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Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan

Published 1997

Status and Action Plan of the Malayan Tapir
(Tapirus indicus)

Mohd Khan bin Momin Khan

No. 10 Jalan Bomoh, Off Jalan Keramat Hujong, 54200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


A description of the Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) is provided along with its distribution and habitat association. The density of the animal, its movements, and feeding habits are also provided. More than 115 species of plants eaten by the tapir are identified in Malaysia. Of these, 27 species are preferred, whereas 39 species are preferred in Thailand. Threats include forest conversion for agriculture, poaching, and illegal trade. Action Plan recommendations include status surveys, recovery of populations at risk, capacity development, and monitoring of tapir trade.

Natural history


Early accounts of tapirs by explorers were doubted until one was captured alive in Sumatra (Van Gelder 1972). The species was described by Desmarest in 1819. In Malaysia tapirs are known by their nama daerah or local names, which include badak tampong, machan, cipan, tenuk, badak murai, and teronok. In Indonesia tapirs and rhinos are both referred to as badak (Ramsay in litt.). In Sumatra, tapirs are commonly referred to as tenuk or seladang, gindol, babi alu, kuda ayer, kuda rimbu, kuda arau, marba, cipan, and sipan (Van der Zon 1976, 1979). In Thailand, they are commonly known as P'somm-sett which means a mixture; folklore says that the creator of species made tapirs with all of the leftover animal parts (Sanborn and Watkins 1950).

The Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) can be identified quite easily by its color pattern (Fig. 3.1). The coloration is sharply demarcated by a white saddle starting from behind the front legs and going over the back to the tail. The two contrasting colors of tapirs form a disruptive coloration which blends the animal with its environment. According to Ripley (1964), the white mid-section of the nocturnal tapir does not suggest the form of the entire animal since the black of the head, shoulders, and legs remains obscure. With the disrupted body lines of the tapir, it is more difficult for predators to recognize it as a tapir. The skin on the back of the head and nape is nearly an inch thick, presumably for added protection from predator fangs (Sanborn and Watkins 1950) and gives protection to the neck when the tapir is moving through dense undergrowth (Lekagul and McNeely 1977).

Photo of Malayan tapir
Figure 3.1. Adult Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) at a salt lick near Taman Negara, Malaysia. [Photo: K. Fletcher.]

Head and body lengths range 1.8 to 2.5m, height ranges 0.9 to l.lm, and weights range 250 to 540kg (MacKinnon 1985, Khan 1971, Lekagul and McNeely 1977, Burton and Pearson 1987).


The ancestors of the present genus Tapirus existed in the northern hemisphere during the Miocene. Tapirs closely resembling the Malayan tapir were found in India and Myanmar (Burma) during the Pliocene. These animals were isolated to the tropical regions of America and southeast Asia during the Pleistocene ice ages.

The range of tapir has been reduced extensively in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Sumatra. Today populations are extremely fragmented, occurring in southern Viet Nam, southern Cambodia, parts of southern Myanmar (Burma), Tak Province in Thailand, and through the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra south of the Toba highlands (Gnampongsai in litt., Williams and Petrides 1980, Van Strien in litt.) . Figure 3.2 depicts a map of the distribution.

Distribution map, Malayan tapir
Figure 3.2. Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) distribution map. Although the present possible distribution is contiguously shaded, it should be noted that much of this area is highly fragmented.

Habitat association

Tapirs are found in all states of Peninsular Malaysia from the lowlands to the drier ridges (Williams and Petrides 1980). In Indonesia tapirs inhabit lowland areas during the dry season and move to mountain areas during the wet season (Van der Zon 1976). The species has been reported on Gunong Benom at 1720m by wildlife officers. In the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary of Thailand tapirs may range from 100 to 1500m in altitude, while in Sumatra tapirs may reach an altitude of 1500m, or possibly 2000m when crossing a ridge (Ngampongsai in litt., Santiapilli and Ramono 1989).

Tapirs have been observed in forest fringes as well as logged or otherwise disturbed forest, and sometimes may wander into rubber and oil palm plantations. Several animals were rescued after falling into village wells or were stuck in mud wallows. Some years ago two animals were reported in the jungles surrounding the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur (DWNP 1990). Department of Wildlife and National Park (DWNP) inventories show that tapirs are even found within 5km radius of the major cities like Seremban, Kuantan, and Temerloh (DWNP 1994, 1995). In Bengkulu tapirs are considered a problem species for stripping bark from rubber trees.

In Thailand, tapirs are associated with a variety of forest types: dry dipterocarp, mixed deciduous, dry evergreen, and hill evergreen (Ngampongsai in litt.). Tapirs move into evergreen forest during the dry season when food is scarce and forest fires are present. They return to the dry dipterocarp and mixed deciduous forest in the rainy season when sprouts of leaves and twigs emerge (Ngampongsai in litt.).

Williams and Petrides (1980) studied tapirs in the Taman Negara National Park of Peninsular Malaysia. The study site was within 8km south and west of the Park headquarters, in primary lowland rainforest. The habitat was dominated by large dipterocarps up to 46m in height forming a closed canopy. Many medium-level trees (up to 21m) were present, and the understory consisted of shrubs, small trees, and saplings. There was some herbaceous vegetation on the forest floor; a 1.25km2 area of dense herbaceous vegetation extended 1.6km along the Yong River on the eastern side of the research area, and a small airstrip was fringed with regenerating forest. The topography of the habitat varied from gentle undulation to steep hills (Williams and Petrides 1980).

In Indonesia, Van der Zon (1976) describes the habitat as humid, swampy, dense jungle with an understory of shrubby plants and grassy meadows bordering streams. In southern Sumatra, Blouch (1984) found undisturbed swamp areas and lowland forests on well-drained soil to harbor the highest densities of tapirs. He further stated that densities were lower in early-stage successional forest than in late-stage successional forest that was formerly logged over (Blouchs 1984). Similarly, in the Jambi Province of southern Sumatra, Santiapilli and Ramono (1989) found that undisturbed areas were preferred over disturbed areas; although signs of presence were abundant in the vicinity of rubber plantations in logged over forest.

Life history aspects

Captive females return to a cyclic estrous during lactation, but mounting is allowed after only 153 days (average) after giving birth (Read 1986). Mating was once observed in a captive pair on five consecutive occasions, averaging 29.4 days (range = 29 to 31) between copulations, suggesting inter-estrous intervals of about 30 days (Read 1986). The earliest known matings are 3 years for males, and average 2.8 (range = 2.3 to 3) years for females (Wilson and Wilson 1973). The earliest known conception is 36 months (Read 1986). The life span is about 30 years (MacKinnon 1985) . Adult females generally produce one calf, and rarely two, every two years (Anderson 1982, Lekagul and McNeely 1977). The birth interval in captivity averages 554 days (range = 496 to 602). Gestation periods range 390 to 407 days (Read 1986, Barongi 1986).

The estimated crude density of tapirs in southern Sumatra depending on habitat was 0.30 to 0.44 animals/km2 in the undisturbed swamp forests and lowland forests on well-drained soil (Blouch 1984). In Thailand, nine individuals were observed in an area approximately 256km2, equating approximately 0.035 animals/km2 (Sanborn and Watkins 1950).

In Malaysia, a male had a home range of 12.75km2 which overlapped the home ranges of several other individuals (Williams 1979). An area of 0.52km2 was occupied over a period of at least 27 days, during which time an association with a female and her young occurred. The average straight line distance traveled per day by a male was 0.32km (Williams 1979).


Tapirs are selective browsers, usually eating only the young leaves and growing twigs of relatively few shrub and tree species (Williams and Petrides 1980). Some herbaceous (Curculigo latifolia) and low-growing succulent (Homalomena spp. and Phyllagathis rotundifolia) plants are eaten. Although the young leaves of C. latifolia and P. rotundifolia even when plentiful are minimally consumed. The club moss, Selaginella willdenonii is also eaten. The sapling of a young Baccaurea parviflora was heavily browsed in addition to possible accidental ingestion of the vine Ventilago oblongifolia, since it was found in the Baccaurea.

Table 3.1. Preferred food plants* of the Malayan tapir in the research area, Taman Negara in 1976 (Williams and Petrides 1980).
Scientific Name

Lasianthus maingayi
L. griffithii
Urophyllum glabrum
Urophyllum sp.
Psychotria sp.
Prismatomeris malayana
Macaranga denticulata
M. hypoleuca
M. curtisii var. glabra
Aporosa praineana
A. stellifera
A. symplocoides
Baccaurea parviflora
B. pyriformis
Homalomena deltoidea
Amorphophallus sp.
Memecylon oligoneuron
Symplocos crassipes
Symplocos sp.
Gomphandra quadrifida var. ovalifolia
Ficus semicordata
Garcinia nigrolineata
Saurauia leprosa
Curculigo latifolia
Helicia attenuata
Local Name

kentul tampoi
mahang hijau
mahang puteh
mahang hijau
kemoiyang hijau
ubat kerah
asam kera
jering tupai
* Over 75% of available forage consumed was also browsed by elephants (Oliver pers. comm.).

Feeding is not concentrated in particular locations. Suitable leaves and fruits appear to be eaten as encountered. More than 115 species of plants are eaten. Over 75% (see Table 3.1) of the available forage was comprised of 27 species and these were considered to be the most highly preferred foods (Williams and Petrides 1980). Medway (1974) found selective browsing upon nine species of herbs, shrubs, and saplings in a human disturbed area. In Thailand 39 species of plants were preferred, comprising leaves (86.5%), fruit (8.1%), and leaf/twig matter (5.4%) (Ngampongsai in litt.).

  • Malayan tapir (continued)

    Brooks, Daniel M.; Bodmer, Richard E.; Matola, Sharon (compilers). 1997. Tapirs - Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. (English, Spanish, Portuguese.) IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. viii + 164 pp.
    Online version: http://www.tapirback.com/tapirgal/iucn-ssc/tsg/action97/cover.htm

    Copyright © 1997 International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

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