The largest species of tapir, and the most uniquely-coloured, the Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) is an endangered odd-toed ungulate found in Southeast Asia. Tapirs are unusual creatures. Superficially appearing like pigs, tapirs actually belong to an ancient lineage including rhinos and horses. The Malayan tapir’s striking, two-toned coloration allows this large mammal to camouflage within its lowland rainforest habitat. This distinctive pattern and being the only tapir species native to Asia makes the Malayan tapir stand out from its New World counterparts.
When you look at a tapir their most notable feature is their trunk. This short, prehensile proboscis aids the tapir in feeding. For example, it allows them to grab branches and strip them of their leaves. Strictly herbivorous, the Malayan tapir feeds on various grasses, leaves, shoots, twigs and fruits. They are mainly active around sunset and sunrise – this behaviour characterises them as crepuscular animals.
Malayan tapirs can grow up to 2.5m in length and usually weigh around 300kg. Their large size deters most predators, although tigers will occasionally try to take them on. Moreover, their seemingly stark dual coloration actually makes them difficult to identify in the dappled light of their rainforest home. If you look at the picture below and squint, you can somewhat imagine them looking like a large rock; this further discourages predators to see them as prey.
This mammal’s camouflage takes on a whole new form when it comes to their babies. As with the offspring of other tapir species, Malayan tapirs are born with a brown coat covered with an array of white stripes and spots. This serves a vital evolutionary advantage to tapirs because it enables newborns to blend in with the dappled forest light and escape the gaze of predators. It also means baby tapirs are the most adorable newborns on earth, although that’s not necessarily an adaptation to survival.
The greatest threat to this species, yet again, comes from us. Once found across Southeast Asia, the Malayan tapir’s distribution has become dangerously fragmented. They survive only in certain locations in Sumatra (Indonesia), Peninsula Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar. Deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations, flooding due to dam construction and poaching put the Malayan tapir at risk of extinction. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) estimates the number of mature individuals at 2,500. Consequently, they are listed as endangered.
With palm oil plantations growing, the Malayan tapir’s falling population trend will only fall further. To save this species, we, as consumers, must reduce our demand for palm oil and encourage countries in South East Asia to implement stricter legislation on deforestation and poaching. As ecologically-important megafauna, and the only species of Old World tapir, conservation of the Malayan tapir is crucial.
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.