Copenhagen Zoo fight for surviving of the Malaysian tapir

The Malay tapir, the largest of the world’s four tapir species, remained largely invisible to science until recently. The other three species of these odd, endearing animals all live in South America. There was just one scientific study from the 1970s on the Malay tapir. Then, in 2002, the Malay Tapir Conservation Project was created, supported largely by the Copenhagen Zoo, and field biologists began filling in another blank page in zoology.
Great swaths of the rain forest in Malaysia and Sumatra had been destroyed for palm oil plantations and through illegal logging, and scientists had begun to worry that the tapir could slip silently toward extinction. A conservation center was set up within the Sungai Dusun Wildlife Reserve, an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, and researchers like Carl Traeholt, a Danish-Malaysian biologist, began to gather data on tapir numbers and on the animals themselves.
Dr. Traeholt is the Malayan tapir coordinator for the international Tapir Specialist Group, which is concerned with all four tapir species. For the past five years, he has used cameras with motion sensors to photograph tapirs as they move through the forest at night to feed on fruits, leaves and soft twigs. An important early breakthrough was the realization that the patterns of wrinkles on tapirs’ necks can identify individuals.
The photographs showed that tapirs normally have a small home range, but will travel up to three miles a night to reach salty mineral deposits, presumably to consume minerals like calcium or iron. One of the sites studied was the Krau Wildlife Reserve north of Kuala Lumpur. “At some of these salt licks in Krau, tapirs are the most common animal on cameras, but it’s all the same individuals coming back,” Dr. Traeholt said.
The results showed that claims for a population of 800 to 1,000 individuals for an area the size of Krau, and 15,000 to 20,000 in Malaysia, was outlandishly optimistic. “This was way off reality. Otherwise we would have a traffic jam of tapirs in Krau,” Dr. Traeholt said.
There were actually just 40 or so individuals in Krau, which would mean about 1,500 to 2,000 in Malaysia, he said. There are perhaps 300 in Thailand; an unknown, unstudied population in Myanmar; and an unknown but decreasing number on Sumatra. A best guess, he said, is 4,000 individuals in Southeast Asia, a figure similar to the number of wild tigers.
Dr. Bengt Holst, scientific director of the Copenhagen Zoo, which has a history of collaboration with the Malaysian wildlife authorities, said researchers planned to develop conservation priorities for the Malay tapir by discovering its habitat needs, social structures and behavior. By transforming it into a high-profile research species, he hopes researchers will be attracted to Malaysia and the species described from all angles — physiology, behavior, genetics and ecology. Tapir conservation would also put many other lower-profile species under its umbrella of protection. For now, Dr. Traeholt hopes to create a conservation plan backed by ecology. And so this unique animal will avoid becoming either forgotten or extinct.


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