- The past few years there has been a dedicated lobbying/promotional campaign among local amateur naturalists, professional conservationists, and international researchers to bring back Malay tapirs, Tapirus indicus, to Borneo.
- A recent article in Mongabay is yet another push towards this intended goal. It is well-written and a welcome contribution to this important discussion. Unfortunately, it misses a few important points.
- The introduction of tapirs to Borneo is not needed at this point in time and — more importantly — it serves no real or perceived conservation needs at present or in the near future.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
The past few years there has been a dedicated lobbying/promotional campaign among local amateur naturalists, professional conservationists, and international researchers to bring back Malay tapirs, Tapirus indicus, to Borneo. A recent article in Mongabay is yet another push towards this intended goal. It is well-written and a welcome contribution to this important discussion. Unfortunately, it misses a few important points.
Since I am mentioned as “Finally… a tapir researcher willing to speak out” and quoted in the piece, I feel it is important to bring context to my statements and opinions, lest they stand alone, as if I am opposed to bringing the tapir back to Borneo just for the sake of being in the opposition. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have worked with this species for the past 20 years and have every intention of doing what I can to help ensure that the species doesn’t end up only appearing in history books, along with a range of other species. I am also aware that many of my colleagues that oppose this action share similar concerns as I do. Therefore, here are my comments to this endeavor.
The idea of introducing tapirs into Borneo — lacking the hard evidence
The tapir-to-Borneo idea is built upon few and questionable assumptions that tapirs had existed on Borneo until the 20th Century. To date, it has been repeated to the extent that it has almost become “facts.” Yet, there is no hard evidence to support this.
In a 2009 study, Cranbrook and Piper stated that the most recent carbon dating puts a tapir canine “close to 4226+/- 33,” with a more recent molar “probably no more than 1500 years old.” Therefore, tested evidence puts Borneo extinction at 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. The authors also describe “anecdotal records” (Cranbrook and Piper, 2009, 2013; Maxwell, 1908) in the 20th Century; however, with 30 to 50 years between such “sightings,” basic population statistics suggest that the presence of tapirs in this period of time is highly unlikely. If the population was indeed at the edge of extinction in 1908 (Maxwell, 1908), with no records before this and 4,000 to 5,000 years prior, there is little support for the suggestion that a single individual survived until the 1970s or its off-spring did so.
From my own personal experience with the Penan in Sarawak and local people in Sabah, none of them knows what a tapir is and they don’t recognize the animal when presented with tapir photographs. This is consistent with the findings that tapirs did not play any significant role in the regional human diet in the past. Piper and Rabett (2009) found only 19 pieces of a total 10,683 pieces in Niah Caves to be tapirs, and Storm found only 0.41 percent tapir fragments in Kedung Brubus (Storm, 2001). The latter is particularly interesting because — by comparison — rhinos constituted 6.8 percent, suggesting rhinos were either more abundant or more sought after for food. Had tapirs indeed constituted part of a main diet of indigenous people until recently, one would expect their present-day relatives to be aware of it. Following this, there should have been far more fragments of tapirs found in the caves. As Cranbrook and Piper correctly argued in 2009, “the relative frequency of skeletal remains cannot be taken as a direct reﬂection of the comparative abundance of tapirs around Niah in the past.” The orang aslis of West Malaysia have no likings for tapir meat, because “it smells,” and cave-excavation in 5,000 years’ time would likely show very few tapirs, too.
Tapirs are by no means abundant in their current distribution range, and dedicated hunting across the species’ entire range can easily bring them to the edge of extinction. While hunting for tapirs certainly took place, evidence does not suggest it to be the main driver of extinction.
The conservation justification — or lack of it?
The promoters of introducing tapirs to Borneo often refer to the case of the Javan and Sumatran rhino. Unfortunately, this is like comparing oranges with apples. The following is important information to consider:
• The global wild tapir population appears stable around 2,000-2,500 – Sumatran rhinos numbered less than 50.
• The wild populations reproduce well naturally — rhinos don’t. At best, reproduction is too slow to sustain its own population stability — even without hunting pressure.
• Tapirs are easy to breed in captivity — Sumatran rhino is extremely difficult.
• There are more than 150 tapirs in international breeding programs across the world — rhinos had none (except for one valiant attempt in the late 1990s).
• We know that a genetically sustainable breeding population should include a minimum of 50 to 60 individuals (primarily females) — we had no such knowledge for rhinos.
• There is no hunting pressure on tapirs for any medicinal reasons — rhinos are a precious target for their horns.
Considering the above information, there is no urgency to justify such a drastic and expensive conservation intervention.
It is suggested that secondary disturbed forest with an abundance of primary growth will constitute good tapir habitat. Our 20 years of ecological research on wild tapirs in West Malaysia corroborates this. In addition, there are early signs of an increasing tapir population, exactly because of the new and “better” habitat arising from logging activities across its range in West Malaysia. However, these forest areas are likely going to regenerate, thereby reducing its suitability again. In comparison, Tabin may indeed provide suitable habitat at this point in time, but it will not continue to be secondary disturbed forest and suitable forever. Releasing tapirs into this area will necessitate an uphill and costly challenge to prevent the area from regenerating, and tapirs will be dependent on perennial human intervention to suppress habitat regrowth.
While I am not against such management and managed populations, I rate this endeavor very low priority, because of: a) no urgent conservation need; b) limited contribution to tapir conservation; c) limited chance that the species will ever thrive without continued habitat intervention; and d) monumental cost. There exists a very good example of this dilemma in Ujong Kulong, where practitioners — after decades of no intervention — realized that the existing habitat is/was not ideal for Javan rhinos and has begun to clear out overgrowth of, especially, arenga palm (Arenga obtusifolia). To ensure tapir conservation additionality, activities should probably be undertaken outside the current distribution range, where volcanic activities in Indonesia and massive ash fall will have no impact on the species. While massive eruptions can have devastating effects on most ungulates, it is difficult to justify mitigation against such unpredictable events.
The author of Mongabay’s article, Jeremy Hance, draws comparison to the reintroduction of wolves (Canis lupus) into Yellowstone National Park, USA. Unfortunately, this is akin to comparing oranges to apples yet again. Wolves were hunted to extinction in the 1970s and within a decade the elk (Cervus canadensis) population began to increase to the extent that the entire ecosystem suffered detrimental impact. The reintroduction of an apex predator took place merely two decades after its human induced extinction, not 4,000 to 5,000 years of natural extinction.
The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone is a good example of an intervention that made conservation sense and how it contributed to maintaining the trophic layers of the respective ecosystem. A recent publication measuring a host of ecological parameters reveal clearly that the reintroduction of wolves was the right decision (Boyce, 2018). Despite the fact that wolves were only recently hunted to extinction, it took 20 years of dedicated research into prey base, potential impact on the food chain, and local community response before decisions were made to reintroduce the species and how to do it. There has been no such dedicated studies to prepare for tapirs introduction into Borneo, although some results from rhino studies may be used as a proxy.
The economics of the idea
For clarification, I have no objections to the idea of introducing tapirs in Borneo itself. We need creative approaches in the conservation sector, and we also need the guts to test new ideas, challenge established approaches, and push boundaries. In today’s world, we also need to be brave and make decisions that are the right ones, even if they are difficult and go against the existing political and economic agenda. The idea in itself is not wrong — but that is not necessarily justification for action, either.
In this time and age, where biodiversity conservation receives infinitely little financial support, it is imperative to make sure that the conservation sector is able to prioritize and intervene where it is most needed. The introduction of tapirs to Borneo is not needed at this point in time and — more importantly — it serves no real or perceived conservation needs at present or in the near future.
Funding will not necessarily be cannibalized from ongoing tapir-projects, just because a “tapir to Borneo” project is setup. What I have suggested is that there is a real risk that a high-profile, media-friendly initiative will take away focus on real conservation challenges. This includes the dedication from local authorities that — suddenly — need to deal with yet another (unnecessary?) task. Inevitably, there WILL be collateral effects that will likely impede tapir conservation in Peninsular Malaysia.
Why not tiger or serow? They were also part of pre-historic Borneo fauna and these two species are in more conservation need. Of course, we humans sent a man to the moon and introducing tapirs to Borneo can be accomplished, too. But, is it really a conservation priority?
• Boyce, M.S. (2018). Wolves for Yellowstone: dynamics in time and space. Journal of Mammalogy, xx(x):1–11. doi:10.1093/jmammal/gyy115
• 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
• Maxwell WG. (1908). Some early accounts of the Malay Tapir. Journal of the Straits Branch Royal Asiatic Society 52: 98–104.
• Piper P.J. and Rabett R.J. (2009). Hunting in a tropical rainforest: evidence from the terminal Pleistocene at Lobang Hangus, Niah caves, Sarawak. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 19, 551–65. doi:10.1002/oa.1046
• Storm P. (2001). The evolution of humans in Australasia from an environmental perspective. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 171: 363–383. doi:10.1016/S0031-0182(01)00254-1
Carl Traeholt (PhD) is SE Asia Programme Director for the Copenhagen Zoo, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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