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Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless credited to others.
Copyright ゥ Ecology Asia 2024







Asian Tapir

Fig 1

Fig 2

Family : Tapiridae
Species : Tapirus indicus

Shoulder height : 90 to 105 cm
Head-body length : 2.0 to 2.4 metres
Weight : typically up to 350 kg

This page is dedicated to the late Ms. Ong Kiem Sian, a pioneer wildlife photographer from Singapore who once encountered an Asian Tapir in broad daylight (Fig. 3).

The Asian Tapir, or Malayan Tapir, is the only member of the tapir family in Southeast Asia, and is the largest of its kind. All other species of tapir occur in Central and South America.

This mainly solitary species inhabits undisturbed, moist, lowland rainforest. Where such habitat has been fragmented by roads or plantations, it may sometimes be observed moving from one forest patch to another, particularly at night. In some locations the species is also recorded in  montane habitat up to 2000 metres.

This is a large animal, typically weighing up to 350 kg, though some specimens may be even larger. Females tend to be larger than males. It is herbivorous, feeding on forest floor vegetation, including fallen fruit, and is often active along forest streams where patches of sunlight allow a greater profusion of vegetation to grow and there is an ample supply of water. Typically it is nocturnal, but it may remain active into the early morning.

It has an elongated nose, a bulky body and a short tail. It has small eyes, and its eyesight is poor and it thus relies mainly on its sense of hearing and smell to navigate the forest. Its feet are large, with four toes on the front feet, and three toes on the hind feet.

Its distinctive patterning is quite unique, comprising a black head, neck, shoulders, legs and hind quarters, which sharply contrast with the middle part of the body which is white. This colour scheme helps to break up the animal's outline. Conversely, infants are brownish, with lighter stripes and spots which also helps to camouflage the animal in sun-dappled forest. It is not clear to what extent tapir are predated upon by Tiger and Leopard.

The Asian Tapir, which is considered to be endangered, occurs in southern Myanmar,  southern Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra.

At the extreme tip of the malay peninsula the species has a tenuous foothold in Singapore. In 1986 a dead tapir was found in a granite quarry on the island of Pulau Ubin, off the north-east of Singapore. In 2016 a tapir was photographed next to the boundary fence of Changi Airport, on the main island of Singapore: the animal probably swam across from Johor, Peninsular Malaysia, a distance of around one kilometre.

Figs 1 and 2 : Adults traversing a shallow stream through freshwater swamp forest.

Fig 3 : Asian Tapir traversing an area of logged forest south of Jemaluang, Johor, Peninsular Malaysia. Image taken by the late Ong Kiem Sian in July 1997.

Fig 4 : Typical lowland, primary forest, which is the preferred habitat of the Asian Tapir.

Fig 5 : Footprint, measuring 15 cm  across, in loosely compacted sand - this is the front foot, which bears four toes.

Fig 6 : A road sign adjacent to an oil palm plantation  depicts a tapir and reads "Caution - wildlife crossing point".  Tapirs cannot survive in areas like this, but are sometimes forced to transit oil palm plantations where the original forest habitat is fragmented.

References : M3, M5

McCann, G. E. (2018). Malayan Tapir Tapirus indicus in Hadabuan Hills, North Sumatra Province, Indonesia. Southeast Asia Vertebrate Records. 2018 : 20-21. [pdf]

Links :

Tapir Specialist Group
Malayan Tapir Conservation Project


Fig 3

ゥ  Ong Kiem Sian (Nature Society, Singapore)

Fig 4

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Fig 6