From: Jeremy Hance, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published April 24, 2013 08:43 AM

Malaysia may be home to more Asian tapirs than previously thought

You can't mistake an Asian tapir for anything else: for one thing, it's the only tapir on the continent; for another, it's distinct black-and-white blocky markings distinguishes it from any other tapir (or large mammal) on Earth. But still little is known about the Asian tapir (Tapirus indicus), including the number surviving. However, researchers in Malaysia are working to change that: a new study for the first time estimates population density for the neglected megafauna, while another predicts where populations may still be hiding in peninsular Malaysia, including selectively-logged areas.


"It has been difficult for scientists study [the Asian tapir], probably because it’s a very shy animal," Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, co-founder of the Malaysian research group Rimba and an author on both of the studies, told "Or maybe aspiring tapir researchers just haven't tried hard enough! But interest in research on the Asian Tapir has picked up in the last 10 years."

Tapirs are rare survivors of the Pleistocene extinction when many of the world's big animals (i.e. megafauna) vanished forever. Although the Asian tapir, also known as the Malayan tapir, is the largest of the four tapir species (the rest of which are found in South and Central America) weighing up to 1,200 pounds (540 kilograms), it is also the least known. However, a recent breakthrough came when researchers undertaking a camera trap study on tigers in Gunong Basor Forest Reserve found that they could tell individual Asian tapirs apart based on their markings as well as other features.

"If you look closely...the belly and neck lines are distinct enough for individual identification, provided that the camera trap pictures are clear and show the right angles of a flank or neck. In addition, deep scarring and even damage to the ears or deformities can also be used for individual identification," explains Mark Rayan Darmaraj, with WWF-Malaysia and the University of Kent, and an author on both studies as well. "By using these unique features, we were able to know more about the population status of tapirs in our study area."

By identifying individuals, the researchers were able to compile the first Asian tapir density, estimating that 9.49 adult tapirs live in 100 square kilometers of selectively-logging forest in Malaysia. This is an important milestone for estimating total population and trends for the Asian tapir across its habitat. Next the researchers looked again at possible tapir habitat—including primary forests and selectively logged areas—in peninsular Malaysia.

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Tapir image via Shutterstock.

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