Tapirs are the largest land mammals native to Central and South America. They are often confused for pigs, but are in the Perissodactyla order due to the odd number of toes (3) on their hind feet. This means that their closest relatives are horses and rhinoceroses. Their toes are spread out to allow them to move over muddy ground in the rainforest. One of the tapir’s most distinctive features is an elongated snout that forms a flexible, prehensile proboscis. Young tapirs are born with white striping that allows them to camouflage among the dappled light coming through the trees.
Diet: As herbivores, tapirs use their prehensile proboscis to gather grasses, leaves, buds, fruits, saplings, and aquatic vegetation from the understory of the forest. They may spend as much as 90% of their time foraging and may consume up to 75 lbs. of vegetation in one night. They have been nicknamed “gardeners of the forest” because of their importance in seed dispersal.
In the Wild: Tapirs are excellent swimmers, and will often enter water to escape predators, as well as to thermoregulate their body temperature. They will even use their proboscis as a built in snorkel! They are mostly nocturnal, seeking out shady nesting areas during the day. Young tapirs will remain with their mother for a couple of years, but they are otherwise solitary animals. Tapirs communicate using a variety of whistles, as well as by scent. Tapirs are sensitive to their environment. This, combined with their large size and slow reproductive rate, makes them an important indicator species for the health of the habitat.
Conservation issues/actions: The largest threat to the Baird’s tapir is habitat loss due to agriculture and cattle farming. Localized hunting for meat can also have an impact on tapirs in some regions. Due to their dependence on wetland habitats, climate change and increasing droughts pose an increasing threat.
At the Zoo:
Reid Park Zoo participates in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the Baird’s tapir. By comparing the pictures taken of young tapirs born at the Reid Park Zoo to pictures of young tapirs in the wild, tapir researchers can better estimate the age of those tapirs to learn about the age distribution and health of the tapir population in their natural habitat. Reid Park Zoo also supports researchers through the Baird’s Tapir Project, which monitors Baird’s tapirs in Nicaragua, to learn how they use their habitat to find ways to best protect their habitat. Since tapirs are an umbrella species, protecting tapirs also protects other species that share the tapir’s habitat. You can help save tapir habitat by purchasing products that only contain palm oil certified as sustainable by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). You can learn more about sustainable palm oil here (https://reidparkzoo.org/conservation/zoo-conservation/)