- Malayan tapirs were found in Borneo until at least 1,500 years ago and maybe into the modern era.
- Some researchers have proposed bringing the tapir back to the island by rearing a new captive population on site.
- Not everyone is convinced: some scientist view the idea as without conservation value and prohibitively expensive.
- This post is part of “Saving Life on Earth: Words on the Wild”, a monthly column by Jeremy Hance, one of Mongabay’s first staff writers.
Forty thousand years ago — 28,000 years before the Neolithic Revolution saw hunter-gatherers settle down and farm, 36,000 before the first pyramids took shape, and 39,000 before the Norman conquest of England — humans took shelter in a cave in what is today the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. And there they did something remarkable: they painted. They painted animals. In what’s been called the “oldest figurative rock art in the world” (the images are at least 5,000 years older than paintings found in the caves of Timpuseng in Sulawesi, also in Indonesia, or Chauvet in France) these early Borneans painted banteng, a type of wild cattle, and other animals, including another large mammal that is most likely a Malayan tapir.
If you know anything about Borneo’s wildlife, you might pause here and think: “Hey, what? Borneo doesn’t have tapirs.” And that’s true. Today it doesn’t, but recent archaeological evidence proves that Malayan tapirs (Tapirus indicus) did exist in Borneo thousands of years ago — and may have even survived into the modern era.
Given this, some are calling on officials in Borneo to do something really wild: bring back the Malayan tapir.
The once and future tapir
In 2009, Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, the earl of Cranbrook and a well-known naturalist, and Philip J. Piper, an archaeologist with the Australian National University, published a paper on the discovery of tapir bones in four cave sites in the Malaysian Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak. Add to this the evidence that early humans painted a tapir in Indonesian Borneo, and it’s possible the species was at one time widespread across the island, albeit a rare, retiring denizen.
“Tapirs were present from the Late Pleistocene through Early Holocene to a few thousand years ago,” says Gathorne-Hardy, also known as Lord Cranbrook.
There’s also intriguing evidence that the tapir survived into the early 20th century, he adds.
In 1826, Pierre Médard-Diard, a French naturalist who explored Borneo, claimed to have killed a tapir in what is today Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province. Others in the 19th century reported sightings or reports of sightings from indigenous groups. During this period, numerous naturalists listed the tapir as among the animals native to Borneo.
Heading into the 20th century, however, the lack of a body began to cast doubt on the presence of tapirs on the world’s third-largest island, even as reported sightings of the animal continued into the 1930s; the tapir even featured on a Borneo stamp from 1909 to 1949. While there’s plenty of skepticism about such sightings, let’s not forget that the Malayan tapir is one of the most distinctive-looking mammals on the planet, with its large size, floppy trunk-like nose, and stark white-and-black markings.
So it’s certainly possible that the tapir managed to hang on in tiny, disconnected populations into the 20th century, much like the Sumatran rhino, before vanishing altogether. (Today, the Sumatran rhino is extinct across nearly all of Borneo, though a few individuals may survive in Kalimantan; a female, perhaps the last wild rhino of Borneo, was recently caught in East Kalimantan.) After all, extinction is often a slow, uneven process.
So we know the tapir was in Borneo and survived there at the very least until 1,500 years ago, as evidenced by a tapir molar buried with a human. But what do we do with this information? Either nothing — or something wild.
But before we can think about reintroducing the tapir to Borneo, it’s important to understand why it might have gone extinct. All the tapir bones found in caves were brought there by humans (tapirs didn’t go to caves to die naturally), implying the species was widely hunted.
“I am sure that tapirs were hunted, serving as the final straw for a dwindling population of animals already stressed by ecological factors,” says Gathorne-Hardy.
During the past 10,000 years, tapirs also lost prime habitat in Borneo. According to John Payne, head of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), tapirs require pioneer woody plants for survival. But in recent millennia the vegetation in Borneo shifted increasingly to low-light, low-nutrient rainforest, which supports fewer tapir-friendly plants.
“Woody plants in the understory of closed-canopy rainforest are too sparse and too full of toxic ‘secondary’ compounds,” Payne says, adding that “tapirs cannot survive on those alone.”
Payne says he believes hunting played a role as well, of course, but adds he wants to combat the “rather simple-minded view” that large mammals went extinct recently due to a single cause, be it hunting, habitat loss or climate change.
Yet even though the Borneo of a thousand years ago may have supported only a few pockets of prime habitat for tapirs, that doesn’t mean the species can’t make an island comeback today.
Back to Borneo
The earl of Cranbrook and Piper first suggested that officials consider reintroducing the tapir in Borneo in a paper in 2007. The idea was then taken up by the Malaysian Nature Society.
In 2017, news reports hinted at high-level talks, perhaps even an agreement, on bringing tapirs back to the Malaysian state of Sabah. However, government officials quickly poured cold water on that notion.
But is there any habitat left for tapirs in Borneo? Payne says yes, due to decades of massive logging operations. From the 1960s to 1990, the forests of what are today Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Ulu Segama Malua Forest Reserve were heavily logged, unintentionally creating more open canopies and the kind of food sources tapirs require. Tabin already has the infrastructure to house tapirs, left over from its Sumatran rhino captive-breeding program.
When I asked the earl of Cranbrook if there were potential drawbacks in bringing the tapir back to Borneo, he responded: “None springs to mind.”
This doesn’t mean the idea is without controversy. Government officials in both Sabah and mainland Malaysia were unwilling to comment to me about it. A number of tapir researchers also didn’t return repeated requests for comment. This wasn’t for lack of trying; I was really keen to hear the opposing arguments.
Finally, days before this column was to be published, I heard from a tapir researcher willing to speak out.
‘100% against it’
Carl Traeholt is a scientist at the Research and Conservation Division of the Copenhagen Zoo and on the steering committee for the IUCN’s Tapir Specialist Group.
Traeholt says he’s “100% against it,” adding “there is absolutely no ecological and conservation justification for [reintroducing the tapir to Borneo].”
Traeholt says the Malayan tapir is “no-way close to extinction.” The IUCN currently classifies the species as Endangered with a global population of less than 2,500 animals.
“The tapir went extinct naturally in [Borneo] for a reason,” he notes. “No doubt that ‘early’ humans also had a role in this, but hunting for game has been equally present amongst indigenous peoples in West Malaysia and Sumatra, where there are still tapirs. It seems completely disingenuous to ‘reintroduce’ tapirs into Borneo again.”
Traeholt adds that the numbers game also makes reintroduction prohibitively expensive. According to Traeholt you’d need around 35-40 animals for a viable population, requiring reintroducing around 60-70 animals assuming some wouldn’t survive.
Zainal Zainuddin, a veterinarian with BORA who has worked for many years with both Malayan tapirs and Sumatran rhinos, says he thinks the idea of a “hard release” dissuaded many people. Under such a plan, tapirs would be brought over from mainland Malaysia, where they still live, and dumped directly into the Bornean forest.
Zainuddin says a better way to do this would be to use the mainland tapirs to start a captive-breeding population in Borneo. If successful, the young of the immigrant tapirs could then be released into protected areas in a much more controlled manner.
“It should not take too long,” he says.
But Traeholt is still worried that the cost of such a program would undercut conservation funding for more vital programs.
“The potential drawback is that a lot of money that will be poured into a conservation initiative that seems more driven by human ‘want a place in history desire’ rather than a genuine justified conservation need.”
There is considerable debate about how projects for charismatic animals may take away funds from lesser-known, but more vital, conservation programs. But, of course, the issue is complicated as in some cases donors who are funding so-called “sexy” projects may simply not give to conservation otherwise.
“Sabah was unable to protect their rhinos. Why would anyone believe that they will be more successful in protecting tapirs? Or willing to put multi-millions into this?” Traeholt adds.
Dreaming of tapirs
Gathorne-Hardy sees the situation differently though. He believes a reintroduction of the tapir could provide a new population for an animal increasingly stressed in mainland Asia and Sumatra. Gathorne-Hardy says there may be fewer than 1,000 in Malaysia now.
“Every year the Wildlife Department of Peninsular Malaysia has to rescue tapirs that have been driven out of their natural habitat by clearance of the forest, plantation schemes, etc.,” he says. “Several have been run down on the roads, presenting a serious hazard to animal and people.”
A Google News search for “tapir” and “Malaysia” yields a grisly list of tapir roadkill.
In addition to creating a new population, bringing tapirs back to Borneo could also “relieve the Peninsular Malaysian Wildlife Department of the recurrent, presumably increasing cost of keeping rescued tapirs in captivity for the remainder of their lives,” Gathorne-Hardy argues.
Tapirs rescued from forests or snares often end up in wildlife rescue centers, but it’s often a life sentence.
“There is nowhere these ‘rescued’ or injured tapirs can be translocated or released in Peninsular Malaysia,” Gathorne-Hardy says. “All available habitat has an existing population.”
The return of tapirs could also boost the profile of protected areas like Tabin and Ulu Segama Malua, and may even lead to new ecotourism opportunities.
In recent years, conservationists have been assailed with the idea that they need to do more than just count extinctions and raise alarms: they need to show optimism and innovation. They need to talk about progress that’s been made and prove to the world that we can protect ecosystems and biodiversity. They need to get people interested and excited. They need to make it cool to be a conservationist again.
And, for all the challenges and potential cost, bringing back tapirs to Borneo would be very cool, for lack of a better word.
Few places in the world need positive conservation stories more than Southeast Asia. With some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, an increasing prevalence of empty-forests syndrome, and a shocking amount of illegal wildlife trade, Southeast Asia could really use an exciting story to show what’s possible.
So why not the black-and-white, gangly snouted tapir?
It’s could have all the ingredients of a potentially great story (it would just need some good PR): a unique, beautiful animal goes extinct, but with the help of dedicated conservationists it makes a comeback. This would be a great PR opportunity for Sabah to show how it’s on the cutting edge of wildlife protection and rewilding — and could be a point of pride for the people of Sabah. It may be that a positive, big conservation news story could begat more conservation interest and efforts overall.
There are many reasons, eloquently outlined by Traeholt, not to waste time and effort on such a project. And the reasons to proceed are less tangible and more airy.
But I remember as a teenager when conservationists released wolves back into Yellowstone. There was no conservation reason to do so at the time: the species was far less endangered than the Malayan tapir. And the project was deeply controversial given this was an apex predator. But the US went ahead anyway.
It’s a conservation story that really struck my 15-year-old self and still clings to me today: a sign of what’s possible when we talk about restoring the things we have lost. And the project has been an undeniable success: we have learned things from bringing wolves back that we never would have known otherwise.
We already have the evidence that tapirs used to live in Borneo. We know that humans were a factor, though probably not the only one, in their extinction from the island. Conservationists know how to keep and breed tapirs in captivity — Peninsular Malaysia has a significant number of animals in captivity already — and the species could definitely use a new population.
So what’s stopping us?
Forty thousand years ago, humans painted the image of a tapir on a cave wall in Borneo. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to try and bring that drawing back to life.
CRANBROOK, E. o. and PIPER, P. J. (2013), Paleontology to policy: the Quaternary history of Southeast Asian tapirs (Tapiridae) in relation to large mammal species turnover, with a proposal for conservation of Malayan tapir by reintroduction to Borneo. Integrative Zoology, 8: 95-120. doi:10.1111/j.1749-4877.2012.00319.x
CRANBROOK, E. O. and PIPER, P. J. (2009), Borneo records of Malay tapir, Tapirus indicus Desmarest: a zooarchaeological and historical review. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 19: 491-507. doi:10.1002/oa.1015
Piper, P.J. and E.O. Cranbrook 2007. The potential of large protected plantation areas for the secure re-introduction of Borneo’s lost ‘megafauna’: a case for the Malay tapir Tapirus indicus. In R. Stuebing, J. Unggang, J. Ferner, J. Ferner, B. Giman and K.K. Ping, (eds) Proceedings of the Regional Conference of Biodiversity Conservation in Tropical Planted Forests in Southeast Asia, pp184-191. Kuching: Forest Department.
Louys, R.T. Corlett, G.J. Price, S. Hawkins, P.J. Piper. Rewilding the tropics, and other conservation translocation strategies in the tropical Asia-Pacific region. Ecol. Evol., 4 (2014), pp. 4380-4398