The Malayan tapir resembles a black and white pig with an extended snout. The largest of the four species of tapir and the only one native to Asia., it can weigh 540 kilograms (1,200 pounds) and on average grows to a height of one meter at the shoulder and is 1.8 to 2.4 meters length, excluding its stubby fiver to 10 centimeter tail. They typically weigh between 250 and 320 kilograms (550 and 710 pounds). Females are usually larger than males. About the size of a donkey, the tapir is related to the horse and rhinoceros. The Malayan tapir is the only tapir species found in the Old World. The three other tapir species live in the jungles of Central and South America and Southeast Asia.
Jeremy Hance wrote in mongabay.com, “You can't mistake an Asian tapir for anything else: for one thing, it's the only tapir on the continent; for another, it's distinct black-and-white blocky markings distinguishes it from any other tapir (or large mammal) on Earth. Tapirs are rare survivors of the Pleistocene extinction when many of the world's big animals (i.e. megafauna) vanished forever. Although the Asian tapir, also known as the Malayan tapir, is the largest of the four tapir species (the rest of which are found in South and Central America) weighing up to 1,200 pounds (540 kilograms), it is also the least known. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]
Malayan tapirs are not only found in Malaysia it is also found in Sumatra to the south and Thailand and Burma to the north. Until quite recently it also lived in Borneo and were found I Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. They differ from their Latin American cousins chiefly in their color. The front part of the body and the hind legs of adults are black while the rear half is greyish white. The strange white piebald coloration on the back and stomach is said to help conceal the animal in the forest by breaking up its outline. Some say that other animals may mistake it for a large rock rather than prey when it is lying down to sleep. Baby Malayan tapirs have black and white stripes and spots.
Malayan Tapir Behavior
The Malayan tapir lives primarily in primary tropical forests and is a solitary creature that marks out large tracts of land as its territory, though this area usually overlaps with those of other individuals. Tapirs mark out their territories by spraying urine on plants, and they often follow distinct paths which they have bulldozed through the undergrowth. Tapirs often exhibit the flehmen response, a posture in which they raise their snouts and show their teeth to detect scents. This response is frequently exhibited by bulls sniffing for signs of other males or females in oestrus in the area. The animal has very poor eyesight. It relies mainly on its excellent sense of smell and hearing to go about in forest.
The tapir is exclusively herbivorous. It and eats grass, fruit and nuts but mainly forages tender shoots and leaves of more than 115 species of plants (around 30 are particularly preferred), moving slowly through the forest and pausing often to eat and note the scents left behind by other tapirs in the area. When threatened or frightened, the tapir can run quickly, despite its considerable bulk, and can also defend itself with its strong jaws and sharp teeth. Malayan tapirs communicate with high-pitched squeaks and whistles. They usually prefer to live near water and often bathe and swim, and they are also able to climb steep slopes. Tapirs are mainly active at night, though they are not exclusively nocturnal. They tend to eat soon after sunset or before sunrise, and they will often nap in the middle of the night. This behavior characterizes them as crepuscular animals. [Source: Wikipedia]
The gestation period of the Malayan tapir is about 390 to 395 days, after which a single offspring is born. Babies weigh seven kilograms at birth and reach a weight of 50 kilograms at one month. Weaning occurs between six and eight months of age, at which time the babies are nearly full-grown, and the animals reach sexual maturity around age three. Breeding typically occurs in April, May or June, and females generally produce one calf every two years. Malayan tapirs can live up to 30 years, both in the wild and in captivity. [Ibid]
Because of their size, tapirs have few natural predators. Reports of killings by tigers are scarce. The main threat to the Malayan tapirs is human activity, including deforestation for agricultural purposes, flooding caused by the damming of rivers for hydroelectric projects, and illegal trade. In Thailand, for instance, capture and sale of a young tapir may be worth $5500.00. In predominantly-Muslim Malaysia and Sumatra the are seldom hunted for food because of their resemblance to pigs and the Muslim taboo on eating pork. In some regions they are hunted for sport or shot accidentally when mistaken for other animals. The tapir’s timid, quiet nature is believed to be one reason it has avoided extinction. [Ibid]
Tapirs are little changed form their ancestors which lived 20 million years ago and their physiology is regarded as relatively primitive for such large animals. The proboscis of the tapir is a highly flexible structure, able to move in all directions, allowing the animals to grab foliage that would otherwise be out of reach. The length of the proboscis varies among species; Malayan tapirs have the longest snouts and Brazilian tapirs have the shortest. The evolution of tapir proboscises, made up almost entirely of soft tissues rather than bony internal structures.
David Attenborough wrote: the tapir is about the size of a donkey, but much more heavily built and without a hairy coat. It feeds throughout the day and night. It has two kinds of teeth. Those in the front, the incisors, are chisel-shaped and are used to snip off leaves. Those in the back, the molars, which are separated from the incisors by a toothless gap in the jaw, are flat and ridged on top. These grind the leave, physically breaking down the cellulose t release the nutritious cell contents. Each mouthful, having been thoroughly chewed, then passes through the stomach and along the hind gut where the tapir keeps colonies of bacteria and other micro-organisms, They continue the attack on the cellulose by biochemical means.
Tapirs have nostrils that are elongated into diminutive trunks and with theses they sniff out and identify the leaves they prefer. And while they seem prepared to eat most things---including fruits and nuts if they can find them---they have to be careful about which kinds of leaves they swallow. Leaves are valuable property as far as a plant is concerned and many species have developed ways to prevent them from being stolen. Some surround them or coat them with sharp spines. Others load them with poisons. The tapir, however, has ways of dealing with these defenses. Its tongue is long, muscular and mobile and a tapir can curl it round most spines to reach the leaves. They can even deal with some of the poisons. They travel regularly to special places in the forest where there are clays containing kaolin. Kaolin has the invaluable quality of absorbing and binding with other chemicals, thus making them inactive. We ourselves take it as a remedy for upset stomachs. The tapir rake off considerable quantities of the clay with their teeth of forefeet and swallow it get the same effect.
The tapir “is an excellent swimmer, spending much of its tome close to water and a good place for its tracks is in the sand at the edge of a forest river. They unmistakable. There are four toes on the front feet and three on the back.
Tapirs “are surprisingly difficult to detect in the shady gloom” of the rain forest. You may first become aware of its presence, as it stands quietly feeding maybe twenty yards away, when you hear the snap and rustle of leaves being plucked . The animal is likely to be by itself, unless it is a mature female, in which case it may be accompanied by its calf. The youngster will be even more difficult to spot, for it is withing a few weeks of being born it will have a coat dappled with alternating stripes and spots that conceals it very effectively.
There are three species of tapir in South and Central America. There is a forth in Southeast Asia which is known as the Malayan tapir
Malayan Tapir in a Zoo Bites Off a Woman’s Arm
In November 1998, Reuters reported: “A Malayan tapir bit off the arm of a woman keeper who was feeding it in its pen, Oklahoma City zoo director Steve Wylie said. The woman was in critical condition at a local hospital, "She was severely injured, and dismembered her left arm. She received a lot of other lacerations and probably some broken bones," Wylie said. He said the female tapir had an infant, which may have been part of the reason it attacked. [Source: Reuters, November 20, 1998]
Jay Hughes of Associated Press wrote: “A tapir pulled a zookeeper into its cage and bit her arm off as she tried to feed the animal. The woman, who also suffered facial injuries and a punctured lung, was in critical condition and undergoing surgery after the attack at the Oklahoma City Zoo. The arm was detached about the mid-bicep level, said Allen Poston, a University Hospital spokesman. The arm was too mangled and contaminated and could not be reattached, Poston said. [Source: AP, November 20, 1998]
Zoo officials aren't certain why the Malayan tapir named Melody attacked the keeper, who was feeding the animal before the zoo opened. The tapir's 2-month-old baby was also in the cage. ``As I understand it, she opened the door to push the food in and the female grabbed her arm,'' said Steve Wylie, zoo executive director. He said the tapir dragged the keeper into the enclosure and began mauling her. A groundsworker ran for help and a group of employees managed to drag the keeper from the cage.
Endangered Malayan Tapir
The Asian tapir is currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. In addition to Malaysia, the species is also found in Thailand, Myanmar, and Sumatra (Indonesia), but less information is available regarding these populations. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]
Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, co-founder of the Malaysian research group Rimba and an author of studies of tapirs, told mongabay.com. "Probably the most immediate threat to this and other mammal species in [Malaysia] is the increasing trend of clear-felling selectively logged forests for timber-latex rubber clone plantations. Apart from addressing this threat, we should continue implementing actions to link fragmented tapir habitats." |~|
Studies show that selectively-logged forests are important habitats for Asian tapirs, adding one more reason not to convert logged forests into monoculture plantations. "For [both] tigers and tapirs, selectively logged forests represent altered but useful and important habitats for these species. It is difficult to generalize about the effects of logging on tapirs, but we have enough information to hypothesize that strictly controlled and sustainable selective logging itself may not be directly harmful for tapirs," Rayan explains, adding that logging may still mean trouble for tapirs if it opens the forests up to poachers. While tapirs are not targeted by hunters in Malaysia, they often fall prey to snares set out for other animals. "The take home message is, logged forests...have a high conservation value for tapirs and possibly other large mammals and therefore should not be converted into other landuse such as monoculture plantations," he says. |~|
Studying the Malayan Tapir
Jeremy Hance wrote in mongabay.com, “Little is known about the Asian tapir (Tapirus indicus), including the number surviving. However, researchers in Malaysia are working to change that: a new study for the first time estimates population density for the neglected megafauna, while another predicts where populations may still be hiding in peninsular Malaysia, including selectively-logged areas. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]
"It has been difficult for scientists study [the Asian tapir], probably because it’s a very shy animal," Clements told mongabay.com. "Or maybe aspiring tapir researchers just haven't tried hard enough! But interest in research on the Asian Tapir has picked up in the last 10 years." However, a recent breakthrough came when researchers undertaking a camera trap study on tigers in Gunong Basor Forest Reserve found that they could tell individual Asian tapirs apart based on their markings as well as other features. |~|
"If you look closely...the belly and neck lines are distinct enough for individual identification, provided that the camera trap pictures are clear and show the right angles of a flank or neck. In addition, deep scarring and even damage to the ears or deformities can also be used for individual identification," explains Mark Rayan Darmaraj with WWF-Malaysia and recent graduate from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, and an author on both studies as well. "By using these unique features, we were able to know more about the population status of tapirs in our study area." |~|
Another lesson from the research, is that remote camera trapping projects—even when they only target one specie—can teach us much about an ecosystem. "Our findings highlight the importance of making the best of by-catch data from camera trap studies to get population density estimates for non-focal species," Rayan says. "In our case, the study was designed for tigers, but we were also interested to see if we could derive a density estimate for tapirs. We now have baseline information on the population density of Asian Tapirs in one selectively logged forest." He adds that researchers may now turn to other camera trap studies in tapir areas to gather more data on the species' population.
More Malayan Tapirs Than Previously Thought
Jeremy Hance wrote in mongabay.com, “By identifying individuals, the researchers were able to compile the first Asian tapir density, estimating that 9.49 adult tapirs live in 100 square kilometers of selectively-logging forest in Malaysia. This is an important milestone for estimating total population and trends for the Asian tapir across its habitat. Next the researchers looked again at possible tapir habitat—including primary forests and selectively logged areas—in peninsular Malaysia. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]
"Our models predicted that approximately 37 percent of peninsular Malaysia contains potentially suitable Asian tapir habitats, of which 45 percent occur in selectively logged forests," Clements, who is affiliated with James Cook University and University of Malaya, says. "Overall, we have shown that this species has a wider geographic range than previously thought and we urge a revision to its extent of occurrence in the IUCN Red List distribution map." Combining the findings from both studies, one could infer that the population of Asian tapirs in Malaysia could be well-over 2,000 adult animals. This is good news, as the estimate is higher than the one currently used by the IUCN Red List. |~|
However, Clements cautions that more data will be needed before scientists are confident of these numbers. "We feel it is unwise to extrapolate a population estimate for this species at this juncture because we have only one density estimate from a logged forest," he notes. "I think we should attempt an extrapolation once we have more population density estimates from other forest types and categories, particularly those based on a spatially explicit capture-recapture framework." |~|
Studies: Clements GR, Rayan DM, Aziz SA, Kawanishi K, Traeholt C, Magintan D, Yazi MFA, and Tingley R (2012). Predicting the distribution of the Asian tapir (Tapirus indicus) in Peninsular Malaysia using maximum entropy modelling. INTEGRATIVE ZOOLOGY 7: 402-409; Rayan DM, Shariff M, Doward L, Aziz S, Clements GR, Wong C, Traeholt C and Magintan D (2012). Estimating the population density of the Asian tapir Tapirus indicus from a selectively logged forest in Peninsular Malaysia. INTEGRATIVE ZOOLOGY 7: 373-380.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014