Upon first glance, tapirs are often mistaken for a small hippo, pig or anteater but their closest living relatives are actually horses and rhinos. Many scientists consider tapirs living fossils because they have roamed the Earth for over 50 million years and haven’t evolved much. The four living species of tapirs range across the forests of Central and South America as well as Southeast Asia.
One of the most distinguishable features of a tapir is their prehensile nose. When foraging for food they will use it to grab and pull leaves from branches. They can also use it like a snorkel when swimming. Their body is covered with a tough and durable hide which offers them some protection from predators. The four toes on their front feet and three on the back provide them with traction as they maneuver through their forest habitat.
Tapirs in Belize
The tapir species found in Belize is the Central American or Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii). In Belize they are the “National Animal” and are known as the “mountain cow”. The northern extent of their range starts in the Oaxaca Province in Mexico and extends all the way down to southern Ecuador. They are the largest, native land mammal in Central and South America with adults ranging in size from 300 – 500 pounds and reaching up to 6 feet in length.
One of the best opportunities to see a tapir in the wild is within the Mayan Forest Corridor in Belize. They tend to be most active at night and prefer to forage along riverbanks and forest clearings. They are generally solitary in nature, unless a mother has a dependent calf. The gestation period is approximately 13 months, with 1 offspring per birth being the norm. The young look like a small brown watermelon. The stripes on the brown coat provide camouflage among the vegetation of the rainforest. Tapirs take 3 years to reach maturity, can mate at any time of the year, and have a lifespan between 20 – 25 years in the wild.
Tapirs are voracious consumers of leaves, fruits, seeds as well as aquatic vegetation. Because of their herbivorous diet, they play an important role in rainforest regeneration by spreading the seeds of rainforest plants as they defecate throughout their home range. In some instances, they will have a “dump site” that they return to frequently for defecation. It is thought that these sites, along with spraying urine upon the nearby vegetation is a way for them to mark their territory.
According to the IUCN, tapirs are classified as an Endangered species. The main threats to their survival in Belize include hunting, deforestation, and being struck by vehicles when crossing roads. While some tapirs are killed by jaguars, their main hunting pressure comes from humans. As large sections of the rainforest are cleared for agriculture and development, tapirs have greater contact with humans which often leads to persecution and killing of them.
While conservation efforts are being made, much still needs to be done to ensure the survival of the National Animal of Belize.