Asian tapir (Tapirus indicus)
|Also known as:||Indian tapir, Malay tapir, Malayan tapir|
|French:||Tapir À Chabraque, Tapir À Dos Blanc, Tapir De L'Inde, Tapir Malais|
|Spanish:||Tapir De La India|
|Size||Length: 1.8 – 2.5 m (2)|
Shoulder height: 0.9 – 1.1 m (2)
|Weight||250 – 540 kg (2)|
Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).
Its unmistakable two-tone pattern distinguishes the Asian tapir, the only Old World tapir, from the other three tapir species of Central and South America (4). The largest of the tapirs, adults possess a stocky black body with a prominent white ‘saddle’ over the back, which extends down the sides, around the belly and over the rump (4) (5) (6). Although seemingly conspicuous, this ‘disruptive colouration’ (7) helps break up the body outline in shady and moonlit forests (4) (8). In contrast to adults, infants are born with a reddish-brown coat patterned with white stripes and spots, developing the adult colouration after four to seven months (8). Like other tapirs, the nose and upper lip are extended to form a prominent prehensile proboscis, which is used to grab leaves (8) (9).
Fragmented populations survive throughout the historical range of the Asian tapir in Southeast Asia (10), from southern Myanmar, south-west Thailand, Malaysia, and the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra (1). This species was also found in southern parts of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos (11), but these populations are possibly extinct, with no recent confirmed sightings (6).
The Asian tapir occupies a variety of forest habitats, including lowland and hill forest, montane cloud forest, alpine scrub and grassy openings, often near a permanent supply of water (10) (11) (12). Both primary and secondary degraded forests are occupied (12) (13).
The Asian tapir is primarily, although not exclusively, nocturnal. Habitually using the same paths, which males mark with urine, this tapir travels long distances during the night in search of food (10) (6). The diet consists of fruits from a variety of trees and shrubs in substantial amounts, as well as aquatic plants, leaves, buds and soft twigs (10) (6). Blurred vision means that tapirs rely on their acute sense of hearing and smell for communication, to locate food and detect predators (4) (7).
This tapir is mostly solitary, but occasionally seen in pairs (10) (6). The average range of the male is 13 square km which overlaps the ranges of several females (4). Mating is characterized by a noisy courtship display (5). Females breed every other year and, after a gestation period of 13 months, give birth to a single calf, which remains with its mother for six to eight months (10). Sexual maturity is reached at around three years, and Asian tapirs have been known to live for up to 30 years (5).
Widely abundant in Southern Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in the early 1930s, Asian tapir populations have since rapidly declined and now survive only as isolated populations in remote or protected areas. Habitat destruction poses the predominant threat, as a result of land being cleared for human settlement and agriculture, and rivers being dammed and land flooded for hydroelectric development (11). In Sumatra, uncontrolled illegal logging still occurs. The tapir population is strongest in Malaysia, where deforestation has greatly declined (1).
The Asian tapir is hunted for food and sport (5). Although the flesh of tapirs was previously haram (forbidden) in Muslim areas due to the species’ resemblance to pigs (9), very recent reports indicate that Muslims no longer equate the two and thus hunt them for subsistence food (6). In Thailand and Myanmar the meat is considered distasteful and some tribes believe killing a tapir brings bad luck (1). However, a flourishing Asian zoo trade has put a tempting price on the tapir’s head, with a single animal fetching up to 6,000 US dollars (9). Tapirs also occasionally get caught in steel wire snares which are set for wild pigs (2). The low reproductive rate and fragmented distribution of this species mean that populations have a low rebound potential, and this makes it particularly vulnerable to hunting (14).
Protective game laws exist in Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia, with varying success (11). In Malaysia the Asian tapir has been given total protection since 1955, under the Wild Animals and Birds Ordinance, and law enforcement has generally been effective. The use of steel wire snares has been banned here, with stiff penalties if caught. However, ongoing monitoring of the illegal tapir trade across the range of this species is crucial (2). Asian tapirs can be found in a number of protected areas, including the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and the Khao Sok National Park in Thailand, 12 protected areas in the Western Forest Complex along the Thai-Myanmar border (1), and the Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra, which contains around 200 individuals (11). However, much of the suitable habitat that remains in Sumatra does not lie within protected areas and a large proportion of the tapir population occurs outside of reserves. Conservation efforts should not, therefore, be restricted to national parks, but should endeavour to involve the cooperation of local people across the species’ range (11).
For further information on the Asian tapir see:
IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group:
Momin Khan, M.K.B. (1997) Status and Action Plan of the Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus). In: Brooks, D.M., Bodmer, R.E. & Matola, S. (Eds) Tapirs - Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group, Cambridge. Available at:
IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group - Malay Tapir Conservation Workshop of Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA):
EDGE of Existence:
Authenticated (09/02/2006) by Leo Salas, Editor of the Tapir Conservation Newsletter, IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group (TSG).
- Cloud forest: a tropical mountain forest, with a high incidence of cloud cover throughout the year.
- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Nocturnal: active at night.
- Prehensile: capable of grasping.
- Proboscis: a tubular protrusion from the anterior of an animal such as a flexible snout or trunk (e.g. the trunk of an elephant).
IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
Momin Khan, M.K.B. (1997) Status and Action Plan of the Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus). In: Brooks, D.M., Bodmer, R.E. and Matola, S. (Eds) Tapirs - Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group, Cambridge. Available at:
CITES (November, 2005)
- Burnie, D. (2001) Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World’s Wildlife. Dorling Kindersley, London.
Animal Diversity Web (November, 2005)
- Salas, L. (2006) Pers. comm.
- Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Ultimate Ungulate (November, 2005)
Morris, D. (2005) Face to face with big nose. BBC Wildlife Magazine, 23(3): 34 - 39. Available at:
Animal Info – Information on Endangered Mammals (November, 2005)
UNEP-WCMC Species Sheet (November, 2005)
- Holden, J., Yanuar, A. and Martyr, D.J. (2003) The Asian Tapir in Kerinci Seblat National Park, Sumatra: evidence collected through photo-trapping. Oryx, 37(1): 34 - 40.
- Novarino, W., Kamilah, S.N., Nugroho, A., Janra, M.N., Silmi, M. and Syafri, M. (2005) Habitat Use and Density of the Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus) in the Taratak Forest Reserve, Sumatra, Indonesia. Tapir Conservation: The Newsletter of the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group, 14(18): 28 - 30.
The Tapir Specialist Group (February, 2008)