Protecting the ‘gardeners of the forest’

Wong Casandra
·Senior Reporter
·4-min read

Tapirs are one of the strangest looking mammals on the planet. While tapirs have striking trunks and look like pigs, they are actually related to horses and rhinoceroses.

Highly adaptable, the herbivorous mammal has an ancient lineage that can be traced back at least 50 million years. Scientists believe they have changed very little over the time.

Due to habitat losses and poaching, three of the four recognised tapir species, including the Malayan tapir, are now listed as endangered.

A young Malayan tapir eats next to its mother in their enclosure in the zoo in Leipzig, eastern Germany. (Photo: Jan Woitas/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)
A young Malayan tapir eats next to its mother in their enclosure in the zoo in Leipzig, eastern Germany. (PHOTO: AFP via Getty Images)

All about tapirs

Most of the four recognised tapir species live in Central or South America. The Malayan tapir is the only one that lives in Asia, and is found in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

With the exception of the Brazilian tapir, also known as the lowland tapir, the others are considered endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

There are an estimated 2,500 mature Malayan tapirs in the world, mostly isolated within rainforest fragments.

A “fifth” species “discovered” in 2013, the Kabomani tapir, was subsequently found not genetically or morphologically distinct enough from the Brazilian tapir to warrant species status.

Tapir things to know

Heavyset critters

Tapirs weigh around 250kg to 320kg on average, with females being larger than males. They stand about 90 to 107cm tall and are around 1.8 to 2.4m long.

The Malayan Tapir is the largest of four widely-recognised species of tapir and can grow up to about 360kg. They may not look agile, but they are excellent swimmers and can even dive to eat aquatic plants!

With Yahoo Augmented Reality technology, you can experience the foraging behaviours of Malayan tapir with just a tap of your smartphone!

Handy snout

A tapir's proboscis is highly flexible and prehensile. Tapirs use it to grasp objects that would otherwise be out of reach. It can be used to strip leaves from branches and to pick fruits. Underwater, its snout doubles as a snorkel.

Gassy bunch

According to “Does It Fart?: The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence”, tapirs fart…a lot. Scientists working with tapirs described the occurrence as something that happens in “great amplitude”.

Distinctive coat

Baby tapirs of all species are born covered in brown hair with white stripes and spots, which help camouflage them against predators in the first few months of life.

The baby coat slowly fades into adult colouration within five to six months after birth. For the Malayan tapir, it would mean transitioning to its iconic black and white coat.

Night owls

Tapirs are nocturnal and sleep away most of the day, only waking up in the late afternoon to find food. Their snouts are particularly useful for foraging in the dark!

Denise (L), a female Malayan tapir, a recent arrival from Philadelphia Zoo muzzles her way next to Berani, a male tapir at Sydney's Taronga Zoo July 10, where its hoped the newly introduced pair will breed as part of a conservation program for this endangered species. The gentle and shy tapirs, look like a cross between a hippopotamus and a pig but are actually more closely related to horses, using their long and flexible snouts to examine and smell the ground around them to pluck leaves and draw them to their mouths.
A female and male Malayan tapir at Sydney's Taronga Zoo. (PHOTO: Reuters)

Endangered and in danger

Tapirs play a very important role in maintaining the biodiversity of tropical ecosystems.

The “gardeners of the forests” are voracious fruit eaters moving from place to place, allowing them to defecate and in turn, distribute an enormous amount of seeds in different parts of their forest home.

The forest’s structure and diversity would be very different without the tapir’s help!

Unfortunately, the number of tapirs across the world is believed to have dropped over 50 per cent in the past four decades due to habitat loss, poaching, and other threats.

Habitat loss

One of the greatest threats facing tapirs is habitat loss caused by deforestation for agriculture and human settlement. Flooding caused by the damming of rivers for hydroelectric projects as well as the conversion of their habitats to palm oil plantations is also a big threat to these mammals.

Hunted illegally

Tapirs are being hunted for their meat and tough hide, and in some places, for sport. They are also sold illegally – in places like Thailand, a young tapir may fetch a price tag as high as US$5,500.

With the supply of rhino horns running dry, there is a genuine risk that hunters might begin targeting Malayan tapirs and selling them as “placebo rhino”, according to the IUCN.

Roadkill

According to Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, a total of 25 Malayan tapirs died after being hit by vehicles in 2017. The nocturnal mammals, with their black and white coat, are not very visible at night.