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THE MALAY TAPIR CONSERVATION PROJECT

Tapirs in Malaysia have long been regarded as Malaysia’s second most abundant large mammal species. Unfortunately, this statement is based on observations, for example, camera trapping and track counting, that do not take into consideration tapirs’ behavioural ecology and meta dispersal, and therefore can result in overestimates of actual population densities. Subsequently, conservation efforts have been very limited because wildlife authorities and conservation agencies perceive tapirs to be less under threat than other large mammals such as tiger, gaur and elephant. With declining habitats and occasional hunting pressure the tapir stands to be the “forgotten” large mammal in South Eat Asia and is likely to become critically endangered if no affirmative intervention is undertaken to conserve it.

Signs of tapirs! Tapirs are browsers and chew off fresh shoots and twigs from plants (Carl Traeholt / Malay Tapir Conservation Project)
Signs of tapirs!
Tapirs are browsers and chew off fresh shoots and twigs from plants
© Carl Traeholt / Malay Tapir Conservation Project

The behavioural ecology and habitat needs of the Malay tapir, Tapirus indicus, are poorly understood with only one previous study conducted by Williams in the late 1970s. In addition, there is very limited available data on their population status throughout its range. Therefore, development of appropriate conservation plans and/or conservation intervention is often impossible without sufficient data. In 2002 Zoo Copenhagen, in partnership with Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), set out to undertake a conservation project on the Malay Tapir, Tapirus indicus.

Attaching a radio-transmitter to a Malay tapir requires alertness. The animals have a tendency to bite, hence the plywood  used as a “shield” in this case.
Attaching a radio-transmitter to a Malay tapir requires
alertness. The animals have a tendency to bite, hence
the plywood used as a “shield” in this case.
© Carl Traeholt / Malay Tapir Conservation Project

The Malay Tapir Conservation Project (MTCP) has extracted data of the behavioural ecology of the species by using radio-transmitters, camera traps and track counting in order to develop a useful method to estimate tapir population densities in Malaysia and to study the species’ ecological needs. After initial trapping difficulties the team designed mobile steel traps that proved to be the most useful for tapir trapping. During the first phase of the project (2002-2006) the team managed to capture five tapirs of which three individuals were monitored over a period of 12-14 months. The team lost signal of the first individual after a few months, whereas the second capture disappeared out of signal range due to a technical problem with the transmitter.

The first phase of the project also provided several hundreds of pictures of tapirs taken by camera traps positioned at strategically important sites. The team developed a method to indentify individuals from pictures, and an analysis of pictures allowed for a rough tapir population estimate in Krau Wildlife Reserve. Many pictures revealed only a limited number of individuals visiting a camera trap site several times. When combining the telemetry data with camera trapping data, it appears that the tapir population in Krau Wildlife Reserve ranges from 30-50 individuals only. This number is significantly lower than that estimated in Greater Taman Negara region and encourages further ecological studies in the latter region in order to gain more knowledge on tapir population dynamics and ecology in relation to habitat condition.

Project Team in Krau. Sanusi (left), Rambai (squatting) and Carl
Project Team in Krau. Sanusi (left), Rambai (squatting) and Carl
© Carl Traeholt / Malay Tapir Conservation Project

The first phase of MTCP came to a conclusion by the end of 2006 where the EPU-permit formally expired. Subsequently, DWNP and Zoo Copenhagen expressed keen interest in a continuation, as well as an expansion, of the project. EPU approved Phase 2 of the project, which commenced in June 2006 and will run for five years.

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