Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus)

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. 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 10 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 10 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 (1,200 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.
Brevetianus variation

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.[8] 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.

Range Description:

Tapirus indicus occurs in southern and central parts of Sumatra (Indonesia), and on the Asian mainland in Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand (along the western border and on the Peninsula south to the Malaysian border, and in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the north), and Myanmar (south of latitude 18°N). Its populations are now highly fragmented within its former range. It was listed as occurring in southern Cambodia and possibly southern Viet Nam by Brooks et al. (1997). It was reported from Hongquan district, eastern Cochin China, Vietnam, in 1944 (Harper, 1945), and there was an authentic-sounding record from Lao PDR in 1902 (Duckworth et al., 1999). It is presumed to be extinct in all three countries. However, further investigation of these historical records and of other indications from Lao, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Thailand and even southern China have found none that has any compelling evidence in its support. In some cases (e.g. the 1902 Lao PDR record; Cheminaud 1939), review of the statement in the context of the same author's wider work means that records sounding, on the face of it, strong need to be dismissed (Duckworth and Hedges 1998, Duckworth et al. 1999, in prep., J. W. Duckworth pers. comm. 2008, G. J. Galbreath pers. comm. 2008). In sum, there is no credible historical-era record from north of the Thai/Malay peninsula, although fossil remains do come from Vietnam and China and indicate a much wider range under different climatic scenarios. The species habitat distribution at the northern edge of its Thai range, where the climate develops a more marked dry season, and the tapir occupancy changes from attitudinally wide-ranging to being restricted to the most humid altitudes, strongly supports a climatic limitation (Steinmetz et al. in press), thereby casting further empirical doubt on the 20th century reports from Lao PDR, Vietnam and Cambodia: these reports showed no association with where, climatically, they ?ought? to have been (Annamite wet areas supporting other Sundaic species like Annamite striped rabbit Nesolagus timminsi and crested Argus Rheinardia ocellata, and in fact some came from the driest parts of Indochina, least plausible to support tapirs.
Countries: Native:
Indonesia (Sumatera); Malaysia; Myanmar; Thailand


Tapirus indicus occurs in two disjunctly and isolated populations - one occurring on mainland Southeast Asia and the other occupying on the island of Sumatra. The species is more widespread and common on the mainland, and it is declining rapidly in Sumatra due to extensive loss of habitat, accidental and deliberate trapping for meat and removal of animals for zoos in Indonesia.

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.
Population Trend: Decreasing


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 behaviour characterizes them as crepuscular animals.T. indicus is restricted to tropical moist forest areas and occurs in both primary and secondary forest. The more seasonal climate in northern Myanmar, northern (= most of non-peninsula) Thailand, Lao PDR, Vietnam and Cambodia and the harsher dry season of the forest (even in evergreen areas, excepting the eastern flanks and adjacent Vietnamese lowlands of the Annamite chain) there is likely to be the main reason this species is not found there. The Malayan tapir is also predominantly found in the lowlands and the lower montane zone in some parts of the range, although it remains common to the highest peaks in its Thai range (Steinmetz et al. in press). Because the lowland forests are disappearing at a faster rate than the montane forests, an accelerated reduction in range and population is suspected (N. van Strien pers. comm.)
Systems: Terrestrial; Freshwater

Major Threat(s):

Tapirus indicus is threatened throughout most of its range. The primary threats to the species are large scale deforestation and increasingly, hunting. Tapir population have declined by well over 50% in Thailand and Malaysia, whereas it is suspected to be slightly less than 50% in Sumatra. The main reason for declines in the past is habitat conversion, with large tracts land being converted into palm oil plantations. However, increasingly as other large 'prey" species decline in the area hunters are beginning to look towards tapir as a food source.

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.

 Conservation Actions:

The species is legally protected in all range states and the habitat of large parts of the range is protected, including several National Parks in Thailand, Myanmar, Peninsula Malaysia and Sumatra. The impact of habitat reduction/destruction on the tapir is not fully understood and needs further investigation. It is listed on CITES Appendix I.

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 Tran boundary forest areas in border areas, and large isolated forest remnants. The Tran boundary 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 Tran boundary forest areas.