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Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan

Published 1997

Status and Action Plan of the Lowland Tapir
(Tapirus terrestris)

Richard E. Bodmer1 and Daniel M. Brooks2


University of Florida; Tropical Conservation and Development Program;
315 Grinter Hall; Gainesville, Florida 3261 1, USA


Ecotropix; 1537 Marshall; Suite #1; Houston, Texas 77006, USA


Lowland tapir are threatened with local extinction in many areas in South America, because of overhunting and selective destruction of preferred tapir habitat. Throughout their range tapir are highly susceptible to overhunting, and populations show rapid decline when harvested. In many South American countries subsistence laws allow hunting of tapir, because the susceptibility of tapir to overhunting was not realized when the laws were initially legislated. Indeed, tapir should not be included on lists of subsistence species. Tapir are also threatened by the destruction of palm forests and other preferred tapir habitat, which are being cut down at alarming rates in some areas by development projects and local people. Palm fruits are important food items for tapir and destruction of this food resource will undoubtedly harm tapir populations. Interestingly, tapirs play an important role in maintaining palm forests and other habitats through seed dispersal. Rural people would incur some economic costs if tapir hunting is curbed. However, such costs will probably be outweighed by future economic benefits that tapirs provide in maintaining economically productive forests. Conservation actions are urgently required for lowland tapir and programs should be implemented promptly to ensure the survival of this important mammal.

Natural history


Although Linnaeus initially described this species in 1758 (Systemae Naturae, 10th Ed.), the genus Tapirus was not assigned until 1868 by Gray (Hershkovitz 1954).

Indigenous people refer to this species of tapir using several different names. Guarani call it tapii, Guarani in Paraguay call it mborebi, Tupi in Brazil call it tapir, Quechua in Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazonia call it huagra, and Gahibi and Macusimaipuri in Guiana call it manipuri (Hershkovitz 1954, Emmons and Feer 1990).

The common name among rural people varies from one country to the next. In Brazil and Ecuador the lowland tapir is called anta, in Colombia and Ecuador danta or gran bestia, in Ecuador marebis, in Guiana bushcow, in Peru and Argentina sacha vaca, and in Surinam boskoe or bosfroe. Common English names include lowland, South American, Brazilian, or common tapir (Hershkovitz 1954, Emmons and Feer 1990). Herein we refer to the species as lowland tapir (Fig. 5.1).

Figure 5.1. Adult lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris).
[Photo by J. U. Peters]

Adult lowland tapir measure approximately 2m long. Near Santa Marta, Colombia in the mountain forests, hunters reported individuals bearing a broad white mark over the shoulders, similar to Malayan tapir, which are probably simply piebald (Hershkovitz 1954). The saggital crest is most developed in this species (Hershkovitz 1954). The short, erect mane is prominent, and is thought to help escape predators which seize the dorsum of the neck (MacKinnon 1985).


The species ranges in the tropical zones of mainland South America from Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil and the Gran Chaco, north through Amazonian Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia; across the Guianas and Venezuela into Columbia, east of the Rio Atrato and is absent west of the Andes (Hershkovitz 1954, Emmons and Feer 1990) (Fig. 5.2). The total range area is estimated to be 11,838,500km2 (Arita et al. 1990). However, this is an overestimate as most of eastern and southern Brazil are highly fragmented from deforestation, particularly in the South Atlantic forest where small populations of tapirs are restricted to a few isolated regions (Olmos, Chiarello in litt.). Although a single specimen was recorded by Goldman in 1920 from Talamanca, Costa Rica, Hershkovitz (1954) doubts the validity of this specimen, as original locality data were lacking.

Lowland tapir, distribution map

Figure 5.2. Lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) distribution map. Although the present possible distribution is contiguously shaded, it should be noted that much of this area is highly fragmented.

Habitat association

As its name indicates, lowland tapir commonly inhabits lowland South American forests. The species has been recorded up to 2000m in Jujuy, Argentina (Olrog 1979) and 1500m in Sangay N.P., Ecuador (Downer in litt.). In southeastern Brazil, tapirs may occasionally be found at altitudes exceeding 1700m. Habitat association varies extensively. Throughout its range, the most important habitats for lowland tapir are moist, wet, or seasonally inundated areas (Table 5.1).

Table 5.1. Habitat associations of lowland tapir at different sites throughout its range.
Region Habitat % Occ. Reference
Tabaro River Valley, S Venezuela creeks
flooded and non-flooded plains
1° hab.
2° hab.
Salas in litt.
Rio Aguarico, NE Ecuador undisturbed tropical wet forest interdigitated
with Amazonian white-water tributaries
Vickers 1991
NE Amazonian Peru
white and black water, lowland flood-plain,
and forest/palm habitat
moist areas
wet areas
dry areas
Bodmer 1990

Bodmer 1991
N Roraima, Brazil Amazonian forest and palm savannah Fragoso in litt.
W Cerrado, Brazil mesic deciduous gallery forest and palm forest,
open and closed xeric Cerrado forest,
and open grasslands
Leeuwenberg in litt.
N Pantanal, Brazil gallery forest and radiating drainage lines
low-lying deciduous and secondary forests
Cerrado and beaches
1° hab.
2° hab.
3° hab.
Schaller 1983
São Paulo state, Brazil hilly country covered by dense Atlantic forest
w/many creeks and small rivers at valley bottoms;
mesophytic, semi-deciduous forest, including
second-growth and selectively-logged areas
Olmos in litt.
Espirito Santo, Brazil mesophytic, semi-deciduous forest Chiarello in litt.
Rio Pilcomayo, Paraguay stratified reverine Chaco forest Brooks 1991, 93
Central Chaco, Paraguay forest punctuated savannah, w/water <= 5km
away and thorn forest nearby
N Chaco, Paraguay seasonally inundated lagoo and savannah
and stratified subtropical xeric forest
Formosa, N-central Argentina field/savannah
lower forest
upper forest
secondary transitional forest
Mercolli and Yanosky 1991
PN El Rey, NW Argentina deciduous and evergreen montane forest,
secondary growth subtropical forest, riparian
forests and creeks, and hilltop grassland
Chalukian in litt.

Life history aspects

Captive females are polyestrous (Carter 1984). The gestation period is approximately 13 months (Wilson and Wilson 1973). Individuals are solitary except during the reproductive season (Acosta et al. in litt.).

Typically tapir activity is mostly nocturnal, though partly diurnal (Emmons and Feer 1990). In some regions such as El Rey National Park, Argentina tapirs are typically diurnal, perhaps due to lack of human disturbance (Chalukian in litt.). In the semi-xeric Chaco activity is negatively correlated with rainfall, suggesting increased traveling time to locate non-desiccated waterholes (Brooks 1993). Range use changes seasonally in this species (Fragoso in litt.). In the South Atlantic forest local people report seasonal migration to increased elevations during the winter (M. Galetti pers. comm.). Mutualistic symbiotic relationships take place between tapirs and birds such as anis (Crotophaga spp.) and black caracaras (Dapirius ater), where the birds glean ectoparasites such as ticks from the tapirs skin (Acosta et al. in litt., Peres 1996).


Salas (in litt.) found that tapirs in Venezuela were more selective when browsing plants in closed canopy (49%, N=198) versus tree-fall gaps (46%, N=193); the most common plants found in fecal samples were Amphirrox latifolia, Mabea piriri, and Heteropsis flexuosa. In the Peruvian Amazon the most common fruits found in stomach, cecal, and fecal samples were Mauritia flexuosa (76.3%), Jessenia sp. (23.7%), Scheelea sp. (13.2%), Sapotaceae (10.5%), and Aracaceae (10.5%) (Bodmer 1990). Undamaged fruits of the walnut (Juglans australis) were found in dung in north-western Argentina (Chalukian in litt.). Olmos (this book) provides a summary of species consumed by lowland tapirs, as well as modes of seed dispersal and predation.

Lowland 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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