|Paul Sudenfield of Marblehead pets a tapir in the jungles of Costa Rica.
Marblehead man rescues rare wildlife in Costa Rica
MARBLEHEAD - When Paul Sudenfield first traveled to Costa Rica 15 years ago, he was struck by the extraordinary wildlife and unspoiled land, an impression that led him to join native conservationists working to protect exotic animals from extinction.
A few months ago, Sudenfield, 57, of Marblehead, escorted the first tapir to legally leave Costa Rica for a private preserve in Florida, where the 450-pound ungulate can eventually be introduced to a suitable mate.
A tapir is a species of large browsing mammal, roughly pig-like in shape with a short snout, typically found in jungles and deep forest. Its closest relatives are horses, rhinoceroses, and other odd-toed creatures that walk on hooves. All four species of tapir are classified as endangered or vulnerable.
"This has never happened before," said Sudenfield, who owns and operates the Meineke Car Care Center on Highland Avenue in Salem. "For a long time, exotic animals were not allowed to leave the country, but now there's an understanding that we're trying to help."
Sudenfield's involvement began by a fluke several years ago when he befriended a Costa Rican woman whose husband, Julio Madriz, works as a tour guide, conservationist and filmmaker.
"We became good friends and one day Julio asked if I wanted to come along on a film he was doing with National Geographic and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.)," said Sudenfield, who grew up in Peabody. "I was the lackey and the gopher, good for helping to lug the heavy equipment around, but it was fascinating."
Since then, he has assisted Madriz in varying capacities on three more films. "I kept on going back. I couldn't get enough of it," he said. "I still do between three and five trips a year. Sometimes my wife, Deborah, will go along, and my son, Adam, but mostly it's something I do alone. "
Sudenfield has also linked up with Juan Jose Rojas Alfaro, a farmer who runs the La Marina Wildlife Rescue Center in Alajuela, north of the capital city, San Jose.
The center currently has more than 400 critters in its care - tapirs, ocelots, raptors, emus, crocodiles, caiman, jaguars and toucans - many of them on the endangered species list. Sudenfield is trying to help by raising awareness about the rescue effort and the animals in jeopardy. Spreading the word about the tapir in Florida is part of that effort.
The tapir, named Romeo, was flown in a DC-10 cargo plane to a 72-acre wildlife reserve owned by a billionaire. "Romeo was the first tapir to enter the United States in two decades, and he will stay in Florida temporarily, where he has two acres of his own to roam about, but eventually he'll be going to the Nashville zoo," Sudenfield said.
"Right now, he's in the care of tapir specialists, a group of professionals who dedicate time to preserving these kinds of animals. They want to keep the species alive and part of that means reducing the interbreeding with other species. Then, when zoos go looking for a certain kind of animal, they provide them, because zoos can't just buy or sell animals. Tapirs are highly unusual. On the evolutionary scale, they're older than the horse."
Romeo is a Baird's tapir, which is the most endangered of the four species. If all goes as planned, a female tapir from Panama, named Houston, will join him in Nashville, but so far government bureaucracy has been holding up the process.
"I do this because I love animals. I always have," said Sudenfield, whose scrapbooks are filled with photographs of him nuzzling with creatures big and small. "The people who run La Marina are my friends. I'll do whatever I can to help them. They have been getting some donations, but there's more that needs to be done. We don't want these animals to become extinct."