The Tapir and the Jicaro Danto Tree: A Lovely Symbiosis in a Land Between Volcanoes

Wherever live tapirs, lives hope for tropical forests.  This hope comes as a lovely package full of the seeds and nutrients that are key for maintaining and restoring tropical forests. The package is commonly known as dung. Fantastic dung, I would add. Tapirs, the architects of the forests, help spread necessary nutrients to keep forests alive – just by eating, and pooping.

And while Tapirs help keep forests alive and well around the world, their dung holds special value in the Guanacaste Mountain Range of Costa Rica. In these mountains, the survival of the rare, endemic, and endangered Jicaro Danto trees (Parmentiera valerii)  depend on Tapirs – so much, that the tree has evolved to seduce tapirs, growing sweet,  cucumber-shaped fruit called “jicaro” or “cacho” from its trunks, a real treat for tapirs. 

Tapirs challenge physics, using their anatomy in unimaginable ways to reach the best jicaro fruits. After locating the fruits using their sharp sense of smell, tapirs will stand up, placing over 285 kilos on their back two legs, to reach up the tree trunk with their front hooves and use their prehensile snout to grab their much valued jicaro.

Tapirs are the only herbivore capable of smashing the fruit’s hard shell and reaching the soft core, where small, heart-shaped seeds await ingestion. This reward not only provides energy and nutrients to tapirs, but also allows these little hearts to be processed and delivered kilometers away from the parental tree. Being ingested by tapirs increases the seed chances to germinate and grow. In other words, tapirs are literally spreading love!

Unfortunately, this “lovely symbiosis” is in danger; both tapirs and jicaros are listed as endangered with declining populations on the IUCN Red List. We need to protect tapirs to save the Jicaro Danto, at the same time we need to restore Jicaro Danto populations to save the tapirs throughout the Guanacaste Mountain Range. 

In wildlife conservation the only way to secure long-term success is by strengthening a symbiosis we call collaboration. That’s why CRWF’s program Nai Conservation works in collaboration with local and international partners to protect, restore, and spread the word about this magical, endangered symbiosis. 

The good news is that love for tapirs and jicaros is in the air! Communities, scientists, and conservationists are working together to protect biodiversity in a land between volcanoes in Northern Costa Rica. There’s hope for tropical forests!

About the author: Esteban Brenes-Mora is a conservation biologist from Costa Rica, is the co-founder and executive director of Costa Rica Wildlife, has been studying and conserving Baird’s tapirs in Costa Rica over the last six years through the Nai Conservation program and member of the Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance. His favorite animals are tapirs, dogs, rhinos, and okapis.