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.
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”.