Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 75 – The Malayan Tapir


Malayan tapir in captivity

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction”
Rachel Carson

Looking remarkably like a cross between a rhinoceros (to which it is related) and a huge prize boar wearing a saddle blanket, the Malayan tapir is yet another species suffering from habitat devastation. Once again, we bear witness to the terrible destruction caused by palm oil plantations.

These solitary, timid creatures are one of four species of tapir.  The others can be found Central and South America. The Malayan tapir, as the name would suggest, is native to Asia.

Malayan tapirs are surprisingly large, weighing up to seven hundred pounds; roughly as much as a Shetland pony.  But, far from being pony-like in its length, it can grow to as much as eight feet from head to tail.  Of all the tapirs, the Malayan tapir is the largest by far. Oddly, females are usually larger than males.

Tapirs are close relatives of (surprisingly) horses and (not so surprisingly) rhinos.  And, something you may not know, a group of tapirs is called a “candle”.

Malayan tapirs have long, flexible, prehensile trunks used extensively for grabbing leaves and plucking tasty fruit.  But, this proboscis also has another important role; that of a snorkel, used when the tapir goes swimming and diving for food and cover.

Malayan tapir - forestry commission IndonesiaIts sparse coat is a deep-dark-grey to black with a white ‘saddle’ running from the centre of its back to its tail, and white ears trims.  The coat is made up of very coarse hair which covers extremely tough skin. The tough skin comes in handy for protection against the claws and jaws of predators, and for withstanding the rigours of crashing through thick understorey vegetation when on the run.  It also has a very short stubby tail, small piggy-eyes and large ears. There are four toes on each fore foot and three toes on the hind ones.

It is said the disrupted colouration of the coat acts as camouflage, and predators most likely will mistake it for a large boulder when the animal is prone. This sounds a bit optimistic to me, but… let’s hope so!

Because tapirs are nocturnal and crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), the short-sightedness of the species is a bit of a drawback, especially when searching for food or avoiding predators. However, this is well-compensated for by the acute sense of smell they possess and the excellent hearing they enjoy.

Malayan tapirs are superb swimmers too, and will, by preference,  live near water, where they will spend the majority of their time. They feed from the bottom of the rivers on aquatic plants, and are able to submerge themselves for several minutes before using their ‘snorkels’.  Water also helps to cool them down and remove parasites, and allows refuge from predators.

But, don’t be fooled into thinking these gentle-looking creatures cannot and will not attack if necessary.  When threatened, they will charge using their very dangerous teeth to defend themselves.  Deaths of humans have been recorded in both the wild and in captivity.  Well… I suppose at least one species is getting its own back!

Malayan tapir and babyThe breeding season for tapirs typically occurs between April and June.  A gestation period of up to three hundred and ninety-five days follows. After which, one single calf will be born weighing about fifteen pounds.  Looking nothing like the mother in colour, the baby will have brown hair, white spots and white stripes.  This colouring allows it to blend in with the variegated forest vegetation.  Between the ages of four and seven months, the, now juvenile’s, coat will turn to the colours of an adult tapir.  The young one will be weaned at six to eight months.  By this time it will be almost fully grown.  The mother will only produce a calf once every two years.

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Habitat
Primary and secondary tropical moist forests and lower montane forests.
Where
Sumatra, Myanmar and Thailand.
What they eat
Young leaves, growing twigs and aquatic plants. And, seasonal fruits. They enjoy palm tree fruits as well as mango and fig. They also put a great deal of effort into finding salt licks.
Threats
Human activity: habitat conversion to palm oil plantations. illegal logging, deforestation for agricultural and flooding caused by dammed rivers for hydroelectric projects. Hunters seek out Malayan tapirs for food and sport.  Young tapirs are also trafficked.  Baby and adolescent tapirs can be worth as much as six thousand dollars on the black market. Some are known to have been traded through Indonesian zoos and some have gone to private collectors.  Natural predators are the leopard and the tiger.
Status: Endangered
The Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered.  It is also protected under Cites Appendix 1.  Remaining numbers are thought to be as few as fifteen hundred to two thousand and decreasing.
The species is protected against hunting in all locations, and, because of their pig-like appearance, tapir meat is taboo in Sumatra anyway, where most of the population is Muslim.  Sadly, nothing is being done to protect its habitat.  The Malayan tapir is, regrettably in the same position as all other tapirs – in danger of extinction.  But, there is an upside;  there are a number of tapirs in zoos around the world and captive breeding seems to be working.

Other names: Asian tapir, badak (Malaysia and Indonesia), som-set (Thailand).

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