Tapir Specialist Group Logo IUCN SSC

Tapirs of of the World


Tapirs are mammals which are often confused with hippos, anteaters and capybaras. Their closest living relatives are odd-toed ungulates (hoofed animals), horses and rhinos.

There are four living species of tapir:
Baird's tapir
Lowland tapir
Mountain tapir
Malayan tapir

See also our Tapir FAQ

Tapir Characterististics
A unique feature that tapir posess is its fleshy prehensile nose that it uses to grab leaves and even use as a snorkle while swimming. Their hides are very tough but streamlined for easy maneuvering in the forest. Tapirs are "seed dispersers." They eat seeds that are then dispersed in their scat which helps the forest to regenerate.

Tapirs are herbivores best suited to primary or old growth secondary forest, and their reproduction is slower than most mammal species due to a long gestation period (13 months) and to the fact that there is only one offspring per gestation.

Tapir Habitat Range
Note that ranges are an illustrated approximation. True tapir populations exist in habitat fragments across the indicated range for each species. Maps by Carlos Pedraza, TSG, 2008. Click to see a larger version of the map.
TSG worldwide tapir species habitat ranges

Tapir Population Status
Tapirs are becoming rare in their occurrence areas--the forests of Central and South America, and Southeast Asia--mostly due to habitat destruction and poaching. The IUCN Red Book lists the four species of tapirs (Tapirus bairdii, T. terrestris, T. pinchaque and T. indicus) as either vulnerable or endangered. The Mountain tapir, T. pinchaque, is one of the most endangered large mammals in the world. The Baird’s tapir, T. bairdii, is the largest land mammal in the Neotropics and also endangered. The Malayan tapir, T. indicus, is the only Old World extant species and is also endangered in Sumatra and mainland Malaysia.

IUCN's 2008 Red List Report outlines current status estimations for each species:
Baird's Tapir (external link)
Malayan Tapir (external link)
Mountain Tapir (external link)
Lowland Tapir (external link)

Baird's tapir Lowland tapir
Baird's Tapir, captive. Photo by Brent Huffman, UltimateUngulate.com
Lowland Tapir, wild, Brazil. Photo by Richard Bodmer VULNERABLE
Mountain Tapir, captive, Colorado. Photo by Sheryl Todd, TPF & Tapirback.com
Malayan Tapir, captive, Seattle. Photo by Gilia Angell ENDANGERED

Threats to Tapirs

  • Hunting pressure on tapirs throughout their ranges
  • Habitat fragmentation resulting in reduced genetic diversity and home range
  • Encroachment into protected park areas by subsistance farmers and illegal logging

Tapirs and Their Connection to the Ecosystem
Tapirs play a critical role in shaping and maintaining the biological diversity of tropical forests and function as biological indicators of area requirements for the ecosystem. The tapir is one of the first species in its habitat to be adversely affected by human disturbance because of their size, and sensitivity to changes in their habitat range. Local extinction or population decrease may trigger adverse effects in the forest, causing disruptions of some key ecological processes (e.g. seed predation and dispersal, nutrient recycling), and eventually compromising the long-term integrity and biodiversity of the ecosystem. These factors, added to the destruction of tapir habitat in recent years, justify the urgency for investigation of the status of the populations, and development and implementation of conservation and management plans.

Tapir Specialist Group advocates on behalf of tapirs and works to conserve their habitat and genetic diversity through research projects on tapirs, high standards of zoo husbandry, and networking with government bodies, conservation organizations, universities and zoos to create greater tapir awareness and conservation planning.

How Tapirs Escape Predators
by Leonardo Salas

This is a brief account based on what little knowledge we have of tapir anti-predator strategies, and of the known predators of tapirs. Commonly, we hear reports or see photographs of attacks on tapirs, reports such as the survival story of Mr. Rodriguez Echandi in the lowland forests of Costa Rica. Yet rarely, a researcher gets a glimpse of an attack or finds the remnants of a kill. There are scientific accounts and unquestionable data on the diet of predators including tapir as prey. But to my knowledge, there is no published account of the effect of natural predators on tapirs in the scientific literature. In other words, we know the killer, but not the age and numbers of prey tapirs.

Adult Lowland tapir demonstrating the tapir's strong swimming skills, Parque Nacional Brasilia, Brazil. © 2006 Paulo Andre Lima Borqes.

We should begin by stating that adult tapirs, being large (the Andean tapir, the smaller species, can reach 100 Kg in size), escape most significantly smaller predators. This is in itself a strategy to avoid predators. In fact, adult tapirs are killed mainly by large cats and occasionally, perhaps, by large snakes like Anacondas. (There is no confirmed scientific report of the latter, but recently a video was posted where an Anaconda regurgitated a lowland tapir – it is unknown whether the snake killed the animal, but this is probably the case). So, the adult Malayan tapir is prey to tigers and leopards in the Malayan peninsula, and to tigers only in the island of Sumatra; the adult lowland tapir and Baird’s tapir are prey to jaguars; the adult Andean tapir is prey to pumas. (Pumas in Central and South America are not as large as in the U.S.).

It is also likely that adult, or “old or sickly” lowland and Baird’s tapirs fall prey also of pumas in the Neotropics, pumas being significantly smaller than tapirs. For example, an old lowland or Baird’s tapir (over 100 Kg) may be killed by a large puma (weighing as much as 50 Kg or more). But it is the young tapirs that are perhaps more susceptible to predation. In fact, this threat on young ungulates is the evolutionary force suspected of driving two important adaptations in tapirs.

First, like most large ungulates, tapirs produce one offspring (rarely twins) per birth. This offspring is born ready to walk - another anti-preadator adaptation. It is a substantial investment of energy on the part of the mother, because she gestates the fetus until it reaches that development stage. It is no wonder that tapirs gestate for 12-13 months and breed in the wild only once every other year (though, there is one field report of a female tapir in oestrus 18 months after her previous birth). Compare the tapir’s reproductive strategy to that of pigs, which can give birth to large numbers (4-12) of undeveloped offspring every year. So, tapirs are born ready to move and avoid predators by staying next to their mothers, at a considerable energetic cost to the mother.
Inevitably, the mothers need to browse for food covering long distances and the newborn tapirs cannot keep up.

The second adaptation is in regards to protection from predators when the young are left behind. Tapirs are born with a brown to reddish-brown pelage, with rows of white dots. This coloration has long been suspected to aid in camouflaging the baby tapir - another adaptation to avoid predation.

A Baird's tapir mother watches her youngster closely, Campeche, Mexico. ©2006 Raphel Reina-Hurtado.

In a rather “obscure” scientific publication, the author speculated on the tapir’s strategy to avoid predation in early life and its behavioral development – no data from the wild exists. The explanation goes as follows: the very young tapir moves very little and remains mostly crouched and hiding in thick vegetation. The mother goes on browsing forays, returning once or twice daily to feed the young. When the mother meets the baby, the young tapir follows her mother and feeds for a while, until she eventaully leaves the baby behind for another foray. As the baby grows, it spends more and more time walking with her mother, learning what species are edible, before it is left behind again. The process goes on until the young tapir reaches a level of independence where it has learned to find food and the mother is no longer needed.

All throughout this growth and learning process, the newborn tapir slowly loses the camouflage coloration. Estimates from wild and captive animals suggest that the last signs of the newborn coloration are lost around 7 months of age. It is not known how long the young remains foraging with and protected by its mother, but some data suggest it could be more than a year.

Because tapirs invest so much in their offspring, it is only natural that they become fiercely protective when their infants are attacked. A hidden baby tapir, alone, may fall prey to jaguars, tigers or pumas, but also to small cats such as ocelots or clouded leopards (we have no data on ocelots or clouded leopards eating baby tapirs). Mr. Rodriguez did not give any indication of the size of the baby tapir he saw limping. We can only speculate that it must have been a sizable offspring, already able to survive a large cat attack - a jaguar or puma, if that was the case. We can also speculate that the young tapir was still under one year of age. The mother’s defensive behavior, as bluntly experienced by Mr. Rodriguez, is only to be expected.

French Guiana--the savage remains of a poached tapir taken by a hunter. Read more about the poaching problems in French Guiana. ©2005 Benoit de Thoisy, TSG.

How do tapirs escape predators? Anyone who has seen tapirs in the wild can answer this question without hesitation: tapirs run through thickets of forest and/or dive into rivers or deep pools of water. A galloping tapir breaks through bushes with branches 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) thick. A small cat gripping the back of the tapir will have a hard time holding on to its prey if it’s being hit by thick branches. Also, although cats can and do swim, they are no match to the natatory prowess of a tapir, which can go under water for a minute and thus escape the chasing predator.
Despite all their adaptations to avoid predation, there is still one predator tapirs of any age are unable to escape – relentless and insatiable – man.

More about tapirs:
TSG's Tapir FAQ
San Diego Zoo's Tapir page

Illustration generously provided by Stephan Nash, Conservation International

Home | Donate and Help Save Tapirs | About Us

© 1980-2011 IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group (TSG)