The Endangered Malayan Tapir in Zoos and in the Wild
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 tapir's numbers. Malayan tapirs are found in zoos around the world. It would be very sad if these became the only places where the tapirs 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.
The Five Tapir Species
The common names of the five tapir species are given below.
- Baird's or Central American tapir
- Brazilian or Lowland tapir
- Woolly or Mountain tapir
- Kabomani tapir (Not all scientists agree that this animal should be classified as a separate species.)
- Malayan or Asian tapir
Tapirs - Intriguing Mammals
Tapirs are large, bulky and herbivorous mammals which 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.
The 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.
A Malayan Tapir Runs, Swims and Vocalizes in Excitement
The Malayan Tapir and Camouflage
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.
A Malayan tapir 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 animal. 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 be seen during the day as well. 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 tapir's 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 coloration.
Malayan Tapir Classification
The Malayan tapir is classified in the class Mammalia, the order Perissodactyla and the family Tapiridae. It's often said to be an odd-toed ungulate, although the word "ungulate" has an imprecise meaning. The tapir is the only ungulate with four toes on the front feet and three on the back.
Other Features of the Malayan Tapir
The tapir's size and weight vary, but 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 Malayan 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 feet. The toes are widely separated. Each is covered by a thick layer of keratin, forming a hoof.
The 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. A Malayan tapir can run fast when necessary! It's also a great swimmer and diver.
Camera Trap Film and Photos of Wild Malayan Tapirs in Thailand
Life in the Wild
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 tapir 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 the paths 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 Malayan tapir curls up in deep undergrowth during the day to sleep. In this position, its coloration makes it look like a large rock and helps to protect it from an attack. The animal may also take naps during the night.
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 tapir 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.
A Malayan Tapir Calf
World Tapir Day
World Tapir Day occurs on April 27th each year. Its goals are to raise public awareness about tapirs and to raise money for their conservation.
Adelaide Zoo Celebrates World Tapir Day
Reproduction and Life Cycle
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 Malayan tapir may live for more than thirty years, although a maximum age in the twenties seems to be more common.
Saving the Life of a Newborn Malayan Tapir Calf at the Denver Zoo
Human World Population Size
The United States Census Bureau website has population clocks which estimate the current world and US population based on previously collected data and trends. The numbers on the clocks are continually increasing, but at the time that this article was written the world population was estimated to be 7,224,875,968 people.
I've wriitten 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 tapir'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 Malayan tapir, but the human desire for new land is a big problem. 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. These functions may become very important in the tapir's future.
© 2015 Linda Crampton