A Malayan tapir. Photo courtesy of Malaysia Nature Society.
A Malayan tapir. Photo courtesy of Malaysia Nature Society.

A few months ago during the 1600 Pandas exhibition in Publika, observers may have noticed that a single tapir stood among the sea of pandas. The lone tapir was placed there by a group of people who felt that the native animal’s fate seemed irrelevant to most Malaysians, and its declining population had gone unnoticed.

The Malayan tapir is native to Southeast Asia, but suffering rapidly declining numbers in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia mainly due to habitat loss. Over the past few decades we have seen depleting forests due to logging, palm oil plantations, and other expanding farms which have sacrificed the natural habitats of many animals, including the tapir.

Since 2002, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) has worked with Copenhagen Zoo on a tapir conservation programme where wildlife experts study the protected species in Krau Wildlife Reserve, Taman Negara in Pahang, and in Sungai Dusun. In Sungai Dusun, there are currently nine tapirs.

 

Perhilitan estimates that there are between 1100 and 1500 tapirs remaining

 

Perhilitan estimates that there are between 1100 and 1500 tapirs remaining in our forests, spread throughout peninsular Malaysia. The conservation reserve use to house several Sumatran rhinoceroses, but failed to increase its population after they all died due to disease.

Going into the tapir reserve requires a few sterilisation processes to reduce the chances of introducing any outside pathogens into the enclosure. At Sungai Dusun, the conservation efforts are mainly focused on reintroducing captured and/or injured tapirs back into the wild, while also allowing for them to breed while in captivity.

Photo courtesy of Malaysia Nature Society.
Photo courtesy of Malaysia Nature Society.

Cheku, a ranger at the reserve explained, “We put them in a quarter hectare enclosure for a while before gradually moving them to a 10 hectare one, then to a 100 hectares. We also have to gradually reduce the food we provide for them and make sure they can find food themselves before being reintroduced to the forest.”

This process takes about three years from birth for the ones born there, while rescued tapirs require anything from months to years depending on what treatment and rehabilitation they need.

“We have an older tapir that we rescued that is also blind, so we keep her here as she won’t be able to survive in the wild.”

According to Cheku, deforestation causing habitat loss is the biggest problem facing the tapir population. “Almost every state has forest reserves but they are being taken over little by little by large palm oil plantations”, he said.

 

“Almost every state has forest reserves but they are being taken over little by little by large palm oil plantations”, he said.

 

Tapirs are also commonly hit by cars on highways and plantation roads that cut through their homes (habitat/forests) in search of food.They have few natural predators, not commonly hunted for food or other reasons, and yet must be protected. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s also the forests that need protection.

According to Perhilitan, Peninsular Malaysia has less than 4% of primary forest (a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance) left. So it seems clear that any serious attempts at saving the tapir (and other endangered animals) needs to be based on reclaiming and protecting forests.

Perhilitan does however point out that Peninsular Malaysia still has about 45% of forest area (not primary), and about 70% of those forests are either permanent forests reserves under the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia (FDPM), or protected forests under Perhilitan.

The campaign by #TapiTapir to raise awareness for tapirs.
The campaign by #TapiTapir to raise awareness for tapirs.

In 2005, Malaysia formulated a plan for a Central Forest Spine (CFS): a project to join up four major areas of forest across the peninsular in order to create a continuous forest “corridor” to help protect wildlife. Under the Tenth Malaysia Plan, announced in 2010, there were further plans to plant rare fruit plants 5km along the CFS ecological corridor and also put warning signs about animal crossings.

However, despite this milestone plan, implementation has proved a problem. The CFS is overseen by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry but involves negotiations with state governments and a range of other environmental agencies.

One recent report found that very little has been achieved since the plan was formulated ten years ago. Creating more forest links interferes with land development, which impacts state revenue. Even with its injection of funding from UNDP a few years ago, the CFS needs serious political will – as well as co-ordination and communication between all the players – to succeed.

The threats facing our forests impact a range of wildlife. They Malaysian animals at risk include tigers, elephants, tapirs and more. Perhilitan estimates there are around 1,200 wild elephants left roaming in Peninsular Malaysia, while World Wildlife Federation Malaysia estimates the country’s wild tiger population may be only between 250-340.

These efforts needs to be promoted and strengthened if we want to see any significant increase in the Malayan Tapir population. Through protecting our forests, we protect the homes of our black and white friends – as well a range of other wildlife – so they can once again thrive.

World Tapir Day is on 27 April. Find out more about Malayan Tapirs with the #TapiTapir campaign.

Research by Navshed Navin and Ling Low.


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