The Malayan tapir is an unusual and intriguing animal. It has an extensible proboscis that is very mobile and often looks like a small version of an elephant’s trunk. Unfortunately, the tapir needs our help. Its population is endangered due to human activity. Destruction of its forest habitat is taking a serious toll on the animal’s numbers. Malayan tapirs are found in zoos around the world. It would be very sad if these became the only places where the animals existed.
There are five species of tapirs. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), three of these species are endangered and one has a vulnerable population. The fifth species was named in 2013, although the claim that it’s a distinct species is controversial. Its population status is unknown.
Four of the tapir species live in Central or South America. One species—the Malayan tapir—lives in Asia. It’s found in southern Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In the twentieth century the Malayan tapir was seen in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos as well, but these populations are believed to be extinct.
Tapirs are large, bulky, and herbivorous mammals that live in forests but spend a lot of their time in water. The most noticeable feature of a tapir for many people is the long, mobile, and muscular snout. Technically, the snout is known as a proboscis. It’s made of the animal’s nose and upper lip. The nostrils are located at the tip of the proboscis.
A tapir’s proboscis is extensible. It’s also prehensile, which means that it can wrap around objects and grab hold of them. It’s used to strips leaves from branches and to pick fruits. The proboscis may remind some people of an elephant’s trunk, but tapirs are more closely related to rhinoceroses and horses than to elephants.
The Malayan tapir is the largest species of tapir and has the longest probiscis. The animal is also known as the Asian tapir. Its scientific name is Tapirus indicus. The animal has a distinctive black and white pattern on its body. The body is black or dark grey except for a white area on the back and sides of the tapir. This area starts just behind the shoulders and extends to halfway down the rump. Each ear is tipped with white as well.
The tapir is most active at night, although it may sometimes be seen during the day. It might seem that the dramatic contrast in the tapir’s colours would make it easy to see in the wild, but the animal’s colouring is actually a type of camouflage. The two tones on the its body help to disguise it as it moves through a forest lit by moonlight and containing shadows. The sharp boundary between the black and white parts of the tapir breaks up its shape at night. The pattern helps to prevent a viewer from seeing the outline of the tapir’s body and recognizing that it’s an animal. This type of camouflage is known as destructive colouration.
The tapir’s size and weight vary. Males may reach 6 feet in length and 720 pounds in weight. Females are generally heavier than males and may reach 900 pounds or more. An adult tapir is about 42 inches high at the shoulder.
The tapir’s body is narrower in the front than in the back. The animal has short legs and a very short tail. There are four toes on each of its front feet and three toes on each of the back ones. The toes are widely separated. Each is covered by a thick layer of keratin, forming a hoof.
The Malayan tapir’s bulky appearance and short legs may give the impression that it’s a slow and lumbering animal. This impression is very wrong, however. The animal can run fast when necessary. It’s also a great swimmer and diver.
The Malayan tapir is generally a solitary animal, except when a female is rearing a calf. It’s occasionally seen travelling with an adult companion, however, as shown in the video above. This companion may be a relative. The tapir’s preferred habitat is dense forest that has a permanent body of water. It spends most of its time near or in this water.
The animal is strictly herbivorous. It feeds on leaves, young shoots, fruits, and aquatic vegetation. Most of its feeding is done at night or at dawn and dusk. It has small eyes and poor eyesight, but its hearing and sense of smell are excellent. It finds its food by smell.
The tapir creates an intricate network of paths in the forest as it forages for food. Tapirs mark their paths with urine to indicate that they are part of their territory. The stool that they drop contains seeds from the fruits that they’ve eaten, which enables plants to spread from one area to another.
The tapir has few predators, but it’s sometimes attacked by tigers. Its defence mechanisms are its abilities to run, stay underwater for a minute or more, and inflict a serious bite. The animal can run fast and quickly force its way through forest containing thick branches. This type of environment often slows or blocks a tiger’s passage. The tapir also has tough skin which acts as a barrier against a predator’s teeth.
Malayan tapirs become sexually mature at around three to four years of age. Males mature a bit later than the females. Mating may occur at any time of year.
The mating ritual begins with a courtship in which the male and female circle together, nip each other’s bodies, and make a variety of vocalizations. These vocalizations include whistles, clicks, and snorts. Courtship may be quite a lengthy event. When the time is right, the animals mate.
A single baby is born after a long gestation period of thirteen months. The baby is known as a calf. Twins are born very occasionally. The calf is ready to walk soon after birth, which helps it to avoid predators. Its mother won’t breed again for eighteen months to two years.
Tapir calves have a very different coat colour and pattern from the adults. When a calf is standing next to its mother, it often looks as though the baby has been paired with the wrong mother. The infants have a brown coat with white stripes and spots. This dappled appearance helps to camouflage them in the filtered light entering the forest understory.
The juvenile markings of a Malayan tapir calf disappear when the youngster is between four and seven months of age. The age at which the calf leaves its mother to live independently is uncertain and seems to be variable. Some calves leave when they are only eight months old. On the other hand, others stay with their mother for a year or more. The tapir may live for more than thirty years, although a maximum age in the twenties seems to be more common.
I’ve written many articles about endangered animals. When I describe why the animal is endangered, the explanation is nearly always the same—human activity. As the human population continues to increase in size, more and more animals and plants will likely become endangered.
The population status of the Malayan tapir and its relatives is worrying. Malayan tapirs are in trouble due to deforestation in their natural habitat. Forest is being destroyed by logging, by clearance of land for agriculture, and by flooding of land due to the creation of dams for hydroelectric projects. These activities are affecting many other types of animals in many parts of the world.
The tapir is also hunted for meat and its tough hide, but deforestation is having a far more serious effect on its population. Predation by tigers is relatively unimportant in reducing the animal’s numbers compared to habitat loss and fragmentation. The tapir’s low reproductive rate makes it hard for it to recover from a disaster.
Conservationists are working to protect the tapir, but the human desire for new land is a big problem. Conservation action plans are needed in some areas where the tapir lives. Where the plans already exist, they need to be followed.
Zoos are often criticized, but the best ones have at least one useful function. They are sometimes able to breed endangered animals, such as the Malayan tapir. They may also be able to educate the public about the plight of endangered creatures.
The efforts of organizations, groups, and individuals on World Tapir Day may also be helpful. These efforts may become very important in the tapir’s future.
- Tapirus indicus information from the International Union for Conservation of Nature
- Facts about the Malayan tapir from the Denver Zoo
- Description of the tapir from the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
- World Tapir Day: Facts about the day and the animal from the Tapir Day website