was received, and they were off to Rum Creek in a U-Haul.          
            Romeo was unloaded into a 10’x 20’ heated shelter with an acre habitat and a pond. He was very calm and tired after his 36 hour adventure and had made it through with only a couple of scratches and a small cut to one of his hooves. He even ate most of his diet that first night. Over the next week he was gradually switched from his Costa Rican diet to Mazuri Wild Herbivore and whole, dry corn, with plenty of bananas.  Scratching him down to medicate his wounds was fairly easily done and they healed up quickly.  He was housed in the stall area for three days to acclimate him to where to find his diet and heat source, and then the door to his habitat was opened. After fully exploring the habitat, he settled down in what would become his favorite napping spot in a clump of palm trees and scrub. His only issue seemed to be his reluctance to eat alfalfa, which he had never been exposed to before now.   He was able to be bribed with “banana smash” hay, which consisted of several bananas rubbed thoroughly into the hay.   He was not interested in any local browse that was available at this time of year, even two types of acacia that had been procured from Disney’s Animal Kingdom. His favored browse of banana leaves will be readily available in the spring.  
            Although he isn’t eating a great amount of alfalfa, his condition and attitude remain very good. The Rum Creek personnel continue to closely monitor him and send weekly consumption charts, and have been very generous with their time and attention to Romeo. He has made the adjustment from Costa Rica to Florida very nicely and we will bring him up to Nashville in the spring, when a female Baird’s tapir named “Houston” will be imported from Panama. Hopes for a new tapir gene pool in the region are high, and it took the foresight and several years of hard work from many people dedicated to tapirs to make this happen.   


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