Getting tapirs ready for the wild


Born on Feb 12, Bumi is the first Malayan tapir born at the Sungai Dusun Wildlife Conservation Centre in Hulu Selangor this year. — Photos: AZMAN GHANI/The Star

NESTLED within the lush expanse of the Sungai Dusun Wildlife Conservation Centre in Hulu Selangor, Selangor, a remarkable conservation effort is quietly unfolding.

Here, Bumi, a four-month-old Malayan tapir, cautiously approaches the curious humans gathered outside his enclosure, his snout gently nuzzling his mother Eli’s side.

Born on Feb 12, Bumi is the first tapir bred this year at the centre, marking a significant milestone for the facility operated by the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan).

Located in the 4,330ha Sungai Dusun wildlife reserve, the centre is the only semi-wild sanctuary for Malayan tapirs (Tapirus indicus) in Malaysia.

The centre focuses on conservation and rehabilitation efforts, housing eight tapirs, many of which were rescued after reports of disturbances from the public.

According to Muhd Adli Ahmad, who heads its operations, the centre aims to care for and treat tapirs to encourage reproduction, with the goal of releasing some back into the wild.

The conservation centre is located in the 4,330ha Sungai Dusun wildlife reserve.The conservation centre is located in the 4,330ha Sungai Dusun wildlife reserve.

“Since 2004, 14 tapirs have been released, comprising both captive-bred and rescued animals,” he said.

The centre’s efforts are much needed as tapir numbers are falling in the country.

Endangered and threatened

In Malaysia, tapirs are considered an endangered species and protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2020 (Act 716).

The species is also listed in Appendix I under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Dr Donny says some of the tapirs undergo rewilding to prepare them to be released into forests.Dr Donny says some of the tapirs undergo rewilding to prepare them to be released into forests.

They largely exist within the peninsula’s Central Forest Spine and may live in primary and secondary tropical rainforests. (see graphic)

Tapirs are also found in certain parts of Indonesia and Thailand but have gone extinct in Sabah and Sarawak.

These mammals are known to travel up to 4km a day and in the process, spread the seeds of the plants they consume, which helps sustain the ecosystem.

However, forest fragmentation due to development and human activities, such as farming, has significantly threatened their habitat and population.

Mohamad Ainul is one of the keepers who looks after tapirs at the centre.Mohamad Ainul is one of the keepers who looks after tapirs at the centre.

Estimates by Perhilitan in 2020 suggest the tapir population has dwindled to between 700 and 800, down from 1,100 to 1,500 in 2013.

Recent years have also seen an increase in roadkill incidents, further endangering the species, along with a rise in human-tapir conflicts, from 29 cases in 2018 to 67 in 2021. (see graphic)

Apart from Malayan tapirs, other tapir species in the world are Baird’s tapir, lowland tapir and mountain tapir, which are found in Mexico, Central America and South America.

Breeding and rewilding

The centre’s veterinarian Dr Donny Yawah said not all rescued and rehabilitated tapirs are released into the wild.

“Some are kept for a certain period after they are treated for the breeding programme,” he said, adding that several criteria would be considered before a tapir is deemed “ready”.

The veterinarian said the optimal age for reproduction is between three and 10 years, when tapirs would reach sexual maturity.

Muhd Adli says the centre works with universities and zoos on various research programmes.Muhd Adli says the centre works with universities and zoos on various research programmes.

“Another consideration is the weight. Ideally, females should weigh between 280kg and 300kg, and males between 250kg and 280kg.”

A tapir’s gestation period is 13 months, and it produces a single offspring at a time, with females breeding every two years.

Dr Donny said the animals are also routinely assessed for their readiness to be released into the wild.

The assessment, he explained, looked at the tapir’s natural temperament and their ability to forage for food.

Dr Donny noted that tapirs showing wariness towards humans are good candidates for rewilding, as they are more likely to thrive in the wild.

During rewilding, Dr Donny said the tapirs are allowed to roam within a large enclosure designed to mimic natural environments.

“There are two such enclosures here, one measures 4ha and the other 40.5ha.

“Inside these areas, the tapirs are equipped with a tracker to monitor their behaviour,” he said.

One female tapir, a six-year-old named Deppa, is slated for release later this year.

Initially receptive to human interaction, Dr Donny said Deppa had grown more reclusive and less keen to interact after undergoing rewilding, indicating her readiness for release.

Keeping tapirs healthy

Proper care and nutrition are critical for the tapirs at the centre.

Keeper Mohamad Ainul Azlif Azman ensures the animals are fed leaves and fruits at regular intervals throughout the day and monitors the animals’ health through their droppings.

Tapirs are sensitive to frequent rain, which can make them susceptible to developing fungus, and they can also suffer from stress, said Mohamad Ainul.

“One sign is if they are reluctant to come when called.

“It is also common for newly rescued tapirs to be stressed.

“This is a good time to bathe them, which may help calm them down,” he said, adding some tapirs might require medication.

A former mountain guide, Mohamad Ainul said an incident early this year involving a pregnant tapir still weighs heavily on his conscience.

He and several colleagues were dispatched to rescue the animal that was stuck in a swamp near the centre.

“When we arrived, we saw that its rear legs and abdomen were severely injured and it could barely move.

“After eight hours, we finally managed to load it into a trap and transported it to the National Wildlife Rescue Centre in Sungkai, Perak.

“We later learned it died after nine days.

“It had endured for as long as it did because it was trying to save its calf,” he said, adding that the offspring also did not survive.

Perhilitan wildlife assistant Daniel Rosli said he often took part in operations to catch tapirs.

He explained that two methods often used are the hole traps and surface traps.

“A hole trap, made by digging the soil, usually measures about 2m deep.

“Once trapped, we will remove some soil, allowing the animal to climb onto a surface trap placed nearby.

“The trap will then be loaded manually by the catchers onto a vehicle for transportation,” he said.

Nocturnal and solitary animals, tapirs are rarely aggressive and tend to avoid contact with humans, added Daniel.

Collaboration and exchange

Muhd Adli said the Sungai Dusun centre regularly collaborates with universities and non-profits such as Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) on various research projects.

They also engage in exchange programmes with zoos, including Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark, to enhance their breeding programmes.

Workshops and collaborations have led to the development of the Malayan Tapir Conservation Action Plan 2021-2030, published by Perhilitan, which aims to guide conservation efforts and policymaking.

Dr Donny is researching diseases among tapirs as well as their reproduction, to understand the factors affecting their fertility and birth rates.

He is optimistic about the prospects of tapirs bred in captivity at the centre surviving in the wild.

“Tapirs are a prehistoric animal known for their high adaptability.

“There is a reason they have survived till now,” he said.

The dedicated efforts of the centre and Perhilitan personnel highlight the crucial need for continued support and global collaboration to preserve the Malayan tapir, ensuring its survival for future generations.

Though the centre is not open to walk-in visitors, those keen on visiting may submit a request to Perhilitan (wildlife.gov.my) for a special permit.

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