Site icon Conservation news

Malaysia may be home to more Asian tapirs than previously thought (photos)

You can’t mistake an Asian tapir for anything else: for one thing, it’s the only tapir on the continent; for another, it’s distinct black-and-white blocky markings distinguishes it from any other tapir (or large mammal) on Earth. But still little is known about the Asian tapir (Tapirus indicus), including the number surviving. However, researchers in Malaysia are working to change that: a new study for the first time estimates population density for the neglected megafauna, while another predicts where populations may still be hiding in peninsular Malaysia, including selectively-logged areas.

“It has been difficult for scientists study [the Asian tapir], probably because it’s a very shy animal,” Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, co-founder of the Malaysian research group Rimba and an author on both of the studies, told “Or maybe aspiring tapir researchers just haven’t tried hard enough! But interest in research on the Asian Tapir has picked up in the last 10 years.”

Tapirs are rare survivors of the Pleistocene extinction when many of the world’s big animals (i.e. megafauna) vanished forever. Although the Asian tapir, also known as the Malayan tapir, is the largest of the four tapir species (the rest of which are found in South and Central America) weighing up to 1,200 pounds (540 kilograms), it is also the least known. However, a recent breakthrough came when researchers undertaking a camera trap study on tigers in Gunong Basor Forest Reserve found that they could tell individual Asian tapirs apart based on their markings as well as other features.

“If you look closely…the belly and neck lines are distinct enough for individual identification, provided that the camera trap pictures are clear and show the right angles of a flank or neck. In addition, deep scarring and even damage to the ears or deformities can also be used for individual identification,” explains Mark Rayan Darmaraj with WWF-Malaysia and recent graduate from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, and an author on both studies as well. “By using these unique features, we were able to know more about the population status of tapirs in our study area.”

By identifying individuals, the researchers were able to compile the first Asian tapir density, estimating that 9.49 adult tapirs live in 100 square kilometers of selectively-logging forest in Malaysia. This is an important milestone for estimating total population and trends for the Asian tapir across its habitat. Next the researchers looked again at possible tapir habitat—including primary forests and selectively logged areas—in peninsular Malaysia.

Asian tapir photographed by camera trap. Photo by: Rimba.
Asian tapir photographed by camera trap. Photo by: Rimba.

“Our models predicted that approximately 37 percent of peninsular Malaysia contains potentially suitable Asian tapir habitats, of which 45 percent occur in selectively logged forests,” Clements, who is affiliated with James Cook University and University of Malaya, says. “Overall, we have shown that this species has a wider geographic range than previously thought and we urge a revision to its extent of occurrence in the IUCN Red List distribution map.”

Combining the findings from both studies, one could infer that the population of Asian tapirs in Malaysia could be well-over 2,000 adult animals. This is good news, as the estimate is higher than the one currently used by the IUCN Red List.

However, Clements cautions that more data will be needed before scientists are confident of these numbers.

“We feel it is unwise to extrapolate a population estimate for this species at this juncture because we have only one density estimate from a logged forest,” he notes. “I think we should attempt an extrapolation once we have more population density estimates from other forest types and categories, particularly those based on a spatially explicit capture-recapture framework.”

Still, the studies show that selectively-logged forests are important habitats for Asian tapirs, adding one more reason not to convert logged forests into monoculture plantations.

“For [both] tigers and tapirs, selectively logged forests represent altered but useful and important habitats for these species. It is difficult to generalize about the effects of logging on tapirs, but we have enough information to hypothesize that strictly controlled and sustainable selective logging itself may not be directly harmful for tapirs,” Rayan explains, adding that logging may still mean trouble for tapirs if it opens the forests up to poachers. While tapirs are not targeted by hunters in Malaysia, they often fall prey to snares set out for other animals.

“The take home message is, logged forests…have a high conservation value for tapirs and possibly other large mammals and therefore should not be converted into other landuse such as monoculture plantations,” he says.

Asian tapir photographed by camera trap. Photo by: Rimba.
Asian tapir photographed by camera trap. Photo by: Rimba.

Clements adds that, “Probably the most immediate threat to this and other mammal species in [Malaysia] is the increasing trend of clear-felling selectively logged forests for timber-latex rubber clone plantations. Apart from addressing this threat, we should continue implementing actions to link fragmented tapir habitats.”

Another lesson from the research, is that remote camera trapping projects—even when they only target one specie—can teach us much about an ecosystem.

“Our findings highlight the importance of making the best of by-catch data from camera trap studies to get population density estimates for non-focal species,” Rayan says. “In our case, the study was designed for tigers, but we were also interested to see if we could derive a density estimate for tapirs. We now have baseline information on the population density of Asian Tapirs in one selectively logged forest.”

He adds that researchers may now turn to other camera trap studies in tapir areas to gather more data on the species’ population.

The Asian tapir is currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. In addition to Malaysia, the species is also found in Thailand, Myanmar, and Sumatra (Indonesia), but less information is available regarding these populations.

Asian tapir photographed by camera trap. Photo by: Rimba.
Baby Asian tapir following mom. Photo by: Rimba.

Asian tapir photographed by camera trap. Photo by: Rimba.
Asian tapir photographed by camera trap. Photo by: Rimba.


Clements GR, Rayan DM, Aziz SA, Kawanishi K, Traeholt C, Magintan D, Yazi MFA, and Tingley R (2012). Predicting the distribution of the Asian tapir (Tapirus indicus) in Peninsular Malaysia using maximum entropy modelling. INTEGRATIVE ZOOLOGY 7: 402-409.

Rayan DM, Shariff M, Doward L, Aziz S, Clements GR, Wong C, Traeholt C and Magintan D (2012). Estimating the population density of the Asian tapir Tapirus indicus from a selectively logged forest in Peninsular Malaysia. INTEGRATIVE ZOOLOGY 7: 373-380.

Related articles

In the kingdom of the black panther

(01/15/2013) The black panther has a mythical aura: Rudyard Kipling chose the animal for one of his heroes in the Jungle Book, in the 1970s it became the symbol of an African-American socialist party, while comic guru Stan Lee selected the stunning feline for his first black superhero. But the real black panther isn’t an actual species, instead it’s a rare dark pigmentation found most commonly in leopards, but also occasionally in jaguars and other wild cats. The rarity of the black panther—not to mention its striking appearance—has added to their mystery. However, recent studies have found that black panthers, in this case ‘black leopards,’ are astoundingly common in one part of the world: the Malayan peninsula.

Loving the tapir: pioneering conservation for South America’s biggest animal

(09/11/2011) Compared to some of South America’s megafauna stand-out species—the jaguar, the anaconda, and the harpy eagle come to mind—the tapir doesn’t get a lot of love. This is a shame. For one thing, they’re the largest terrestrial animal on the South American continent: pound-for-pound they beat both the jaguar and the llama. For another they play a very significant role in their ecosystem: they disperse seeds, modify habitats, and are periodic prey to big predators. For another, modern tapirs are some of the last survivors of a megafauna family that roamed much of the northern hemisphere, including North America, and only declined during the Pleistocene extinction. Finally, for anyone fortunate enough to have witnessed the often-shy tapir in the wild, one knows there is something mystical and ancient about these admittedly strange-looking beasts.

Scientists point to research flaw that has likely exaggerated the impact of logging in tropical forests

(01/23/2013) The impact of logging on tropical forest species has likely been exaggerated by statistical problems, according to a new study in Conservation Biology. Reviewing 77 studies on how logging affects tropical biodiversity, scientists found that 67 percent were flawed by a technical problem known as ‘pseudoreplication.’ The debate over logging in tropical forests has garnered significant attention recently as some scientists argue that well-managed logging areas can actually retain impressive numbers of species, while others say logging does irreparable harm to the ecosystem’s ecology.

Photos: Scientists discover tapir bonanza in the Amazon

(01/22/2013) Over 14,000 lowland tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), also known as Brazilian tapirs, roam an Amazonian landscape across Bolivia and Peru, according to new research by scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Using remote camera trapping, thousands of distribution records, and interviews, the researchers estimated the abundance of lowland tapirs in the Greater Madidi-Tambopata Landscape Conservation Program made up of three national parks in Bolivia (Madidi, Pilón Lajas and Apolobamba) and two in Peru (Tambopata and Bahuaja Sonene).

Asian bear farming: breaking the cycle of exploitation (warning: graphic images)

(01/31/2013) In the forests of Asia, bears are being captured. These captives will be sent to bear farms, most unregulated and illegal, where they will be kept alive in a small cage, locked away for life. Their bodies will be used as renewable natural resources, from which profit will be made through the extraction of internal organs and fluids. By surgically inserting a permanent catheter into the bears’ gall bladders, “farmers” extract several ounces of their bile. In a cycle of exploitation across east Asia, traditional medicine shops receive these daily shipments of bear bile products, while consumers support the industry through the purchase of these products, sustaining a supply-and-demand chain that puts more and more bears in cages as wild populations dwindle.

Camera trap videos capture stunning wildlife in Thailand

(12/20/2011) A year’s worth of camera trap videos (see photos and video below) are proving that scaled-up anti-poaching efforts in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex are working. Capturing rare glimpses of endangered, elusive animals—from clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) to banteng (Bos javanicus), a rarely seen wild cattle—the videos highlight the conservation importance of the Western Forest Complex, which includes 17 protected areas in Thailand and Myanmar.

Exit mobile version