Tapirs are large, four-legged mammals found primarily in the jungles of Central and South America. They are rare. How very exciting it was then, to have ten minutes in the wild with this magnificent animal.
Adding to the difficulty of finding them, they are nocturnal, and classified as Endangered or Vulnerable. Currently there are five tapir species in the world, with one small population in Southeast Asia and all the rest in the New World. The list of extinct tapir species is far longer than the extant list.
Athena and I were on a night drive, standing in the back of a pick-up truck in the jungles of Belize. We had two guides: one was driving, the other was spotting, i.e. shining a strong spotlight on the trees as we drove along.
Five minutes after we began, the driver stopped and turned off the truck. None of us spoke. With the aid of the spotlight, we could see branches moving a few feet ahead, and just then a long snout reached out of the thicket.
In spite of our excitement we stayed silent, inviting it to come out so we could see it better.
Then another snout, this one considerably smaller, peered out from behind the branches; and the mother and juvenile cautiously but steadily walked out of the forest. Their eight hooves clopped as they tentatively walked in front of our truck and crossed the narrow road.
As they crossed, the adult tapir wiggled her wet nose, sniffing our scent as she determined if she and her youngster were safe.
Apparently she knew we were there only to admire, for she led her youth forward and they casually continued to eat the leaves. Baby tapirs are striped and spotted; this juvenile, with no more baby skin, was estimated to be 1.5 years old.
The largest native herbivore in the New World tropics, tapirs are usually wary of humans, for they have been hunted close to extinction, and their forest habitat continues to disappear. But we were in a preserve where they are surrounded by forest and protected.
Here we were all safe in the dark rainforest, with moths and bats and low-hanging palm fronds casting eerie shadows. We were fellow mammals curiously looking at one another.
Their long proboscis noses wiggled and sniffed. On both tapirs the elephantine snout sniffed the leaves and tore them from the branch, shoveling the greenery into the mouth.
As we continued to watch, I was frequently reminded of other mammals. The elephant came quickly to mind. Tapirs use their prehensile noses for grasping, just like the elephant with its trunk. Their gentle disposition also reminded me of elephants. The clopping sound of their ungulate hooves reminded me of horses.
When they walked very close to the back of our vehicle, I remember wondering if they could charge like their perissodactyl relative the rhinoceros.
An adult tapir weighs about 500 pounds (227 kg).
Tapirs have a very thick skin which aids them when the wild cats pounce on them. Their tough skin can retract, rejecting the cat claws. And if a cat still insists on hanging on, the tapir will violently run through the jungle slamming the cat against a tree.
But that night there was no slamming or charging. Mosquitoes were biting, moths and bats were swooping, but the tapirs just meandered along…no hurries, no worries.
They walked a full circle around us, first crossing the road in front of the truck, eating leaves on our right, then crossing the road in back, and eating the leaves on our left. Soon after that, they vanished into the forest.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.