Often misidentified, the tapir needs our attention if its existence is to be safeguarded, writes Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
“COME out, come out! It’s here,” the frantic knocking on my chalet door and the excited shouts coming from outside my window make me abandon all plans to unpack as I scramble to my feet and yank open the door to see what the commotion is about.
Outside, I spot a steady stream of resort guests walking briskly along the meandering footpath towards a patch of grass near the spacious dining hall. Grabbing my camera, I join the crowd, my curiosity piqued.
From their chatter, I discover that a lone Malayan Tapir has wandered out of his inner sanctum to the resort grounds for some sustenance. Scattered messily on the grass are slices of fruit, from juicy watermelon to golden papaya. Holding court is a handsome black and white tapir enjoying a grand ol’ feast, totally oblivious to the excited scrutiny of the human paparazzi.
It has been mere hours since I arrived at the rustically picturesque Mutiara Resort Taman Negara in Kuala Tahan Jerantut, Pahang, in part lured by the promise of tapir sighting and also to witness the unveiling of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and Mutiara Taman Negara Tapir Conservation Programme (TCP).
The programme, conceived by Mutiara Taman Negara and developed by MNS, aims to promote and undertake conservation and awareness activities to protect the natural landscapes that’s home to protected wildlife and in particular, the Malayan Tapir or Tapirus indicus.
The tapir has a dear place in the hearts and minds of MNS, concedes its president, Prof Dr Maketab Mohamed. It’s not only the organisation’s icon, but “... is also a symbol of what’s important for us to appreciate and protect,” says the jovial Maketab during his launch speech.
He adds: “With the TCP, MNS, with support from corporates such as our friends here in Mutiara Taman Negara and members of the public, will embark on awareness and strategic activities to highlight the plight of our forests and the wonderful tapirs that make it their home.”
It’s a natural partnership that Mutiara and MNS are embarking on, believes the affable Naithan Vaithi, Mutiara Taman Negara’s general manager. He says enthusiastically: “With Taman Negara celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and MNS welcoming its 75th year next year, we hope that the programme and the activities we have planned will not only bring attention to the tapir and their home but ecotourism will also feed into conservation. Taman Negara, with its 130 million-year legacy, is truly the best destination in the world to watch amazing wildlife.”
Taman Negara is the best place to observe amazing wildlife
With its stocky body and a prehensile proboscis formed by a thick upper lip and an extended nose, the Malayan tapir cuts an intriguing picture. It’s hardly your cute cuddly bear or panda (well, it’s also black and white), nor is it the type of creature that inspires googly-eyed fawning. But there’s something about this peculiar ungulate with its four toes on the forefeet and three on the hind feet, and the distinctive white “saddle” on the back of its dark body (a great form of camouflage against predators), that’s still very special.
This lone Malayan tapir is a regular on the grounds of Mutiara Resort Taman Negara
There are only four species of tapir inhabiting Central and South America and Southeast Asia. The Malayan tapir, or Cipan, the largest of the four tapir species, and native to Asia, is the only one that’s bi-coloured.
The rest, from Central and South America, are black. “We have the unique species here in the country, a symbol for all Asian tapirs. Asia only has one tapir species so we need to look after it,” says Maketab, scanning the faces of his captive audience, before sharing with us that the tapir is listed as “vulnerable” by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
While Malaysia is the main bastion for this species, it can also be found in Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia. The current population of tapirs in the country is between 2,000 and 2,500 and they can be found in concentrations in protected areas such as Taman Negara and wildlife reserves.
FATE OF THE TAPIR
The call to action is a call that needs to be heeded. Despite its protected status in the country which means that it’s illegal to hunt the animal, the Malayan tapir’s numbers continue to dwindle because of habitat loss. And that’s bad news. With loss of habitat, the challenge to revive the tapir population around the world becomes a lot tougher. Deforestation, flooding caused by the damming of rivers, and illegal trade all contribute towards the depleting numbers of this animal, which once made Southeast Asia’s tropical lowland rainforests its playground.
The unveiling of the Tapir Conservation program
“Cut here, cut there, build highways, how is the tapir supposed to survive?” laments Maketab, brows furrowing in frustration. “At least if we have viaducts, that’s not so bad because then not only the tapir but also other animals can be assured of safely crossing near areas with traffic as they move from one forest patch to another. “
Mutiara Resort Taman Negara is your gateway to the world of the tapir and the other wildlife
He adds: “One of the problems we have on the east-coast highway, for example, is the absence of viaducts so the animals end up having to cross the road like we do. Then they get run over because drivers fail to see them in time. Thankfully, there are wildlife viaducts already in place in some parts to mitigate the negative effects of forest fragmentation.”
According to MNS, tapirs, being large herbivores, are invariably the first species affected by human encroachment into their territory, and among the last to return to regrowth forest. They need substantial tracts of undisturbed land to maintain a genetically-diverse population. Preserving the animal’s natural habitat has never been more crucial.
Unfortunately not as glamorous as the other larger mammals such as tiger, or elephant, the tapir finds itself on the lower rung of the pecking order when it comes to conservation efforts. There have been limited efforts made by wildlife authorities and conservation agencies as they perceive the tapir to be less under threat than its larger mammal counterparts. However, according to Maketab, this forgotten mammal of Southeast Asia will become critically endangered if we continue to pay only partial heed to its plight.
The plight of the tapir, says MNS, is rather symbolic of the wider threat to their habitats specifically, and the world’s ecology in general. One can tell the general health of their ranges by the decline in the population. There’s no “returning” for the natural environment when the animal disappears. Suffice to say, when forests are decimated into small, isolated enclaves and human activities start to encroach into pristine forests, all native species are affected. But, as the largest — yet possibly the quietest — of animals in their ranges, tapirs disappear without a trace with all those countless other species which once roamed the earth but of which we have today forgotten about.
Go to www.mns.my for MNS news.
• Tapirs are mammals that are often confused with pigs, capybaras and giant ant-eaters. Actually, their closest living relatives are odd-toed ungulates, horses and rhinoceros.
• The Malayan tapir is frugivorous by nature making it an ecologically important seed dispersal agent. Malayan tapirs play an important role in shaping plant communities as they can ingest more fruit, eat larger seeds and disperse over longer distances than smaller bodied frugivores.
• The Malayan tapir spends a significant amount of time before copulating with its mate. Only one off-spring is produced every other year. The long recruitment and slow reproductive rates imply that Malayan tapirs are sensitive to habitat loss as they can’t adapt as quickly to human-caused changes in the environment making them even more vulnerable to extinction.
• The Malay Tapir Conservation Centre (MTCC) in Malaysia is an organisation dedicated to understanding tapir reproductive biology. In addition to keeping captive Malayan tapirs healthy, the MTCC pairs up male and female Malayan tapirs at the right time for breeding by studying their hormone profiles and using ultrasonography.
• Denver Zoo recently celebrated the birth of an endangered Malayan tapir calf. The male calf, named Baku (Bah-koo), born to mother Rinny and father Benny, is only the second birth of his species at the zoo. Baku will remain behind the scenes in Toyota Elephant Passage while being cared for by his mother until they are comfortable enough to venture outdoors. INTAN MAIZURA AHMAD KAMAL - NST Lifestyle 5 JULY 2014 @ 8:05 AM