Classification and Range
The Malayan tapir (TAY-per) belongs to the family Tapiridae, which includes three other tapir species: Brazilian, mountain and Baird's tapirs. Malayan tapirs are the only Asian species of tapir, and are native to the island of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, and Southern Thailand. Three other species of tapir range from central Mexico to Central and South America.
Dense primary rain forests of river basins or swamps, where there is lush vegetation. The Malayan tapir ranges from lowlands to mountainous areas.
Adult shoulder height: Up to 42 inches (90-105 cm).
Males weigh 660-740 pounds (270-333 kg), females 760-900 pounds (342-405 kg).
Up to 30 years in the wild and zoos.
In the wild: Tapirs are browsers and grazers, feeding primarily on grasses, aquatic plants, leaves, buds, soft twigs and fruits of low-growing shrubs.
At the zoo: Herbivore pellets, alfalfa, timothy hay, lettuce, romaine, carrots, apples and bananas.
Female tapirs become sexually mature when they are 3 to 4 years old; males after 5 years. Breeding can occur at any time during the year, with females becoming sexually receptive every two months.
The Malayan tapir's gestation period varies from 390-395 days. Mothers give birth to a single calf (twins are rare). At birth, a calf weighs approximately 15 pounds (7 kg). A female can produce a calf about every 18 months.
Newborn tapirs have reddish-brown coats, dappled with white and yellow spots and stripes which provide excellent camouflage in bamboo or reed jungles. The pattern begins to fade after a few months, and by 8 months, young tapirs assume their adult coat coloring. Young tapirs reach nearly adult size in 6 to 8 months, and begin to travel independently from their mothers at that time.
What are Tapirs?
Looking at a tapir's small, flexible proboscis (snout and upper lips) and thick, rough skin, the casual observer might think it is a relative of pigs, or related to anteaters or elephants. Amazingly, its closest relatives are the horse and rhinoceros. Similar to their earliest hoofed ancestors, tapirs have four toes on the front feet and three toes on the hind feet. Toes are separated widely, with the middle toes larger than the others. All toes have hooves, and each foot has a callous pad which supports some of the weight.
The front half of the tapir's body and hind legs is black, and the rear half above the legs is white. This black-and-white pattern obscures its outline, helping the tapir to become practically invisible in its shady forest environment. Lying down in the day, it resembles a large rock. While foraging at night, the tapir blends in with shadows and moonlight, making it difficult for nocturnal predators to detect its presence.
Except for mothers with their young, tapirs are solitary animals. Tapirs have a highly developed sense of smell. They roam the forest floor and riverbanks at night, noses to the ground, to sniff out food and other tapirs, and to detect the scent of predators. When a tapir smells an appetizing leaf, it uses its short, fleshy proboscis as a sensitive finger to grab and pull the leaf toward its mouth and then moves on.
Looks can be Deceiving
At first glance, tapirs may look like slow and clumsy animals, and an easy catch for a predator. Nothing can be further from the truth! Tapirs have recessed eyes and short ears, legs and tail. They also have a stocky body that is rounded in back and tapered in front. When threatened, their compact and streamlined shape enables them to crash through the thickest forest underbrush with remarkable speed. They are also excellent divers and swimmers, and seek refuge from predators in deep waterways, where they can remain submerged for several minutes. If cornered, the thick, hard skin on its neck helps to protect it from a predator's sharp fangs. Tapirs also have strong jaws and large teeth that can inflict a serious bite.
Location at the Zoo
Malayan tapirs can be found at the Trail of Vines exhibit in Tropical Asia. Tropical forests have a tremendous diversity of plants that tapirs can feed on as they move through the forest. Although the zoo's tapirs live in the more confined space of our exhibit, great care is taken to supply a variety of natural vegetation, fruits and vegetables to add diversity to their diet. Selected view points offer the visitor the chance to get "nose-to-nose" with this unique terrestrial mammal. An off-exhibit barn offers warmth and shelter during inclement weather.
The Malayan tapir is an endangered species. Hunted for food and sport, their thick, tough skin is used to make bridles and whips. The Malayan tapir's natural habitats in southeast Asia are quickly disappearing due to human activities such as agriculture, cattle grazing, logging and flooding caused by hydroelectric projects.
The Malayan tapir appears on the logo of the Malaysian Nature Society, an organization considered the cultural equivalent to our own National Audubon Society. Woodland Park Zoo participates in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's (AZA) Tapir Taxon Advisory Group. The primary focus of this group is to establish a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for tapirs, which will help manage captive populations in North America and through research and education help preserve wild tapir populations in their changing habitat.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save threatened and endangered species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Please do not buy products made from wild animal parts.
Contact the Woodland Park Zoological Society at 206.684.4880 to find out about ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by calling the zoo’s Education Center at (206) 684-4800.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Macdonald, David, ed. 1993. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Facts on File, Inc., New York, NY. 895 p.
Felix, Jiri. 1983. Animals of Asia. The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited. Artia, Prague, Czechoslovakia. 194 p.