As a child living on the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil, Patrícia Medici spent her playtime “walking along trails in the forest and watching animals.” Her passion for wildlife blossomed into a career: Medici, a conservation biologist and National Geographic Explorer, is the world’s leading expert on the lowland tapir, a large, elusive South American herbivore.
Looking like a cross between a pig and an elephant, tapirs can be six feet long and as heavy as a pony. “They’re so big and powerful but still so gentle,” Medici says. “When they walk through the forest, you can barely hear them.”
When she started studying lowland tapirs in 1996, little was known about them other than that they were at risk of extinction because of poaching and habitat loss. Medici has spent decades tracking tapirs across wetlands and jungles, using GPS telemetry and camera traps. The findings have transformed our understanding of tapir ecology.