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Commonly Asked Questions About Tapirs
Illustration of the four species of tapirs Mountai tapirLowland tapirBairds tapirMalayan tapir
Why are tapirs important?
Tapirs play a critical role in shaping and maintaining the biological diversity of tropical ecosystems. The tapir is one of the first species in its habitat to be adversely affected by human disturbance because of their size, and because of their sensitivity to habitat changes. Local extinction or population decrease may trigger adverse effects in the habitat, causing disruptions of some key ecological processes (e.g. seed dispersal, nutrient recycling), and eventually compromising the long-term integrity and biodiversity of the ecosystem.

How are tapirs doing? Where are they particularly endangered? Where are they doing okay?
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 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.

Threats to Tapirs
  • Hunting pressure on tapirs throughout their ranges
  • Habitat destruction and fragmentation
  • Encroachment into protected park areas by subsistence farmers and illegal logging

Tapirs do well where there are few threats impeding their normal needs to thrive in large undisturbed tracts of habitat. Certain areas of the Brazilian Amazon, Brazilian Pantanal, Peruvian Amazon, Honduran Mosquitia and Panamanian Darien forests have healthy tapir populations.

How can I help tapirs?
There are many ways to help tapirs, even if you are not old enough to vote!

  • Write letters to your government officials supporting legislature that funds conservation in the Neotropics
  • Write your favorite international conservation organization asking them to make tapir conservation a funding priority
  • Tell others about tapirs--spread the word about their uniqueness and their status in the wild
  • Support tapir research and conservation through Tapir Specialist Group Conservation Fund
  • Donate field equipment, or gear to Neotropical researchers through organizations like IdeaWild
  • Travel to tapir range countries and visit parks where tapirs are known to live; ecotourism to see specific animals can stimulate a local economy by providing hospitality and guiding jobs
  • Consider studying tapir-specific subject matter at your university; there are many ecological, biological, sociological and historical aspects of tapir information that are not being studied. Ask us for ideas

Where can I see tapirs in the wild?
Any large wild animal will be difficult to find in the wild. However, there are some parks in the world where tapirs have not been threatened by hunting or predation and are less shy than other areas. We recommend you make travel arrangements through a reputable local agency or guide who specializes in wildlife-watching tours and eco-sensitive travel. Some places where tapir sightings are not uncommon:

Baird's tapir:
Chan Chich Lodge property, Belize
Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Lowland tapir:
Morro do Diabo State Park, São Paulo State, Brazil
Southern and Northern Pantanal of Brazil
Parque Nacional El Rey, Salta, Argentina
Amazon River, Brazil
Manu National Park, Peru
Tambopata River and National Preserve, Peru

Malayan tapir:
Taman Nagara National Park, Malaysia
Krau Wildlife Reserve, Malaysia

Mountain tapirs:
These tapirs are very difficult to see in the wild--their low numbers and inaccessible habitat make locating them very difficult, even for our researchers.

Consider yourself lucky if an animal reveals itself to you while you're enjoying the beautiful wild setting!

Do tapirs come out at night?
Yes, and in the morning; their activity levels peak in the hours when temperatures are cooler, primarily dawn and dusk. This behavior is referred to as "crepuscular." Tapirs do most of their feeding at night, working their way through a forest eating fruit, leaves and plants.

Are tapirs nice?
Yes and no. Tapirs are very large, wild animals. Like any large herbivore (and prey species), they are inherently shy and timid. In captive or zoo situations, tapirs are usually friendly and curious, and enjoy having their tummies scratched. However, they are still large mammals whose behavior can be unpredictable and they must be treated with care. In the wild, however, tapirs are most safely observed from a distance. If surprised, attacked, or taunted they will defend themselves with their very dangerous teeth. Wild animals have maimed and killed humans who attack or surprise them.

Are tapirs soft?
Despite the soft curves of a tapir's body, their hides are very tough. They have tough skin to deflect attacks by predators, and to withstand the thick vegetation and challenges of maneuvering through the rain forest. All tapirs except for the mountain tapir have very short, course hair. Mountain tapirs develop a much thicker and "woollier" coat of hair due to their high mountain habitat--they live in a much colder climate than their more low elevation cousins.

How big are tapirs?
Full grown tapirs are approximately the size of small ponies or very large hogs (300-700 pounds), but please see our individual tapir pages for more specific species information.
Baird's tapir
Lowland tapir
Malayan tapir
Mountain tapir

Do tapirs have hooves like horses?
No. Tapirs have three and four-toed feet. See pictures of tapir feet.

Can tapirs run fast?
Yes, they can run very fast for short bursts of speed, and maintain a brisk clip running through dense forest. Their running style and speed is like that of a small pony.

What do tapirs eat in the wild?
Tapirs eat a variety of seasonal fruits and plants and their home ranges (2-5 kilometers square) reflect the seasonal food growth patterns of the forest. When mango or fig trees come into season, tapirs can often be found underneath these trees, eating the fruits that fall from them, or are dropped by monkeys munching on fruit from above. Tapirs also eat a lot of different fruits of palm trees (especially tapirs living in low lands) and they visit salt licks to complement their diet. A salt lick is a naturally occurring salt deposit that animals visit periodically to supplement their diet with minerals such as sodium, calcium, phosphorus and iron.

What do tapirs eat at the zoo?
Tapirs eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, lettuce and apples, and a zoo kibble diet formulated especially for herbivore ungulates (hoofed mammals).

A lowland tapir swims at Brasilia National Park, Brazil
Lowland tapir swmming, Parque Nacional Brasilia, Brazil. Photo by P. Borges

I've heard that tapirs can "run" underwater. Is this true?
Tapirs are fast and agile swimmers--and use their snout noses as a snorkel sometimes, though most of the time, they swim with their head out of the water, leading with their snout. Then they close their flat nostrils when they want to keep water out.

Their swimming motions resemble running or dog-paddling, though often they are fully submerged in the water. In shallower bodies of water they have been known to "run" along the bottom of the lake to propel themselves between breaths.

How do tapirs escape predators?
Read our article on how tapirs escape predators.

What's involved with studying tapirs in the wild?
Studying tapirs in the wild requires many resources and a solid scientific question that only study in the wild can answer. The sort of person attracted to research on tapirs will need to be intrepid, creative, motivated, and dedicated. Usually a researcher conducts their research and gathers his or her data while pursuing a masters or Ph.D degree or if sponsored by a scientific NGO (such as studies involving population status).

Actual time in the field--the best part about research--does not make up the bulk of a researcher's time. Often fundraising, coordinating travel and transportation, hiring and training field assistants, analyzing data in the lab or at the academic institution and writing up reports and papers on findings makes up the majority of a researcher's time. Studying tapirs in the wild is also expensive.

More questions?
Email us with your questions.

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

Illustration kindly provided by Stephen Nash, Conservation International

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