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Asian Tapir

Another name for the Malayan Tapir, a large mammal with the scientific name Tapirus indicus, in itself a Latin designation that refers to the East Indies rather than to India. It is the largest of all four species of tapir and the only one native to Southeast Asia, where it once was distributed in the wild throughout the tropical lowland rainforests of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia. Today its distribution is limited to peninsular Myanmar, peninsular Thailand and peninsular Malaysia, and to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The animal is dark grey to black with grayish white markings, that extends from its shoulders to its rump, a pattern that functions as camouflage and when lying down it may be mistaken by predators for a large rock rather than prey (fig.). Also the tips of its ears are rimmed with white. This browsing mammal, pig-like in shape and feeding on fruit and leaves, has a short, prehensile snout (fig.), which it uses to grasp leaves and guide them into the mouth. This trunk is in fact a fusion of the upper lip and nose, and is thus also used to probe and investigate unfamiliar things. It has rather poor eyesight but excellent hearing and sense of smell. Baby tapirs (fig.) have brown hair with white stripes and spots, a pattern that makes them look like walking watermelons, but which enables them to hide effectively in the mottled light of the forest floor. Young tapirs loose this pattern when they are around 5 months old. There is a local legend that tells how the Asian Tapir got his black and white colouration, became so shy and a vegetarian. The story says that once the tapir was a handsome animal with a black glossy coat and an impressive horn. It was strong, but also vain and a bully, until one day the Bamboo Rat (fig.), with the help of some mice, drugged him, cut off his horn and filed down his sharp teeth. They also painted part of his body white to brand him like a criminal. When the tapir woke up he felt disgraced and went into hiding. In Thai it is named somset (สมเสร็จ) or phasom set, which could be translated as ‘mixed [and] done’. In 1976, an adult and infant Malayan Tapir were depicted on a Thai postage stamp, as part of a series on wild animals (fig.).


Malayan Tapir