Meet the Tapir
By Awake! correspondent in Brazil
MOST likely you have not met the tapir, for this gentle animal is found only in isolated places in Central and South America and in the southern part of Asia. The tapir is about the size of a donkey, but with its short legs, it looks more like a pig. The young have been described by one zoologist as resembling “banded watermelons with legs.”
Tapirs attain a length of from 6 feet [1.8 m] to 8 feet [2.4 m] and a height of from 2 1/2 feet [0.8 m] to a little over 3 feet [0.9 m], and they weigh from 500 pounds [230 kg] to 650 pounds [290 kg]. Their stout bodies have a thick neck and a short tail. The eyes are small and their sight is poor. The snout is drawn out to form a short movable trunk that is put to good use when the tapirs are browsing for food. “Of all the large animals of the world,” says The International Wildlife Encyclopedia, “they are probably the most completely defenceless.”
Normally, the timid beast will stay in the thickest parts of the forest, thus avoiding potential enemies, such as the jaguar or the tiger. When a jaguar pounces on a tapir, the tapir is said to run immediately into the thick brush of the jungle. The jaguar is thereby swept off by the dense jungle undergrowth. Because of its thick skin, which heals quickly, the tapir is generally not critically wounded.
Tapirs always live near a river or a lake, and much of their time is spent swimming and splashing in the water, as well as wallowing in the mud. This refreshes them from the heat and protects them against the irritating insects common in the tropics. Despite their heavy body, they can, when necessary, run swiftly. Their strong compact body with its short neck is perfectly suited to their environment, permitting them to penetrate easily into the dense vegetation.
Three species of tapirs—Baird’s, Brazilian, and mountain—are found in South and Central America, while the Malayan tapir makes its home in Southeast Asia. Fossils found in Europe, China, and the United States confirm that at one time tapirs existed around the world.
Tapirs are generally unsocial animals. They live alone or in pairs, and more than three of them are rarely seen together except in zoos. Even there they pay scant attention to one another. They are vegetarians, feeding exclusively on low-growing plants on land or on aquatic vegetation. They have a special fondness for salt and will travel long distances to reach a salt lick. These mainly nocturnal animals may live as long as 30 years.
Tapirs seem to breed at any season, and the young are born singly after about 13 months of gestation. The young tapirs have a reddish-brown coat that is spotted and striped lengthwise in yellow and white, providing an excellent camouflage in the dim light of tropical forests. This coloring usually disappears before the end of the first year; after that the Malayan tapir is black with a broad band of white around its flanks, while the South American tapirs are dark gray or brown.
Tapirs have been hunted by man for food, often at night when the animals are most active. Sometimes salt is spread in order to attract the animal. After licking the salt, the tapir heads for the nearest stream of water. To make it an easier target, the hunters flash a light in its eyes, blinding it temporarily.
The meat, which does not contain much fat, is often barbecued and is said to be tasty. The strong, tough hide is valuable too; it is used for whips, lassos, and bridles. At times Brazilian Indians have kept the tapir as a pet.
Because man has hunted them for food or sport, and especially because he has cut down their forest habitat, tapirs have become rare in many areas where they once abounded. Thus, mountain, Baird’s, and Malayan tapirs are now listed as endangered species.
Although a person’s chance of meeting a tapir in the wild has been considerably lessened, why not make it a point to see one the next time you visit a zoo?