Mexico, Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia’s Malaya and Sumatra


Swamps, forests, savanna, and rain forests

Odds and ends make a magnificent beast

Zoo visitors often ask, "What is it? A pig? An anteater?" No, it's a tapir, a primitive animal that has remained unchanged for millions of years. The four tapir species are most closely related to horses and rhinos, since they have an odd number of toes (four toes on each front foot, three on each back foot). Their eyes and ears are small, and the body is teardrop shaped: tapered in the front and wider at the rear, designed to walk through thick vegetation. Male tapirs are slightly smaller than females.

What a nose!

The tapir's nose and upper lip combine into a flexible snout like an elephant's trunk. It can be used as a snorkel when the animal is underwater and as an effective tool to detect odors wafting through the dense forest. This prehensile mini-trunk (by elephant standards!) is used to grab branches and strip off the leaves or to help pluck fruit and put it directly in the tapir’s mouth. It also adds an air of mystery to the tapir—at first glance, it’s hard to tell just what this creature is!

Fossils of tapir ancestors have been found on every continent except Antarctica. Tapirs even lived in Southern California about 10,000 years ago.
April, a Baird's tapir, is the National Animal of Belize. Also known as "the mountain cow," she lives at the Belize Zoo and her birthday is a national event.
In Indonesia, the word “badak” refers to both rhinos and tapirs.
In Thailand, “P'som-sett” is the name for tapir and it means "mixture is finished." This refers to the belief that the tapir was created from leftover parts of other animals.
The word tapir, translated from a Brazilian Indian language, means "thick," referring to the animal's tough hide.
Tapirs create trodden paths through the forest, often leading to reliable water sources. Human engineers sometimes exploit these paths to build roads.
Tapirs are the most primitive large mammals in the world. They’ve been around for 20 million years and have changed very little.
Tapirs are known to eat up to 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of food per day.
A tapir can move its prehensile snout in all directions.
As they look so much like their extinct relatives, tapirs are sometimes called living fossils.
A new tapir species was announced to the world in 2013: the kabomani tapir.

Over the years, San Diego Zoo Global has had all four tapir species in its collection. The first was a Baird’s tapir. He arrived in 1925, a gift from the country of Panama. In 1940, we received our first pair of Malayan tapirs, which started a very successful breeding program for the species here (31 born at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park).

The trouble with Trudy
One of those first Malayan tapirs was Trudy, who soon earned the nickname Trouble! She escaped twice from her exhibit; once squeezing through the barrier to her enclosure and ending up eye to eye with some surprised hippo neighbors, and another time managing to leave the Zoo entirely, escaping detection for days. Finally, the Zoo received a call from a woman shrieking into the phone that a “rhinoceros” was loose in the sewer. It was Trudy, who had gotten into a large storm drain! She was safely escorted back home.

Ultrasound training
In 2005, a Malayan tapir, Rose, was trained to accept ultrasound gel procedures as the veterinarians rubbed her expanding belly when she was expecting a calf. She was rewarded with bits of banana and lots of chin scratches for allowing staff to check on her calf before he was even born!

Our tapirs today
Today, the Zoo currently has two pairs of Baird’s tapirs—a breeding pair, Felix and Luna; and an elderly couple, Tatum and Rachel—in our Elephant Odyssey habitat. They share an exhibit with capybaras and guanacos, as they all have ancestors that once roamed right here in Southern California! Tatum and Rachel are enjoying their golden years lounging about on hay beds or on soft sand piles. Tatum enjoys a massage under the waterfall, and keepers found he loves the “tapir car wash”; they squirt water from a hose and Tatum frolics in the spray! Two Malayan tapirs, Chantek and Camo, live along Tiger Trail in Lost Forest.

Plenty of mud and plants keep the floors of the enclosures soft enough so that the tapirs don’t damage their feet. A heated area indoors for each tapir also recreates the warmth of the jungle, to keep the tapirs comfortable at night. Each exhibit also includes a pool that resembles a watering hole and is large enough for the tapirs to submerge themselves.

Humans hunt all tapir species for their meat and hide. Baird’s or Central American tapirs are also hunted for sport in Costa Rica. And as humans clear the tapirs' habitats for farming, cattle grazing, palm oil and rubber plantations, or the growing of poppies for the opium trade, the animals' food supply decreases. Tapirs are best suited for life in primary or old-growth forests with plenty of permanent water sources, which humans tend to “repurpose” for farms, roads, and development.

Help for tapirs
San Diego Zoo Global has long been committed to tapir conservation and has been a consistent supporter of tapir projects worldwide and donates to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Tapir Specialist Group. One of our animal care managers is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ studbook keeper and populations manager for the Malayan tapir and is the chair of its Tapir Taxon Advisory Group.

Efforts are under way in Central and South America to protect tapir habitat and use tapirs as flagship species to encourage tourism (like Australia does with its koalas and China does with its pandas). This can provide jobs other than farming and logging for the local people and inspire them to help in the protection of this intriguing animal.

Join us!
You can help us bring species like tapirs back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.