I came to San Rafael to look for Baird’s tapir, Central America’s largest mammal, weighing in at over 500 pounds, and one of the most endangered animals in the Neotropics. The tapir suffers somewhat from illegal—and increasingly efficient—hunting, but its greatest struggle is against the loss and fragmentation of its habitat due to commercial and private logging and the expansion of agriculture and pasture. The coffee industry is one of the most grievous offenders. It is easy to see how habitat loss can harm a species, but fragmentation—without any loss, per se—can be just as bad. Fragmentation creates isolation, and isolated populations can experience rapid evolutionary change, normally to their detriment. Decreased genetic diversity leaves such groups susceptible to debilitating disorders that would be less likely, and less damaging, in free-ranging populations. With my brother-cum-field-assistant and two guides—the first, concerned by abundant jaguars in the area, insisted that we pick up a second—I set out from the village to find tapir. Or, not exactly tapir, but evidence of them: their feces. In order to learn about the genetic health of a population—levels of inbreeding, say—one needs DNA samples. Each bolus scrapes off a few intestinal cells as it passes through the colon, and, there we are, enterprising scientists, to collect them. We followed a track, cut only that week, deep into the jungle, as far as an enormous cedar tree that the villagers had just felled. Along the way we passed a pit viper impaled on a stake in the middle of the path. From the end of the path we headed into virgin territory, following a maze of streams. Here we made camp.
more from Niall McCann at Boston Review here.