Tapirus indicus 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Perissodactyla Tapiridae

Scientific Name: Tapirus indicus Desmarest, 1819
Common Name(s):
English Malay Tapir, Asian Tapir, Asiatic Tapir, Indian Tapir, Malayan Tapir
French Tapir àcChabraque, Tapir à dos blanc, Tapir de l'Inde, Tapir Malais
Spanish Tapir de la India
Taxonomic Notes: Despite the wide distribution range and isolation (e.g. Sumatra) the Thai/Myanmar, the Malaysian/Southern Thailand and the Sumatran individuals cannot be genetically separated (Rovie-Ryan et al. 2008).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Endangered A2bcd+3bcd; C1 ver 3.1
Year Published: 2016
Date Assessed: 2014-11-17
Assessor(s): Traeholt, C., Novarino, W., bin Saaban, S., Shwe, N.M., Lynam, A., Zainuddin, Z., Simpson, B. & bin Mohd, S.
Reviewer(s): Desbiez, A.
Contributor(s): Holden, J., Kawanishi, K., Martyr, D. & van Strien, N.J.

This species is listed as Endangered due to a past and ongoing population decline estimated from loss of available habitat, fragmentation of remaining habitat and increasing loss of individuals due to hunting, road-kills and bi-catches by snare hunters. Population declines are estimated to have been greater than 50% in the past three generations (36 years) driven primarily by large scale conversion of tapir habitat to palm oil plantations and other human dominated land-use. The rate of reduction in population is inferred to be proportional to the reduction of the tropical rainforest area in southeast Asia over the same period. However the population decline is estimated to be even higher due to indirect threats (roads, hunting). Furthermore there are estimated to be less than 2,500 mature individuals remaining, with an estimated continuing decline of at least 20% in the next two generations (24 years).

Most remaining populations are isolated in existing protected areas and forest fragments, which are discontinuous and offer little ability for genetic exchange for these browsers. This situation is particularly relevant for the Thai/Myanmar populations and to a lesser extent for the Southern Thailand and Malaysia landscape.

This situation is expected to continue at a slightly diminishing rate in the future as non-protected areas, which are available as logging concessions, become less available. Because hunting seems to be increasing for tapir throughout the range - this could be cause for concern in the future as already reduced and isolated subpopulations would be at great risk for extirpation.

Threats due to habitat destruction and hunting in Myanmar/Thailand appear to be minimal, because most of the population occurs in well protected national parks and reserves. The main threat to the Thailand/Myanmar population is likely related to negative effects of inbreeding in small isolated populations. The situation is similar in Malaysia, although the population sustains a higher risk of habitat fragmentation and, subsequently, inbreeding risks as well as increased changes of mortal displacement. Despite having developed a National Tapir Action Plan (2013) the decline of the Sumatra population has not yet been arrested, and it remains under serious threat from habitat destruction and accidental capture in illegally set snares.

Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:

Tapirus indicus occurs in southern and central parts of Sumatra (Indonesia), and on the Asian mainland in Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand (along the western border and on the Peninsula south to the Malaysian border, and in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the north), and Myanmar (south of latitude 18°N). Its occurrence can be divided into three relatively distinct sub-populations:

  1. Thailand-Myanmar that includes all the trans-boundary forest complexes and protected areas in the western Thailand north to Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary.
  2. South Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia that includes the transboundary protected areas complex of Halabala (Thailand) and Royal Belum (Malaysia) and constitutes a relatively cohesive mega population, albeit fragmentation into smaller sub-populations occurs in the southern part of its distribution range in the state of Johor.
  3. Sumatra including southern and central parts. The Sumatran distribution range is becoming increasingly fragmented.

The Malay Tapir was also listed as occurring in southern Cambodia and possibly southern Viet Nam by Brooks et al. (1997). It was reported from Hongquan district, eastern Cochin China, Viet Nam, in 1944 (Harper 1945), and there was an authentic-sounding record from Lao PDR in 1902 (Duckworth et al. 1999). It is presumed to be extinct in all three countries. However, further investigation of these historical records and of other indications from Lao, Viet Nam, Cambodia, northern Thailand and even southern China have found none that has any compelling evidence in its support. The species' habitat distribution at the northern edge of its Thai range, where the climate develops a more marked dry season, and the tapir occupancy changes from altitudinal wide-ranging to being restricted to the most humid altitudes, strongly supports a climatic limitation (Lynam et al. 2012, Steinmetz et al. 2008), thereby casting further empirical doubt on the 20th century reports from Lao PDR, Viet Nam and Cambodia. Cranbrook and Piper (2009) reported that Malay Tapirs existed until very recently in Sabah (Borneo) and suggested reintroduction of the species into Sabah should be considered in the future (Cranbrook 2012).

Countries occurrence:
Indonesia (Sumatera); Malaysia; Myanmar; Thailand
Additional data:
Upper elevation limit (metres):2150
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]


The Malay Tapir occurs in three relatively distinct and, in a few cases, isolated populations - two occurring on mainland Southeast Asia (Thailand/Myanmar), Southern Thailand/Malaysia and the other the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The population on Sumatra continues to decline due to extensive loss of habitat, accidental and deliberate trapping for meat and removal of animals for zoos in Indonesia. To date, there are no reliable population estimates for Sumatra.
Sumatra, Indonesia
In Sumatra, Indonesia, over 50% of the remaining forest is outside Malay Tapir habitat. The concern that illegal logging and forest encroachment would result in the loss of all forest outside conservation areas by 2005 does not seem to hold up, and large tracts of tapir habitat still persists in Sumatra. Yet, Novarino maintains that habitat destruction has continued significantly in the 2008-2014 period in Sumatra, both inside and outside protected areas. Localized hunting in Sumatra also occurs as well as elsewhere in its distribution range, but there is no evidence of systematic activities targeting the species. Most off-take results from accidental snaring, road kills (Magintan et al. 2012) and retaliation killing by local villagers (Novarino pers. comm.). In the past, several Indonesian zoos, especially Pekanbaru, traded in live tapirs for sale to other Indonesian zoos or private collections, or for sale as meat in local markets. Fifty tapirs were reported passing through the Pekanbaru Zoo since 1993 with some of these animals likely to have originated from protected areas. While impossible to confirm, this practice appears to have been greatly reduced, possibly as a result of Indonesia’s economic prosperity and bigger awareness among local communities. In addition, the formation of organizations such as the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has resulted in a large portion of the palm oil industry committing to protecting and managing high conservation value areas, rather than to convert it all to agricultural land. This has reduced the speed of habitat conversion, and in some places even reversed it due to RSPO-principles that require members to rehabilitate HCV-areas that were destroyed post 2005. Whereas the threat status for the species has not changed notably in the 2008-2014 period there is far better understanding of what causes the population decline. There exists no accurate population estimate of tapirs in Sumatra, but it is anticipated to be below 400-500 adult individuals.

Thailand and Myanmar
In Thailand, 40% of the remaining forest is outside protected areas and only 5% of Myanmar’s land area is protected forest (Lynam pers. comm.). Lynam’s comments on tapir status and distribution in Thailand and Myanmar remain relevant in 2014. Thailand supports one of the most comprehensive systems of protected areas in Southeast Asia. Over 200 National Parks, Marine National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Non-hunting areas cover 17% of land area (Prayurasiddhi et al. 1999).  Almost all-remaining intact forest now lies within protected areas, with mostly degraded lands outside. Since most existing Malay Tapir habitat is already protected, the future for conservation of the species in Thailand is quite positive. In Thailand, Tapirus indicus is recorded from forest areas in the west and south of the country (Lekagul and McNeely 1988), including transboundary forest areas in border areas, and large isolated forest remnants. The transboundary forests represent the most extensive, contiguous habitats for large mammals left in the country (Prayurasiddhi et al. 1999). They include the Western Forest Complex (Thai-Myanmar border), which includes 12 protected areas, and covers over 18,730 km2 including both dry and wet forests, and the Kaeng Krachan/Chumpol complex which covers 4,373 km2, mostly wet evergreen forest on the Thai-Myanmar border. The Halabala Forest is an expanse of 1,850 km2 of tropical rainforest on the Thai-Malaysia border. All areas are contiguous with larger forest areas on opposite sides of the country border. Past surveys (Lynam 1999, Lynam 2000, WCS 2001, Kaewsirisuk 2001) confirmed that tapirs are present though uncommon in each of these transboundary forest areas.

While the Thai-Myanmar population apparently remains stable (Lynam pers. comm.) it is fragmented with many subpopulations often numbering less than 15 individuals which are not viable populations for the long term. Therefore, Thai populations are fragile with most subpopulations are unlikely to reach more than 50-100 individuals at the most. The smaller fragmented populations with only 10-15 individuals are left with no chance of linking up to other protected areas and suitable habitats. This is not genetically sustainable, but management intervention (e.g. moving individuals to supplement new genes) can suppress the risk of inbreeding. To date, no reliable population estimate exists for the Thailand/Myanmar population, although it is anticipated to be less than 250 adult individuals. Therefore, the long-term survival of Malay Tapirs in Thailand seems to be dependent primarily by proper meta-population management.

Myanmar’s protected areas make up 5% of land area (Shwe) and most tapir habitat lies outside these protected areas in part of the Thai isthmus. In Myanmar, Malay Tapirs are entirely restricted to rainforests in the Tenasserim Ranges along the Thai-Myanmar border (Yin 1993). The tenure of these lands on the Myanmar side of the border is disputed and due to civil unrest, has been inaccessible for wildlife survey until recently. However, a preliminary survey of the status and threats to Malay Tapirs were undertaken in Taninthayi nature reserve and tapirs were recorded regularly (Shwe and Lynam 2012). Furthermore, a rapid assessment for Malay Tapir in five townships of the Taninthayi range and vicinity was undertaken too (Shwe unpubl. data). The Taninthayi population forms part of the Thai transboundary population, hence it is not possible to separate the Thai and Myanmar populations into two distinct populations.

Malaysia and Southern Thailand
The tapir population in Malaysia and Southern Thailand is considered the largest and most resilient. To date, it is also the best studied. Despite a significant population “decline” in the previous assessment (from ~20,000 to less than 2,000) several recent studies using various methodologies concur that the population in Malaysia ranges from approximately 1,300-1,700 individuals (Clements et al. 2012, Rayan et al. 2012, Traeholt and Sanusi 2009). This confirms that the previous estimate of approx. 20,000 individuals was a technical overestimate as there has likely never been that many in the past either. Monitoring of the population by the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks reiterates that the population appears to be stable.

In Malaysia, tapirs are found in virtually all types of forest: primary, logged, disturbed and small pockets. Sometimes it even ventures into plantations and urban areas although this seems to be caused by basic wandering or possibly displaced by rival individuals. Whereas habitat loss to agricultural development is still ongoing, illegal logging and disturbance of primary rainforest does not seem to cause any significant problems to tapirs, because they seem to prefer more open areas with more browse available. The rate of habitat loss has decreased and the current forest coverage (45%) is likely to remain stable for the near future. To date, there is no evidence of targeted hunting activities. First of all, the number of displaced animals (displaced animals are animals that come out of forested areas and into villages, plantations, roads and most often end up dead or severely injured)  from 2006-2010 reached 142 individuals (average of >3 deaths per year) with most being returned to the wild, and 17 died (Magintan et al. 2012). The trend is increasing with 54 recorded displacements with 19 mortalities in the 2011-2013 period (an average of >6 deaths per year). The cause of the increasing “displacements” remains poorly understood. Second, the southern part of the distribution range is effectively isolated and despite the Federal Governments intentions to create a “Central Forest Spine” that connects the main conservation landscapes in the country, all indications suggest that forest complexes in the southern state of Johor are becoming increasingly isolated with diminishing chances of ever forming a part of the Central Forest Spine. In the southern states of Malaysia (Johor, Nengri Sembilan and Southern part of Selangor) there are an increasing number of small forest fragments with only 3-5 individuals - they are functionally extinct. Finally, systematic hunting activities can decimate the population in a very short time, and with the supply of rhino horns running dry, there is a very real risk that hunters will begin targeting Malay tapirs and sold as “placebo rhino”.

Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Number of mature individuals:2499Continuing decline of mature individuals:Yes
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:

T. indicus is restricted to tropical moist forest areas and occurs in both primary and secondary forest and wetland areas. The more seasonal climate in northern Myanmar, northern (= most of non-peninsula) Thailand, Lao PDR, Viet Nam and Cambodia and the harsher dry season of the forest (even in evergreen areas, excepting the eastern flanks and adjacent Vietnamese lowlands of the Annamite chain) there is likely to be the main reason this species is not found there. The Malay Tapir is also predominantly found in the lowlands and the lower montane zone in some parts of the range, although it remains common to the highest peaks in its Thai range (Steinmetz et al. 2008). It is also recorded frequently above 1,600 m in Taman Negara National Park and Krau Wildlife Reserve, Malaysia, as well as at 2,000 m in Kerinci Sebelat National Park, Sumatra (Holden et al. 2003).

Malay Tapirs are solitary animals that are usually nocturnal (Traeholt and Sanusi 2009, Traeholt unpubl. data). It is a browser that feeds on more than 380 different species, often breaking 8-10 m tall trees to access the leaves (Simpson et al. 2014). They are not considered good seed disperser because they tend to chew all seeds and browse consumed (Campos-Arceiz et al. 2012, Zainuddin et al. 2000). It gives birth to one calf after 11-13 months gestation period, with the calf remaining with the female for up to two years. The World’s first and only twin-birth record of a Malay tapir took place in Sg Dusun Tapir Conservation Centre, Malaysia, in 2009 (DWNP unpubl. data), however twin birth has never been recorded in the wild. The time between the births of the calves was 12.5 days, which suggests that Malay tapir may have the ability for delayed pregnancy.

Systems:Terrestrial; Freshwater
Generation Length (years):12

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: Tapir meat is occasionally eaten and sold in local markets. It is not a popular food. Live animals are caught for local zoos. Sport hunting for tapir is illegal but does occur.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s):

Tapirus indicus is threatened throughout most of its range. The primary threats to the species are large scale deforestation and increasingly, hunting. Tapir population have declined by well over 50% in Thailand and Malaysia, whereas it is suspected to be slightly less than 50% in Sumatra. The main reason for declines in the past is habitat conversion, with large tracts land being converted into palm oil plantations. However, increasingly as other large 'prey" species decline in the area hunters are beginning to look towards tapir as a food source.

Destruction of habitat is the main threat to the species throughout its entire range. Whereas recent research suggests that tapirs are not necessarily affected negatively by illegal logging activities (Clements et al. 2012, Traeholt unpubl. data) forest conservation to monocrop plantations such as palm oil has devastating effects on tapirs. Magintan et al. (2012) recorded a strong correlation between the increases in road-kills and plantation development. In Thailand, most remaining intact forest now lies within protected areas, with mostly degraded lands outside. Myanmar's protected areas make up approx. 5% of land area (Shwe) and most tapir habitat lies outside these protected areas. Large-scale habitat destruction has continued in Sumatra, and most remaining habitat in central Sumatra is outside protected areas (Novarino). The population decline in Sumatra is believed to be caused primarily because of the onslaught on suitable habitat. However, the rate of decline seems to diminish during the 2010-2014 period compared to the 2004-2009 period. It is likely correlated with the increasing Global demand for “sustainably” produced palm oil, as well as a US$ 1 Billion REDD-grant provided by  Norway to Indonesia.

Tapirus indicus are shy animals and appear to be highly sensitive to forest fragmentation. In Halabala Wildlife Sanctuary on the Thai-Malaysia border, Kaewsirisuk (2001) found that the species does not venture within a few hundred meters of forest-plantation edges. At Khao Sok National Park, tapirs are interior forest species that avoid forest edges (Lynam 1996). Kawanishi (2002), however, found in Taman Negara, the largest national park in Malaysia, that although the human traffic level was heavier in area closer to the park boundary, tapirs showed no edge effects. While forest loss continues in Thailand, forests in protected areas remain relatively stable in size and composition to other countries because of a ban on commercial logging that has been in place since 1989. For this reason, while tapirs may indeed be threatened in general by forest loss, populations in Thailand and Malaysia are probably more stable.

In Malaysia the current forestry trend seems to be stabilized at approx. 43% remaining forest cover (57% lost), of which at least half can be considered tapir habitat. In Thailand, 40% of the remaining forest is outside protected areas and only 5% of Myanmar's land area is protected forest (Lynam pers. comm.).

The species has uncertain status and future in Myanmar due to security issues and forest clearance for rubber and oil palm plantations. However, two new protected areas have been designated in the Tenasserims: Taninthayi National Park and Lenya River Wildlife Sanctuary. If these areas can be protected, they will preserve valuable tapir habitat in the future.

Malay Tapirs are generally not hunted for subsistence or commercial trade in Thailand or Myanmar, since their flesh is considered distasteful. Some hill tribes believe that killing a tapir brings bad luck. In Malaysia deliberate hunting of Malay Tapir for consumption is also rare, because consuming the species is considered “forbidden” by the national Islamic authority. However, most illegal poachers apprehended in Malaysia are from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand (DWNP unpub. report), and it remains unknown to what extent that they hunt tapirs for consumption and/or other reasons. Previous reported practices in Sumatra of live tapirs being traded through several Indonesian zoos, some destined for private collections or for sale as meat in local markets, seems to have been halted with no new known since 2008 (Novarino pers. comm).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions:

The species is legally protected in all range states and the habitat of large parts of the range is protected, including several National Parks in Thailand, Myanmar, Peninsula Malaysia and Sumatra. The impact of habitat reduction/destruction on the tapir is not fully understood and needs further investigation. It is listed on CITES Appendix I.

Indonesia has already developed a National Tapir Conservation Action Plan (2013), but it is yet to be effectively implemented across its local range.

By November 2014, Malaysia began the process of developing a National Tapir Conservation Action Plan. It is anticipated that the final document will be completed by mid-2015, after which it will be ratified by the Malaysian Government.

Thailand does not have any national action or conservation plan for Malay Tapirs (Lynam).

Citation: Traeholt, C., Novarino, W., bin Saaban, S., Shwe, N.M., Lynam, A., Zainuddin, Z., Simpson, B. & bin Mohd, S. 2016. Tapirus indicus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T21472A45173636. . Downloaded on 20 September 2018.
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