So What Is A Tapir?

I often get asked “What is it? A pig? An anteater?” to which I always reply with “No its a Tapir, they’re related to horses and rhinos” and the confused look on peoples faces is quite amusing. On the Mammals section we’re very lucky to boast having two Brazilian/Lowland Tapirs (tapirus terrestris), 7 year old female, Kathleen and 6 year old male, Nando. They are very easy to tell apart, especially if you’re looking at them from the rear end – Nando is distinguishable!

Brazilian Tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) at Wingham Wildlife Park, Kent

Kathleen (left) and Nando (right)

Native to South America and ranging from Colombia to Paraguay and Brazil, tapirs prefer living where its warm, rainy and humid. Their coat is dark on the back and lighter on the underside. Currently there are four living species of tapirs of which three are native to the American rainforests and one native to Asian rainforests with natural predators including Crocodilians and Jaguars.

Surprisingly Good Swimmers

Tapirs are strong swimmers and may walk along the bottom of river beds to find food. They instinctively escape predation by moving into water and they are able to stay submerged in deep water long enough to make any predators clinging to their back let go.

Water is also where Kathleen and Nando sometimes go to the toilet. There are two theories for why this might be, firstly excreting in water reduces the animals scent trail on land and therefore reduces the likelihood of predation. Secondly, excreting in water may reduce the attractiveness of the rear end to biting flies.

Thankfully, neither of our pair have to worry about being predated upon at the park. During the warmer months the lake in their enclosure is very attractive and hard for them to resist!

It tends to be Nando in first, he often likes to stand on top of the bank and jump/bomb in. It’s fair to say that it is far from elegant and he certainly wont be going to the Olympics any time soon but it’s hilarious to watch! The ducks that sometimes fly into that part of the lake must be very confused at what’s happening, one minute its calm waters and the next its like the wave machine has been turned on.

Whereas, Kathleen takes her time and has a more graceful approach before she goes for a dip. She likes to go in up to her knees first then has a little walk around to acclimatise to the temperature and then takes the plunge once she’s ready.

Lowland Tapir swimming at Wingham Wildlife Park, Kent

During the colder months of the year the pair don’t have access to their lake as the water temperature can go below freezing, meaning their nice attractive morning swim turns into an unattractive morning ice bath… very unappealing even for a thick skinned tapir! Sometimes a consequence of this is that they get a bit of tapir dandruff particularly along their backs. This is where us keepers have to step in and save the day… and no we dont use Head & Shoulders shampoo! All that is needed is a sponge and a bucket of lukewarm water… we basically give them a sponge bath all over. Everyday we do this with them so that they can stay flake free and it usually happens around their lunchtime.

Lowland Tapir (Tapirus terrestris) having a bath at Wingham Wildlife Park, Kent

Nando can sometimes act like a child that doesn’t enjoy bath time, he runs off then comes back over and this can be repeated 2 or 3 times until the keeper is satisfied that he’s had a sufficient enough bath. I’m sure some parents reading this may be able to relate to this with their children at home. Whereas, Kathleen is an absolute angel when it comes to bath time, she’s quite content to eat her lunch and receive her bath at the same time. She’s that relaxed about it all that we find more often than not she goes to the toilet at the same time!

Tapir Conservation

I would now like to draw your attention to the conservation of tapirs that live in the wild. Their main threats are habitat loss due to deforestation, being hunted for their meat/hides and competition with domestic livestock. Although protected throughout their range, lack of enforcement can make laws ineffective.

Already classed as vulnerable, numbers continue to decrease and if they continue this way the species may merit an Endangered classification from IUCN Red list of Threatened Species. The Tapir Specialist Group is currently striving to help the tapir with its survival and has programs to save, restore and manage the four species of tapir. Tapirs are considered an umbrella species, this means that if you protect their habitat you’ll end up protecting habitat for many other species as well.

At the start of my blog I mentioned people getting tapirs mixed up with a number of animals including anteaters and they not having any idea what they are. For me as a zookeeper, this is something that I’m working hard to change as I believe greater recognition of their species will help conservation efforts in saving these magnificent creatures from extinction.

lowland tapir at Wingham WIldlife Park, Kent

About Matt - Head of mammals