The Tapir

The Tapir (Tapirus Bairdii) is the largest land mammal of Central America. Known as the “mountain cow” in Belize, they are forest dwellers, active mostly at night as they forage along river banks and forest clearings. The tapir is the national animal of Belize. The tapir has a prehensile, long nose like an elephant or anteater, but is actually related to the horse and rhinoceros. Its general color is dusty brown with a white fringe around the eyes and lips, white tipped ears and occasional white patches of fur on the throat and chest. They feed on grasses, aquatic vegetation, leaves, buds, and fruits of the low-growing shrubs. Its long, flexible upper lip and flat molars are well suited for foraging and swallowing twigs, nuts, and other tough plant tissues found throughout river basins.

This herbivore spends approximately 90% of its waking hours hunting for food. The tapir has an excellent sense of smell and hearing, but does not have very good sight. As the tapir is largely nocturnal, it relies more heavily on these two senses. Their closest relatives are the other odd-toed ungulates (having hoofs): horses and rhinoceroses. Tapirs have splayed, hoofed toes, with four toes on the front feet and three on the hind feet, which help them walk on muddy and soft ground. Size varies between species, but most are about 2 meters long, stand about a meter high at the shoulder, and weigh between 550 - 600lbs. The natural lifespan of a tapir is approximately 30 years, and a single youngster is born after a gestation of about 13 months. All baby tapirs have striped-and-spotted coats for camouflage, and while they appear at first glance to be alike, there are some differences among the patterns of different species.

They are excellent swimmers and also agile climbers, crashing up steep hillsides and river banks with apparent ease.

Although tapirs were once widespread, only four species endured into the modern world: three in Central America and the warmer parts of South America, and one in Southeast Asia. Tapirs are forest animals that love water. They frequently live in dry land forests, tapirs with access to lakes or rivers spend a good deal of time in and under the water, feeding on soft vegetation and taking refuge from predators. Despite being taken by bears, crocodiles, anacondas, tigers and other big cats, the tapirs’ major predators are human. Hunting for meat and hides has substantially reduced their numbers and, more recently, massive habitat loss has resulted in the conservation watch-listing of all four species: the Brazilian Tapir is classified as lower risk, near threatened; both the Baird’s Tapir and the Malayan Tapir are classified as vulnerable; and the Mountain Tapir is endangered. To escape danger, tapirs find a stream or river to enter and then walks underwater to the other side of the river. Tapirs are herbivores, meaning they eat plants and not other animals. Hunting and habitat loss are the main reasons the tapir population is decreasing all over Central America. The National Animal is protected under the law and thus, the hunting of the tapir is illegal.

Today, there are large forest reserves in Belize to protect the remaining populations. The main threats to the tapir survival is hunting and deforestation. Tapirs are usually solitary except when mothers have young. They range over large territories and are excellent swimmers spending a fair amount of time in forest rivers. They are also agile climbers, crashing up steep hillsides and river banks with apparent ease. When surprised, tapirs generally head for water, but will sometimes stamp their feet loudly and sometimes whistle.


The mountain cow is the largest mammal that roams the tropical rainforest and spends most of his time foraging for food.
Over 60% of the country is under some type of forest cover. Baird’s tapir is found in all protected areas with the exception of Guanacaste National Park and Rio Blanco due to their isolation from contiguous forest. Considering the amount of suitable habitat and limited human populations (200,000- 250,000 people) numbers of tapir are estimated to be somewhere between 680-3300 animals for the entire country. Detailed field studies of Baird’s tapir are its preferred habitat that shows healthy tapir populations in the upper reaches of the Macal River Valley in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. The animals are found in healthy populations due to the area’s remote location, making human accessibility difficult and therefore limiting hunting pressure. An area of particular interest is the Upper Raspaculo River, which drains into the Macal River and experiences flood conditions annually. Prolific growth of secondary vegetation results in a favored foraging area by tapirs. The Upper Raspaculo is situated within the Chiquibul National Park, and bordered by forest reserves. Due to its remote location, absence of human presence and pressures, and abundance of secondary growth vegetation, the Baird’s tapir can be found in considerable numbers.

With all said, the tapir is an extra special animal for its importance to Belize. The protection and of these precious animals is vital and we must all do our part in helping with the conservation process.

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