Tapirus indicus is found in southeast Asia from southern Burma to Thailand and on the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra.
Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native )
Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand
Malayan tapirs have a large stocky body with a prominent proboscis. Adults of this species have a dramatic color pattern, with a black front half of body, white sides, and black hind legs. As dramatic as this color pattern seems to our eyes, it camoflages them well in the shady forest, especially in nights when the moon is out. Eyes are oval and not very mobile. The forefeet have four digits, each of which ends in a hoof. The fourth toe does not touch the ground, so footprints show the imprints of three digits. Hind feet have three digits. This species does not have a mane.
Range mass: 250 to 320 kg.
Habitat and Ecology
Found in tropical lowland and highland rainforest where there is a permanent supply of water. They tend to shelter in forests and thickets during the daytime, but come out at night to forage on grasslands or near water.
Terrestrial Biomes: rainforest
The Malayan tapir is a vegetarian non-ruminant. The diet consists of grasses, leaves, aquatic plants, and twigs. Salt is well liked by tapirs, which will go out of their way to find it. Foraging is often done on a repeated foraging route, often with their nose to the ground. Often tapirs forage in a zig-zag fashion. The fleshy proboscis is commonly used as a finger to grab almost out-of-reach leaves and grasses and pull them into the mouth. The stomach is simple, and the intestine has a short cecum.
Life History and Behavior
Status: wild: 30.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Mating, which occurs in April and May, is characterized by a heated courtship ritual. When sexually excited, tapirs make wheezing and whistling sounds, and attempt to sniff each other's genital regions, often resulting in their going round in circles. They may bite at one anothers ears, feet, and flanks. After a gestation period of at least 390 days, one young is born. At birth, young weigh up to 10 kg, which is the heaviest of any tapir species. The young of this species grows more quickly than those of congenerics. When born, tapirs have a spotted and striped coat rather in contrast to the dramatic black and white pattern seen in the adults. Females have offspring every other year. Sexual maturity is reached at about three years of age, and the lifespan is thought to be about 30 years.
Average birth mass: 6500 g.
Average gestation period: 392 days.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 1095 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 1095 days.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Tapirus indicus
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2003Vulnerable(IUCN 2003)
- 1994Endangered(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Endangered(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Endangered(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Endangered(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
Date Listed: 06/14/1976
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Tapirus indicus , see its USFWS Species Profile
Malayan tapirs are classified as vulnerable by the IUCN and endangered by U.S. Endangered Species Act. They are on Appendix 1 of CITES. Habitat destruction and overhunting are the two main factors contributing to their endangered status. Habitat destruction has mainly been a result of agriculture and and increase in cattle grazing.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: endangered
In Malaysia there are approximately 1,500-2,000 individuals (C. Traeholt pers. comm.). Further research efforts are needed to determine the total population size. In Thailand it is one of the least-affected large mammals by recent heavy levels of hunting that have caused severe cross-country declines in many large mammal species (Steinmetz et al. in press).
The situation in Thailand is similar, although with much less habitat available, and the Thai populations are is likely to be quite fragile since it is severely fragmented, and most subpopulations are unlikely to reach more than 50-100 individuals at the most. In many places there are only 10-15 individuals left with no chance of linking up to other protected areas and suitable habitats.
Destruction of habitat is the main threat to the species: in central Sumatra much of the remaining habitat is outside of any protected area and uncontrolled illegal logging continues; in Thailand, almost all remaining intact forest now lies within protected areas, with mostly degraded lands outside; in contrast, Myanmar?s protected areas make up 3.2% of land area (data provided by Myanmar Forest Department) and most tapir habitat lies outside these protected areas. In Malaysia forest loss is extremely severe, especially for expanding oil palm plantations.
Tapirus indicus are shy animals and appear to be highly sensitive to forest fragmentation. In Halabala Wildlife Sanctuary on the Thai-Malaysia border, Kaewsirisuk (2001) found that the species does not venture within a few hundred meters of forest-plantation edges. At Khao Sok National Park, tapirs are interior forest species that avoid forest edges (Lynam 1996). Kawanishi (2002), however, found in Taman Negara, the largest national park in Malaysia, that although the human traffic level was heavier in area closer to the park boundary, tapirs showed no edge effects. While forest loss continues in Thailand, forests in protected areas remain relatively stable in size and composition to other countries because of a ban on commercial logging that has been in place since 1989. For this reason, while tapirs may indeed be threatened in general by forest loss, populations in Thailand and Malaysia are probably more stable.
Large-scale habitat destruction has continued in Sumatra, historically the species? main stronghold, and most remaining habitat in central Sumatra is outside protected areas. In Sumatra, populations have declined by slightly less than 50% simply because the onslaught of habitat only started to be serious in the late 1980s. However, the rate of decline is continuing to escalate in this region. In fact Sumatra has only 60% of the forest cover that it had 15 years ago, so things are developing fast there and future declines of the species are likely well over 50% in the next 30 years. Given the uncontrolled illegal logging situation in Sumatra, they are becoming increasingly threatened island-wide. Localized hunting also occurs and is suspected elsewhere in its distribution range. Unless serious efforts to stem illegal logging and forest encroachment are made, all Sumatran forests outside conservation areas will be lost over the next few decades.
In Malaysia the current forestry trend seems to be stabilized at approx. 43% remaining forest cover (57% lost), of which at least half can be considered tapir habitat. In Thailand, 40% of the remaining forest is outside protected areas and only 5% of Myanmar?s land area is protected forest (Lynam pers. comm.).
The species has uncertain status and future in Myanmar due to security issues and forest clearance for rubber and oil palm plantations. However, two new protected areas have been designated in the Tenasserims: Taninthayi National Park and Lenya River Wildlife Sanctuary. If these areas can be protected, they will preserve valuable tapir habitat in the future.
In the past, several Indonesian zoos, especially Pekanbaru, traded in live tapirs for sale to other Indonesian zoos or private collections, or for sale as meat in local markets. Fifty tapirs are reported passing through the Pekanbaru Zoo since 1993. Some of these animals are suspected of having originated from protected areas. Elsewhere, extraction may not be very high but it is uncertain how many individuals are actually hunted every year. Hunting is specifically known to be comparatively (by comparison with other mammals of similar size) very low in Thailand and at least parts of Sumatra (Holden et al. 2003, Stienmetz et al. in press)
There are indications that live tapirs have been traded through several Indonesian zoos, with some destined for private collections or for sale as meat in local markets to the non-Muslim community. Some of these animals are suspected to have originated from protected areas.
Hunting has been a minor threat to Tapirus indicus in the past, but is has been increasingly a cause of concern as more and more hunting of the species is discovered. Some localized hunting has been reported in Sumatra, however, and historically tapirs are not hunted for subsistence or commercial trade in Thailand or Myanmar, since their flesh is considered distasteful. Some hill tribes believe that killing a tapir brings bad luck, so they are not hunted.
Thailand supports one of the most comprehensive systems of protected areas in Southeast Asia. Over 200 National Parks, Marine National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Non-hunting areas cover 17% of land area (Prayurasiddhi et al. 1999). Since most existing Tapirus indicus habitat is already protected, the future for conservation of the species in Thailand is quite positive. In contrast, Myanmar?s protected areas make up 5% of land area (Lynam 2003) and most tapir habitat lies outside these protected areas. In Myanmar, Malayan tapirs are entirely restricted to rainforests in the Tenasserim Ranges along the Thai-Myanmar border (Yin, 1993). The tenure of these lands on the Myanmar side of the border is disputed and due to civil unrest, has been inaccessible for wildlife survey until now. A team of Myanmar Forest Department staff working the Tenasserim border during 2001 detected tapirs from camera-traps, track and scat at two sites: the Minmoletka Taung area and the Hitaung Pru Reserve Forest (Lynam 2003).
In Thailand, Tapirus indicus is recorded from forest areas in the west and south of the country (Lekagul and McNeely 1988), including transboundary forest areas in border areas, and large isolated forest remnants. The transboundary forests represent the most extensive, contiguous habitats for large mammals left in the country (Prayurasiddhi et al. 1999). They include the Western Forest Complex (Thai-Myanmar border), which includes 12 protected areas, and covers over 18,730 sq km including both dry and wet forests, and the Kaeng Krachan/Chumpol complex which covers 4,373 sq km, mostly wet evergreen forest on the Thai-Myanmar border. The Balahala Forest is an expanse of 1,850 sq km of tropical rainforest on the Thai-Malaysia border. All areas are contiguous with larger forest areas on opposite sides of the country border. Recent survey efforts (Lynam 1999; Lynam 2000; WCS 2001; Kaewsirisuk 2001; A. Pattanavibool pers. comm.) suggest that tapirs are present though uncommon in each of these transboundary forest areas.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
Tapirs have been known to damage food crops.
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
Malayan tapirs are hunted for food and sport in non-Moslem regions of their distribution.
The Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus), also called the Asian tapir, is the largest of the five species of tapir and the only one native to Asia. The scientific name refers to the East Indies, the species' natural habitat. In the Malay language, the tapir is commonly referred to as cipan, tenuk or badak tampung.
General appearance and characteristics
The animal is easily identified by its markings, most notably the light-colored patch which extends from its shoulders to its rear end. The rest of its hair is black, except for the tips of its ears, which, as with other tapirs, are rimmed with white. This pattern is for camouflage; the disrupted coloration makes it more difficult to recognize it as a tapir, and other animals may mistake it for a large rock rather than prey when it is lying down to sleep.
Malayan tapirs grow to between 1.8 and 2.4 m (5 ft 11 in and 7 ft 10 in) in length, not counting a stubby tail of only 5 to 10 cm (2.0 to 3.9 in) in length, and stand 90 to 107 cm (2 ft 11 in to 3 ft 6 in) tall. They typically weigh between 250 and 320 kg (550 and 710 lb), although some adults can weigh up to 540 kg (1,190 lb). The females are usually larger than the males. Like the other types of tapirs, they have small, stubby tails and long, flexible proboscises. They have four toes on each front foot and three toes on each back foot. The Malayan tapir has rather poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and sense of smell.
They have a large sagittal crest, a bone running along the middle of the skull that is necessary for muscle attachment. They also have unusually positioned orbits, an unusually shaped cranium with the frontal bones elevated, and a retracted nasal incision. All of these modifications to the normal mammal skull are, of course, to make room for the proboscis. This proboscis caused retraction of bones and cartilage in the face during the evolution of the tapir, and even caused the loss of some cartilages, facial muscles, and the bony wall of the nasal chamber.
Malayan tapirs have very poor eyesight, making them rely greatly on their excellent sense of smell and hearing to go about in their everyday lives. They have small, beady eyes with brown irises on either side of their faces. Their eyes are often covered in a blue haze, which is corneal cloudiness thought to be caused by repetitive exposure to light. Corneal cloudiness is when the cornea starts to lose its transparency. The cornea is necessary for the transmitting and focusing of outside light as it enters the eye, and cloudiness can cause vision loss. This causes the Malayan tapir to have very inadequate vision, both on land and in water, where they spend the majority of their time. Also, as these tapirs are most active at night and since they have poor eyesight, it is harder for them to search for food and avoid predators in the dark. 
A small number of melanistic (all-black) Malayan tapirs have been observed. In 1924, an all-black tapir was sent to Rotterdam Zoo and was classified as a subspecies called Tapirus indicus brevetianus after its discoverer, Captain K. Brevet. In 2000, two melanistic tapirs were observed during a study of tigers in the Jerangau Forest Reserve in Malaysia. The cause of this variation may be a genetic abnormality similar to that of black panthers that appear in populations of spotted jaguars. However, unless and until more T. i. brevetianus individuals can be studied, the precise explanation for the trait will remain unknown.
The gestation period of the Malayan tapir is about 390–395 days, after which a single offspring, weighing around 15 pounds (6.8 kg), is born. Malayan tapirs are the largest of the four tapir species at birth and grow more quickly than their congeners. Young tapirs of all species have brown hair with white stripes and spots, a pattern which enables them to hide effectively in the dappled light of the forest. This baby coat fades into adult coloration between four and seven months after birth. Weaning occurs between six and eight months of age, at which time the babies are nearly full-grown, and the animals reach sexual maturity around age three. Breeding typically occurs in April, May or June, and females generally produce one calf every two years. Malayan tapirs can live up to 30 years, both in the wild and in captivity.
Malayan tapirs are primarily solitary creatures, marking out large tracts of land as their territory, though these areas usually overlap with those of other individuals. Tapirs mark out their territories by spraying urine on plants, and they often follow distinct paths which they have bulldozed through the undergrowth.
Exclusively herbivorous, the animal forages for the tender shoots and leaves of more than 115 species of plants (around 30 are particularly preferred), moving slowly through the forest and pausing often to eat and note the scents left behind by other tapirs in the area. However, when threatened or frightened, the tapir can run quickly, despite its considerable bulk, and can also defend itself with its strong jaws and sharp teeth. Malayan tapirs communicate with high-pitched squeaks and whistles. They usually prefer to live near water and often bathe and swim, and they are also able to climb steep slopes. Tapirs are mainly active at night, though they are not exclusively nocturnal. They tend to eat soon after sunset or before sunrise, and they will often nap in the middle of the night. This behavior characterizes them as crepuscular animals.
Habitat, predation, and vulnerability
The Malayan tapir was once found throughout the tropical lowland rainforests of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Vietnam. However, its numbers have decreased in recent years, and today, like all tapirs, it is in danger of extinction. Because of their size, tapirs have few natural predators, and even reports of killings by tigers are scarce. The main threat to the Malayan tapirs is human activity, including deforestation for agricultural purposes, flooding caused by the damming of rivers for hydroelectric projects, and illegal trade. In Thailand, for instance, capture and sale of a young tapir may be worth US$5500.00. In areas such as Sumatra, where the population is predominantly Muslim, tapirs are seldom hunted for food, as their physical similarity to pigs has made tapir meat a taboo, but in some regions they are hunted for sport or shot accidentally when mistaken for other animals. Protected status in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, which seeks to curb deliberate killing of tapirs but does not address the issue of habitat loss, has had limited effect in reviving or maintaining the population.
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