Tapirs inhabit jungle and forest regions of South America, Central America, and Southeast Asia. There are four species of Tapirs: the Brazilian tapir, the Malayan tapir (which we find in Indonesia), Baird’s tapir and the Mountain tapir. All four species of tapir are classified as endangered or vulnerable. Their closest relatives are the other odd-toed ungulates, including horses and rhinoceroses.
Size varies between types, but most tapirs are about 2 metres long, stand about a metre high at the shoulder, and weigh between 150 and 300 kg. Coats are short and range in color from reddish-brown to grey to nearly black, with the notable exceptions of the Malayan Tapir, which has a white saddle-shaped marking on its back, and the Mountain Tapir, which has longer, woolly fur. All tapirs have oval, white-tipped ears, rounded, protruding rumps with stubby tails, and splayed, hoofed toes, with four toes on the front feet and three on the hind feet, which help them walk on muddy and soft ground. Baby tapirs of all types have striped-and-spotted coats for camouflage. Females have a single pair of mammary glands.
Young tapirs reach sexual maturity between three and five years of age, with females maturing earlier than males. Under good conditions, a healthy female tapir can reproduce every two years; a single youngster is born after a gestation of about 13 months. The natural lifespan of a tapir is approximately 25 to 30 years, both in the wild and in zoos. Apart from mothers and their young offspring, tapirs lead almost exclusively solitary lives.
Although they frequently live in dryland forests, tapirs with access to rivers spend a good deal of time in and under the water, feeding on soft vegetation, taking refuge from predators, and cooling off during hot periods. Tapirs near a water source will swim, sink to the bottom and walk along the riverbed to feed, and have been known to submerge themselves under water to allow small fish to pick parasites off their bulky bodies. Along with fresh water lounging, tapirs often wallow in mud pits, which also helps to keep them cool and free of insects.
In the wild, the tapir’s diet consists of fruit, berries, and leaves, particularly young, tender growth. Tapirs will spend many of their waking hours foraging along well-worn trails, snouts to the ground in search of food. Baird’s Tapirs have been observed to eat around 40 kilograms (85 pounds) of vegetation in one day.
Tapirs are largely nocturnal and crepuscular, although the smaller Mountain Tapir of the Andes is generally more active during the day than its congeners. They have monocular vision.
Copulation may occur in or out of water, and in captivity, mating pairs will often copulate multiple times during oestrus.
Habitat, predation and vulnerability
Adult tapirs are large enough that they have few natural predators, and the thick skin on the backs of their necks helps to protect them from threats such as jaguars, crocodiles, anacondas, and tigers. The creatures are also able to run fairly quickly, considering their size and cumbersome appearance, finding shelter in the thick undergrowth of the forest or in water. Hunting for meat and hides has substantially reduced their numbers and, more recently, massive habitat loss has resulted in the conservation watch-listing of all four species: both the Brazilian Tapir and the Malayan Tapir are classified as vulnerable.
There are a number of conservation projects around the world. The Tapir Specialist Group, a unit of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, strives to conserve biological diversity by stimulating, developing, and executing practical programs to study, save, restore, and manage the four species of tapir and their remaining habitats in Central and South America and Southeast Asia.
The Baird’s Tapir Project of Costa Rica is the longest ongoing tapir project in the world, having started in 1994. It is currently led by Kendra Bauer and involves placing radio collars on tapirs in Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park to study their social systems and habitat preferences.
27 April 2008, is World Tapir Day. The day has been established to raise awareness about the four species of tapir that inhabit Central and South America and South-East Asia.