Wild fodder: At the Sungai Dusun Wildlife Conservation Centre, the seven tapirs there are fed leaves collected from the jungle.
By TAN CHENG LI firstname.lastname@example.org
She was named after the place where she was found loitering in late September, a village in Ulu Bendul some 16km from Seremban in Negri Sembilan, and arrived at the centre wounded and starving.
“After trapping her, we had planned to return her to the forest but when we saw that she had a bullet wound which was infested with maggots, we decided to bring her here,” says Mahathir Mohamad who heads the Sungai Dusun centre, located in the upper reaches of Selangor about 90 minutes’ drive from Kuala Lumpur.
From the tell-tale size and shape of the wound, wildlife officers believe Bendul had been shot by wild boar hunters, probably mistakenly. “Villagers say they have seen the tapir with two young. We searched but could not find the juveniles. We believe they have also been shot,” says Mahathir.
At Sungai Dusun, a 4,330ha sprawl of protected peatswamp and lowland dipterocarp forest near the Selangor-Perak boundary which is both a rescue and captive breeding centre, Bendul is seen chomping on the leaves of the mengkirai, nangka and mahang trees which keepers have collected from the forest. Soon, she will be fed nutrition-laden pellets to fatten her up. At the centre, she joins six other tapirs – four of which are captive-breds and two, also rescued tapirs.
Bendul is the latest statistic in a growing list of displaced tapirs. As forests give way to human settlements, plantations and industrial development, and are fragmented by roads, tapirs are crowded out. They now number only between 1,100 and 1,500 in Peninsular Malaysia, and can no longer be found in Borneo.
The Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) has recorded an upward trend in tapir displacements: five cases in 2006, 25 in 2007, 39 in 2008, 22 in 2009 and 41 in 2010. Of the 142 cases seen during that period, the majority (95) were of tapirs which had ventured out of their normal habitats into villages, plantations, logging areas, forest fringes and roadsides. Fifteen were roadkills, 12 were wounded tapirs which eventually died from the injuries, and 20 were tapirs sent to Sungai Dusun, Zoo Melaka and other protected areas.
The cases mostly occurred in Pahang (46) and Johor (32), followed by Negri Sembilan (21), Selangor (17) and Terengganu (15).
“Habitat disturbance and fragmentation appear to be the main factors forcing the tapir out of its habitat to seek food near forest fringes, plantations and human settlements. Activities like housing, logging, construction of highways, railways and dams all lead to the loss of tapir habitat,” says wildlife officer David Magintan at the 5th International Tapir Symposium in Kuala Lumpur last month.
And although tapirs are not targeted by hunters, they get caught in snares set up for other animals like deer, wild boar and tigers.
Magintan says measures to reduce the displacements include erecting animal crossings under viaducts, putting up “tapir crossing” roadsigns and creating forested corridors to link fragmented forests.
Electric fences installed to prevent wild elephants from entering villages can also deter tapirs, he adds.
The Sungai Dusun centre has housed a total of 34 tapirs since conservation work on the species started there in 2007. The numbers vary yearly due to mortality as well as releases to wild areas and other captive facilities.
The centre is now left with seven tapirs, following the sudden deaths of seven individuals over two weeks late last year, an occurrence which appears to replicate the 2003 tragedy in which Sungai Dusun’s whole population of five rare Sumatran rhinoceros died over an 18-day span from septicaemia (blood poisoning).
Last year’s tapir fatality between Sept 17 and Sept 29 was attributed to infection caused by the bacteria Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae, according to a press statement by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. To save the remaining six tapirs from further infection, it said antibiotics and anti-protozoa prescription for blood parasite were administered, and the animals were moved from the paddocks and night stalls into forested enclosures.
Today, there are seven tapirs at Sungai Dusun. Four are males: Boy (from Singapore Zoo), Kemat (rescued from Terengganu), Junior and Satria (both born at Sungai Dusun). The females are Mala (born in Zoo Melaka), Perabong and Bendul (both rescued from Negri Sembilan).
To date, the centre has seen eight births, the latest being that of Satria, in June 2010.
The plan all along was to release captive-breds into the forests of Sungai Dusun and other areas where the species has become depleted. However, introducing man-raised animals into the wild is no easy task. Last year, an attempt to introduce the tapir Mala into the Sungai Dusun forest came to naught as the Zoo Melaka-born animal found its way back to the paddock soon after its release.
Furthermore, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) protocol prohibits re-introductions into areas which house an existing population of the species. Sungai Dusun itself has wild tapirs, as do most forest reserves in the country, albeit in declining numbers.
One tapir, Ketupat, was released in 2009 into Sungai Dusun forest and three captive-bred tapirs – Khai, Ujang and Suraya – have been sent to Taman Negara in 2009 and 2010. Recent visitors to the park have observed two tapirs there – Khai and Tahan (a captive-born from Zoo Melaka). They say although both have been released into the wild, they return to the vicinity of the park headquarters every few days.
Following the string of tapir deaths, captive-breeding of the species at Sungai Dusun has ceased, though that of the Malayan porcupine continues. Mahathir says the centre might no longer be a suitable site what with oil palm estates, villages and other developments marching right up to its edges.
“Just last year, a poultry farm opened a kilometre away and livestock such as cattle and buffaloes graze just outside the reserve. There is a risk of these domestic animals transmitting harmful pathogens to the tapirs,” he says.
With the suitability of Sungai Dusun as a captive-breeding facility in question, there are talks of setting up a similar facility elsewhere as a replacement. However, some scientists see no point in further captive-breeding of the tapir, seeing that such animals would merely be to stock zoos both here and abroad.