Asian tapir
(Tapirus indicus)
The Asian, or Malayan, tapir is the largest and most evolutionarily distinct of the four living species of tapir. It is also the only surviving Old World species. It is characterised by its long, fleshy, prehensile nose and distinctive black and white colouration which apparently breaks up the outline of the body in the gloom of the forests in which it lives. Formerly ranging across Southeast Asia, the tapir today exists as a series of isolated populations, the largest of which are in Malaysia. Habitat destruction is largely responsible for historical declines of this species, and continues to be the main threat today. Hunting, a relatively minor threat in the past, is also becoming more of a concern; as other preferred prey species are becoming more depleted hunters are increasingly looking towards tapirs as a food source.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Current research and conservation actions should continue in all Asian tapir range states.
Indonesia (Sumatra), Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.
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Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Perissodactyla
Family: Tapiridae
Tapirs are perissodactyls (odd-toed ungulates), a group of herbivores that also includes rhinos and horses. The family Tapiridae comprises four living species in the single genus Tapirus: Tapirus pinchaque (mountain tapir), T. terrestris (lowland tapir), T. bairdii (Baird’s tapir) and T. indicus (Asian or Malayan tapir). The origins of the Tapiridae can be traced back at least fifty million years. Fossil evidence indicates that the tapirs are most closely related to rhinos. Modern tapirs closely resemble the ancestral perissodactyl condition. They have changed little in body shape over the past 35 million years, although the proboscis probably did not develop until the last few million years. Prehistoric tapirs inhabited Europe, North America and south-east Asia. The genus Tapirus can be traced back to the early Miocene (at least 8 million years ago). Of the four species which survive today, three migrated from Central to South America across the Panamanian Land Bridge 2-3 million years ago. The fourth species, the Asian tapir, remains in south-east Asia. Eight other tapirid genera have been described, all of which became extinct before the Pliocene (7 million years ago) with the exception of Megatapirus, a giant tapir found in Pleistocene deposits of Sichuan Province, China. There is some controversy regarding the relationship between the four living tapir species. The Latin American tapirs are thought to be more closely related to one another than they are to the Asian tapir, making the Asian tapir the most evolutionarily distinct of all the tapir species.
Head and body length: 1.80m-2.5m
Weight: 100-500kg
A shy animal that seeks refuge from human encroachment in forest interiors, the Asian tapir is rarely seen. Like other tapirs, its most distinctive feature is its long, fleshy, prehensile nose that provides it with an excellent sense of smell and the ability to grab leaves and feed them into its mouth. The Asian tapir is the largest of the four tapir species, and unlike its New World relatives, has a distinctive white “saddle” on its back and sides. This contrasts starkly with the tapir’s black body, and apparently helps to break up the animal’s outline in the dim light of the forest. In contrast, infants are born with a reddish-brown coat patterned with white stripes and spots, somewhat like a watermelon. The coat changes to the adult colour and pattern as the infant matures.
This species eats the twigs and growing tips of a wide range of understory vegetation, snapping small to large saplings with its mouth to get to plant parts that are out of reach. It also takes a large variety of fruits and leaves from the forest floor. Individuals are predominantly nocturnal, with most activities taking place at night. However, they are often seen during the day. Having poor eyesight, the animals rely on their acute sense of hearing and smell to find food, detect predators and communicate with one another.

Males spray urine onto trees and other vegetation, a behaviour that is thought to be associated with home range marking. There is no evidence of exclusive territoriality. Males appear to have small home ranges (about 12 sq km) and females possibly range more widely. They are primarily solitary, forming occasional associations for breeding.
Restricted to tropical moist forest areas, this species is found at a range of altitudes, from the highest peaks in Thailand to the lowlands and lower montane zone in other parts of its range. It is found in both primary and secondary forest.
Fragmented populations occur throughout the historical range in Southeast Asia, from southern and central parts of Sumatra (Indonesia) to Peninsula Malaysia, southwest Thailand, and southern Myanmar. The Asian tapir previously also occurred in southern parts of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. However, these populations are now thought to be extinct.
Population Estimate

The Sumatran population is close to extinction, with no more than 50 animals left in the wild. The largest mainland population is in Malaysia (approximately 1,500-2,000 individuals). In Thailand subpopulations are unlikely to reach more than 50-100 individuals at the most. There are small, isolated populations in other areas, comprising 10-15 individuals. Unless these populations can be linked, which is unlikely in most places, they are almost certainly too small to be viable in the long-term.

Population Trend
Decreasing. Population declines are estimated to be greater than 50% in the past 36 years due mainly to the large scale conversion of lowland forest to oil palm plantations.
Classified as Endangered (EN A2cd) on the 2010 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Habitat destruction is largely responsible for historical declines of this species, and continues to be the main threat today. Much of the species’ forest habitat, particularly in the lowlands of Malaysia, has been converted to oil palm plantations. In central Sumatra, remaining tapir habitat is mostly outside of protected areas and is hence subject to uncontrolled illegal logging. Sumatra has lost a staggering 40% of its forest cover in the past 15 years, and at the current rate of decline all forest outside conservation areas will be lost over the next few decades. Tapir populations in Malaysia and Thailand may be more stable since much of their remaining forest habitat now lies within protected areas. The species has uncertain status and future in Myanmar due to security issues and forest clearance for rubber and oil palm plantations.

Hunting, a relatively minor threat in the past, is becoming more of a concern. Previously, the flesh of tapirs was not eaten by Muslims due to the species’ resemblance to pigs, while certain hill tribes believed that killing a tapir brought bad luck. In Thailand and Myanmar tapir flesh was considered distasteful. However, attitudes appear to be changing; as other preferred prey species are becoming more depleted hunters are increasingly looking towards tapirs as a food source. The low reproductive rate and fragmented distribution of this species means that populations are particularly vulnerable to the effects of hunting.

There are indications that live tapirs have been traded through several Indonesian zoos, with some destined for private collections. Some of these animals are suspected to have originated from protected areas.
Conservation Underway
The Asian tapir is listed on Appendix I of CITES and is legally protected in all range states. It occurs in a number of protected areas, including the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and the Khao Sok National Park in Thailand, 12 protected areas in the Western Forest Complex along the Thai-Myanmar border, and the Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra. In Thailand 17% of land is protected, which covers most of the tapirs’ habitat, meaning that the future for conservation of the species in this country is quite positive. In contrast, Myanmar’s protected areas make up 5% of land area and most tapir habitat lies outside these protected areas. Similarly, much of the suitable habitat that remains in Sumatra does not lie within protected areas and a large proportion of the tapir population occurs outside of reserves.

The Malay Tapir Conservation Project (MTCP), a collaboration between Copenhagen Zoo and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Malaysia (DWNP), was set up in 2002 with the objective of developing a Malayan tapir conservation action plan. Work to date has focused on collecting information on the species’ ecology and distribution and population status. The project team has carried out camera trapping at strategic sites and extensive radio-telemetry studies in order to estimate the tapir population in Krau Wildlife Reserve and assess the home-range and habitat needs of the species. The MTCP is also carrying out genetic research into the relationship between the Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatran tapir populations. There is also a Malay Tapir Conservation Centre that is operated and managed by DWNP Malaysia. Its objectives are to provide refuge for displaced tapirs, breed tapirs in captivity, conduct research on tapirs and to become a “reference centre” for the Malay tapirs.

The IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group (TSG) held a Malay Tapir Conservation Workshop in Malaysia in 2003. The workshop focused on making recommendations for the conservation of the species in the wild, captive breeding, education, regional collaboration and research priorities (behavioural ecology and genetic studies). Five years later in 2008, the first Regional Malay Tapir Symposium was held and attended by 58 participants from 8 different tapir range states. The purpose of the workshop was to update the recommended conservation actions from the 2003 workshop as well as promote, facilitate and strengthen the collaboration between regional scientists and wildlife managers.
Conservation Proposed
Recommendations from the Regional Malay Tapir Symposium include implementing field research in Thailand, Malaysia and Sumatra, establishing a baseline on the abundance and distribution of tapirs, investigating levels of hunting in different areas, expanding DNA research to all range states, improving the captive breeding programme through sharing information between different facilities, developing management protocols and carrying out genetic research on captive tapirs; increasing conservation capacity in range states through training; sharing information and developing stronger collaborations among stakeholders; establishing a committee to oversee a tapir awareness programme, and engaging local communities in key areas of the tapirs’ range.
Zoo population

There are Malay tapir resident at ZSL London Zoo

Brooks, D. M., Bodmer, R. E., Matola, S. (compilers). 1997. Tapirs - Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. (English, Spanish, Portuguese.) IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. viii + 164 pp.

Medici, E.P., A. Lynam, R. Boonratana, K. Kawanishi, S. Hawa Yatim, C. Traeholt, B. Holst, and P.S. Miller (eds.). 2003. Malay Tapir Conservation Workshop. Final Report. IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, Apple Valley, MN, USA.

Lynam, A., Traeholt, C., Martyr, D., Holden, J., Kawanishi, K., van Strien, N.J. & Novarino, W. 2008. Tapirus indicus. In: IUCN 2009. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.1. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 21 October 2009.

Report of the 1st Regional Malay Tapir Symposium, 2008. Malay Tapir Conservation Project.

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