Totally protected, but tapir face extinction

MALACCA - The tapir has more reasons to be afraid of humans following poaching and habitat loss due to deforestation and encroachment, which have significantly diminished its numbers in recent years.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) say these mammals, which are only dangerous when threatened, have fallen victim to development, while an expected interest in tapir parts may make them more susceptible to illegal hunting in the future.

The recent case of a 200kg tapir, which had wandered into Kampung Tun Razak in Bukit Katil here, from suspected habitat loss is testament to the threat these mammals face.

The tapir later died of foot injuries, caused likely by wire snares.

State Perhilitan director Abdul Rahim Othman said tapirs were an unfortunate bunch as they were often caught in traps placed by hunters for other wild animals.

"Tapirs are not known for their meat, but they do get accidentally caught in traps meant for deers and wild boars."

Scientifically termed tapirus indicus, the Malayan tapir is the largest of the four tapir species and the only one native to Asia.

The current population of tapirs in Malaysia is between 2,000 and 2,500 and concentrated in protected areas, such as Taman Negara and wildlife reserves.

They are classified as a totally protected species under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

As a protective measure, Perhilitan collaborated with Copenhagen Zoo in 2002 to set up the Malayan Tapir Conservation Project to study the ecological needs of these large herbivores.

Biologist Dr Carl Traeholt was tasked with overseeing the project's activities at its various sites, such as the Krau Wildlife Reserve, Taman Negara and Sungai Dusun Wildlife Reserve, which doubles as a captive breeding centre.

Traeholt told the New Straits Times that for the past 10 years, researchers had been able to learn quite a bit about this elusive animal from the project.

"The Malayan tapir is the only bi-coloured species of tapir, with a distinctive white patch that covers its body from the shoulders to the rump, as a form of camouflage."

He said Malaysia was the main bastion for this species, but they could also be found in Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar.

He also said tapirs normally lived between 15 and 20 years in the wild and captivity.

"Female tapirs normally give birth to one calf every three to four years."

Traeholt and a team of four permanent staff monitor the tapirs using camera trapping and individual identification.

"Once we've caught one, we check to see if we have previously caught it by scanning its body for a microchip.

"If it is a new one, we will tag it with a microchip."

Traeholt and his team discovered that tapirs were browsers, meaning they foraged the forest for fruits, leaves and twigs with their trunks.

On tapir conservation, Traeholt said authorities needed to continue preserving the animal's natural habitats.

"As long as there is 40 per cent good forest cover, there will be ample habitat for the tapir population."

He, however, said there was a pressing concern in regard to conserving wildlife habitats.

"The more we develop and encroach into wild animals' habitats, the more there will be cases of animal displacement, where they will wander into housing areas, or be run over by cars."

Traeholt said building viaducts to allow the safe crossing of wild animals near areas with traffic was a good step.

He also said the authorities needed to look into adopting stricter measures in conserving the habitats of animals they aimed to protect.

Malaysian Nature Society communications head Andrew Sebastian agreed with Traeholt's sentiment.

"Besides putting a stop to poaching, the government must step up efforts to conserve the animals' habitats.

"It will defeat the purpose of protecting the animals if we do not protect their habitats."