July 5, 2014
The family Tapiridae belongs to the order Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulate) and has four living species. The Malay tapir, Tapirus indicus, is the only Asian representative of the family Tapiridae. The remaining three species, mountain tapir (T. pinchaque), lowland tapir (T. terrestris), and Baird’s tapir (T. bairdii) are found in Neotropics.
The Malay tapir is the largest among the tapir species. It can reach a weight of up to 540 kg but usually weighs about 300-350 kg. It is the only species with unique black and white coloration. Young calves of all tapir species share a similar pattern of yellow stripes on a brown coat.
In Peninsula Malaysia the tapir has been totally protected since 1955 under the Wildlife Animals and Birds Ordinance that was replaced by the present federal legislation, Wildlife Protection Act No. 1976 of 1972. The Wildlife Protection Act provides for mandatory jail sentence of up to 10 years for offenders possessing, for example, more than 25 snares for trapping large mammals.
On a global scale the Malay tapir is the rarest of all tapir species and the only species that is considered as globally endangered. It is listed in CITES appendix 1 and categorised as Vulnerable (VU: A1c+2c, B2cd+3a, C1+2b) in the IUCN Red Data List. However, due to the continued population decline and habitat destruction in its range countries the IUCN-tapir specialist group (TSG), that convened in Panama for the 2nd International Tapir Symposium (January 2004), may recommend the species being uplifted to a higher threat category in the future.
Malay tapirs are described as solitary animals that per definition behave aggressively towards each other when they meet; however, recent observations of tapirs at saltlicks in Malaysia indicate that this is not the entire truth. Instead there may exist a hierarchy among the animals and that they are fully able to co-exist at the salt licks without any signs of overt aggression.
Malay tapirs can start breeding at the age of approximately 3.5 years in captivity. In the wild, however, it is more likely to be somewhat delayed to the 4th or its 5th year for both females and males. Malay tapirs have a gestation period of about 401 days (13.4 months), ranging from 390 to 407 days, and rarely do females give birth to more than one young per gestation. Adult females generally produce one calf, and rarely two, every two years.
In captivity the average age of last reproduction has been recorded to 23.5 years. They have also been recorded to live up to 29.3 years in the Dallas zoo, however, wild tapirs are most likely seldom growing beyond 20-25 years of age.
The dentition and digestive tract of tapirs are adapted to browsing. Tapirs usually feed on young leaves and growing twigs of various tree and shrub species. Some low-growing succulent plants and fruits are also consumed. A study in Taman Negara found that over 115 species of plants were consumed by tapirs.
Tapirs regularly inhabit montane and lowland tropical forests and swamps and seem to prefer dense undisturbed primary rain forest in vicinity of streams and swampy areas and grass openings but it is also found in secondary growths and in the vicinity of rubber plantations. In Bengkulu tapirs are considered a problem species for stripping bark from rubber trees. In general, however, both wildlife researchers and local inhabitants have largely ignored tapirs, and unfortunately that has lead many to believe that, as a species, the Malayan tapir is not under serious threat of extinction. However, in recent years tapir populations in its entire range have decreased drastically. The underlying reason(s) for the drastic decrease has yet to be studied, however, there are various known threats to the survival of tapirs in the future.
Habitat destruction is regarded as one of the main reason for the declining populations. The evergreen forest that used to cover large parts of Southern Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra are mere fractions of its previous size. Furthermore, continuous habitat destruction results in increased habitat fragmentation which in turn exposes tapir populations in isolated forest remnants to an increased risk of genetic inbreeding. Extensive logging activities combined with land conversion in agricultural projects is the main reasons for habitat destruction. In some areas there are even illegal logging activities in protected forests and national parks. The extent of the forest cover outside protected areas had previously provided a buffer against some of these threats but the ongoing rapid human expansion and subsequent serious reduction in prime tapir habitat have largely left limited protected areas as the only place for potential tapir conservation. Illegal poaching has never lead to the same level of population decline as, for example, elephant and tiger poaching. Some believe that one of the main reasons for this is that the meat is little thought after in medicinal terms and that Muslims do not eat tapir meat. While the medicinal value is no doubt limited, abstaining from devouring tapir meat has no link to religious issues what so ever. There many reports from Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia that iterate that tapirs are often hunted and eaten by local villagers, or in a few cases decapitated and skinned and subsequently sold as buffalo meat on local markets. The extent of hunting, however, is unknown but it is likely to be a fundamental reason for the decline in population density in Sumatra and Peninsula Malaysia.