The Unusual Tapir
If you have the privilege of seeing one of these unusual creatures while visiting Ecuador, you can be sure that you have seen something truly rare. The Tapir is the largest native mammal on the South American continent and while they may seem somewhat robust, they are currently listed as endangered. These curious creatures have bulky bodies and thick hair.
They are quite large, measuring roughly 2 meters from front to back and weighing as much as 300 kilograms. They also have short legs and may stand only 1.2 meters at the shoulder, giving them a somewhat stunted appearance. The head is small with small eyes and erect ears combined with a short snout and thick neck that simply cannot be compared to any other creature.
Perhaps one of the more unusual features of the Tapir is the unusual toed hooves that the animal has. Its ‘split hoof’ spreads out into very definite toes and the Tapir has four toes on each front foot and three on each back foot. Tapirs use their unusual, short and flexible snouts to forage on plants, picking fruit, leaves and other forms of vegetation for consumption. Fruit makes up the largest portion of their diet and they play a very important role in the dispersal of seeds in forests. Thus, Tapirs play an important role in the ecology of their forest homes and their endangerment should also been seen as having a negative effect on the forests.
There are four different species of Tapir. One of these is native to Asia while the other three can be found in South America. The Amazonian Tapir and the Mountain Tapir are both found in Ecuador which makes this the ideal place to see one of these unique creatures in real life. However, you shouldn’t count on such an encounter as Tapirs are solitary animals that only mate once a year. They are quite secretive and will often retreat to water when threatened and so are often found near rivers and lakes. If you are lucky enough to spot one, you can be confident that you are one of the privileged few.
Although the Amazon Tapir can be found in Amazon tropical forest at an elevation of roughly 1000 meters above sea level, the Mountain Tapir is found in cloudforests which is found at much higher altitudes – as high as 2000 to 4000 meters above sea level. Unfortunately despite enjoying such high elevations, their natural habitat is being continually destroyed and the Tapirs are often hunted for their tasty meat and thick skins. Such aggressive destruction of both the animals and their habitats has already seen the extinction of the Coastal Tapir and it is feared that if something isn’t done soon, the fate will be the same for all South American Tapirs.
While some projects are currently being established to protect this wonderful creature, nature conservation still has a long way to go to adequately protect the beautiful Tapir.