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A face to face encounter with a wild Tapir

Louis Guillot

When photographing wildlife in the Amazon rainforest, much preparation and hard work are needed to get the pictures you want. You need to know what you want to shoot and determine the best way to capture it with the equipment at your disposal. This often requires knowledge of the subject’s behavior and natural history. However, sometimes the best shots are those that come with pure luck!

 While in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest in the National Reserve of Tambopata , I wanted to photograph and document many species and interactions between organisms. I was particularly interested in the gruesome lifecycle of the cordyceps fungus.

This insect-parasite deposit one of its spores on its insect host, it germinates and takes control of the insect’s nervous system, eventually killing it and feeding on it to grow and develop into an adult cordyceps. I had recently spotted a patch of grass on a dried-up riverbed where hundreds of ants had succumbed to this deadly fungus.

17 Two unfortunate ant victims of the Cordyceps fungus

An incredible Tapir Encounter....

It was around 2 pm and I had returned to this spot to get some close-up shots of this interaction. I had only brought my 90mm macro lens to keep my rucksack light (in 98% humidity, heavy loads are a real drag). After a 30-minute walk through the jungle, I arrived at the spot where the fungus was and started snapping away.

After about 35 minutes I start to hear grunting noises in the forest. It sounds like something is moving leaf litter around. I often see peccaries (a type of wild pig) in this area so I assume a couple of them are foraging for food and ignore them, focusing instead on my ant-eating fungus. But the noises are getting louder and louder: the peccaries must be getting closer, I think!

Suddenly, I see a crazy looking insect resembling nothing I have ever seen! Just as I’m about to snap it, bushes rustle right in front of me. I am startled: the cool looking insect had distracted me from the surrounding noises! Slowly I catch a glimpse of a large animal which slowly emerges from the bushes…

I still think the culprit is a peccary, and it is getting closer… The shape of the animal becomes a bit clearer as it continues to emerge from the vegetation. It is not a peccary, only something much bigger and grey looking! I see an oddly shaped nose and…. Oh my! A fully-grown tapir (Tapirus terrestris), on the dried-up river bed, only 10 meters away from me, staring straight at me! I get a rush of excitement: I have never seen a tapir; they are very shy and more difficult to spot than jaguar, and it is even rarer to spot them inside de rainforest. The few sightings are normally from a boat along the river.

 7                                      A South American tapir on the dried-up river bed


1-2Tapir amongst the bushes

During my stay at the jungle ecolodges of Rainforest Expeditions. Their field guides working there had told me that tapirs posed no threat to humans as they are strictly vegetarian and generally non-aggressive.

So, I start shooting with my macro lens. I wish I had brought a longer lens to get closer to my subject. But this soon stops being an issue: the tapir starts walking towards me! It is moving slowly and cautiously but it continues approaching. Tapirs may be placid but this one is massive, and I start to get a bit nervous. Tapirs are renowned for their poor eyesight, maybe this one hasn’t seen me?

What if it gets a fright and charges at me? Animals can be unpredictable. With these thoughts going through my head I try to remain calm and keep snapping. The tapir is getting so close that it is almost filling my camera frame! It is now five meters away. I try to remain calm, silent and composed and continue taking photos.

Three meters! My camera frame is now too small for the 300kg, ice-age like prehistoric looking mammal.

Two meters! I take a couple more shots and put my camera down, ready to jump out of its way. I am looking right at him, we are at the same eye level as I am crouched down.

3Face to face with a Tapir

Time seems to freeze. The tapir gets even closer, it is now one meter away, having a staring contest with me. I am not exaggerating, I can smell its breath and it not very pleasant. Then… the tapir stops. Both stationary we lock eyes for about ten seconds. What a magical moment.


6Tapir sniffing the air

After the pause, the tapir walks right past me, sniffs my bag and disappears into the forest gracefully. I am left dumbfounded as to what has just happened. I find it amazing that such a large mammal can creep on you without being seen and then disappear into the jungle just as quickly. The tapir is a truly elusive and awesome animal.


5Close-up of Tapir – Notice the parasitic ticks surrounding its eye. 


When you have the opportunity to visit the Peruvian Amazon jungle to make wildlife photography, you must ensure that to have an experience like this, the location of the place you visit is the most appropriate to maximize your options to see more wildlife.

The Rainforest Expeditions lodges are strategically located within a private reserve such as Posada Amazonas, with an extensive portion of the Tambopata National Reserve at their back as Refugio Amazonas or even within the Tambopata National Reserve and facing the Bahuaja Sonene National Park as the Tambopata Research Center.

Also make sure that the tour operator you take has responsible practices with the place and its local population.

So if you are planning or even dreaming about traveling to Peru and the Amazon, chat with their Rainforest Specialist or check availability here.

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About Me

I am a wildlife photographer studying zoology at the University of Bristol, UK. In 2016-17, I worked on a research project on parasitic wasps at the London Natural History Museum, reporting to the Head of Entomology, Dr Gavin Broad. In summer 2017, I volunteered for the Tambopata Macaw Project and fell in love with the area. I took many photos during my time as a volunteer and learnt much about jungle life. I was sponsored by GoPro and shot videos and photos for them, which feature on my Instagram page. I returned to Tambopata in summer 2018 as the resident wildlife photographer at the jungle ecolodges of Rainforest Expeditions.

You can follow my jungle stories on my Instagram page: louis_guillot (https://www.instagram.com/louis_guillot/). You can also see my photos on my online portfolio: https://louisguillot.smugmug.com/

You can contact me here: louisjmguillot@gmail.com 

Keep an eye out for my next blogs.

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