Baird’s Tapir:  The Gentle Giant of the Forest

Mike Boston

Mike is an honor’s biology graduate of the University of Portsmouth and is the owner / operator of Osa Aventura, the premier guiding outfitter for Corcovado National Park, and has led groups into the Park for the past eighteen years.  Contact him directly at mike@osaaventura.com.


Visitors to Corcovado National Park are very often treated to an encounter with Baird’s tapir, the largest mammal native to the Neotropics.  Upon meeting one of these lumbering beasts one is immediately impressed by how docile and benign it is—a real gentle giant of our forests!


Baird’s tapir, Tapirus bairdii, is the largest of three species found in Neotropical rainforests—an adult male can weigh up to 300 kilograms (660 lbs).  It ranges from southern Mexico through Central American and into western Colombia and Ecuador.  Tapirus terrestris, the Brazilian tapir, inhabits the lowland rainforest from Venezuela to northern Argentina, and T. pinchaque, the mountain tapir, is confined to the dwarf forests and Páramo of the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes.  A four species, T. indicus, the Asiatic tapir, ranges through Burma, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra.  The Asiatic tapir is the largest of the four species, and its white and black coloration contrasts to the somber brownish-gray coloration of the Neotropical species.  Young tapirs of all species are dark reddish brown with white stripes and spots, a coloration they retain for their first five to eight months.

Tapirs are odd-looking beasts, to say the least:  robustly built and rather rhinoceros-like, but without the horns and with a flexible, trunk-like nose and upper lip.  Their limbs are stout with three toes on each foot, placing tapirs within the odd-toed ungulates or Perissodactyla.  This order of large herbivorous mammals includes the horses and rhinoceroses.

The Perissodactyla reigned supreme as the dominant herbivores of the Tertiary era, reaching their greatest diversity from 45 to 20 million years ago.  Its members included the largest land mammals ever to have lived:  Megatherium, for example, a huge rhinoceros-like animal, weighed in at an impressive 20 tons—four times the weight of a bull elephant!

The supremacy of the Perissodactyls, however, was to wane toward the latter half of the Tertiary.  The even-toed ungulates, or Artiodactyls, began to gain the upper hand as the northern hemisphere’s dominant herbivores.  Their large ruminating, four-chambered stomachs made the Artiodactyls more efficient than the Perissodactyls at processing the rather coarse, indigestible vegetable matter upon which they depended.  It has always seemed to me to be a rather odd quirk of evolution that the ungainly and dull-witted cow should have gained supremacy over the graceful and relatively intelligent horse!


Of the fifteen families and numerous species that represented the Perissodactyls in their heyday, only three families and seventeen species survive today.  All but a handful of these species are threatened with extinction.  It is only through the good fortune of their mutualistic association with man that Equus caballus, the horse, and E. asinus, the ass, have gained a secure future!

Of the three remaining families of Perissodactyls, it is the rhinoceroses (Rhinocerotidae) and the Tapirs (Tapiridae) that are the most closely related.  Each shares more features in common with the other than either do with the horses (Equidae).  Among these shared features is the possession of three load-bearing toes on their fore and hind feet, though the tapirs do possess a fourth toe on each of their fore feet, which bears load only in swampy terrain.  Horses, asses, and zebras, as you probably know, have a single load-bearing toe.

Tapirs are browsers of forest habitats, feeding mainly on leaves, though fruit and grasses comprise a significant portion of their diet foraged largely from their favored habitat along river courses, swamps and the fringes of bodies of water.  They often feed partly submerged on floating herbaceous vegetation.  Tapirs are very accomplished swimmers, and it is not uncommon in Corcovado to see Baird’s tapir swim considerable distances under water.

Baird’s tapir, like its relatives, is a solitary animal and strongly territorial.  Males hold large territories that include the territories of perhaps several females.  Characteristically for the Perissodactyls, Baird’s tapir has a long gestation period of 13 months, after which a single young is born (very rarely two) and remains in its mother’s care for about a year.

Tapirs have an acute sense of smell and hearing, but relatively poor eyesight.  They tend to be more active at night, but in Corcovado, Baird’s tapir may be encountered during the day, especially in the afternoons in wallows or in rivers.  Tapirs communicate over distances with long whistles, grunts, hiccups and whimpers at close range.  On their browsing forays, tapirs tend to use regular, well-worn trails through the forest.  These trails often form deep cuts along riverbanks at their regular crossing points.

Baird’s tapir is listed by CITES in Appendix I:  ‘rare and local.’  The major threat to the species comes from habitat loss and hunting.  They are not a regular item on the jaguars’ menu—which may in part account for their rather nonchalant manner when encountered in Corcovado.  Females will defend their young aggressively, but in most other circumstances these animals have an aura of benign indifference when encountered.  In this respect they couldn’t be more different to the feisty, neurotic and aggressive peccary.

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