Tapir Time

Baird’s Tapir, female adult, Belize

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.


Tapir Wikipedia.  Pronounced TAY-peer. We observed the Baird’s Tapir species.


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.


Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize


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.


Baird’s Tapirs, Belize, juvenile facing camera


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.


Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize


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).


Baird’s Tapir, front hoof

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.

Baird’s Tapirs, eating


103 thoughts on “Tapir Time

    • Aren’t those cool hooves, Dawn Renee? I’m glad you liked them. They have four toes on each front hoof, and three toes on the back. I thought of you when we were visiting there, because we had a basilisk family living under our cottage who I got to see every day. Basilisks are my favorite lizard, so I was in heaven.

    • It’s funny that you say that, Jill, because it felt like that when we were there. They didn’t even wince from the light, and they sure took their time lingering around us. Thank you, Jill, always a joy to “see” you.

  1. Jet i admit when the first photo came across my screen I jumped backward. Initially I thought it might be the least attractive animal I had ever seen. But as you described the protective mama and the quiet manner of their visit I could see the vulnerable beauty. I do wonder if they envy the elephant with a more massive trunk or if they are content with their more reasonable snout length. I don’t think they will win the Belize animal beauty pageant but what a thrill to find such a rare creature, and with a baby no less!

    • As always, Sue, I thoroughly enjoyed your comment. I was amazed at how beautiful they were in real life, and so gentle, and attractive even though the photos show them differently. When we were in the Amazon 15 years ago we went on a night walk to a tapir blind and waited until midnight for tapirs, and no one ever showed. So I have longingly been looking at photos of tapirs for over a decade. And oh what a pleasant and soothing surprise to find them so much more beautiful than I had ever imagined. Thanks so much, my friend, good to hear from you, and cheers to Dave too.

  2. Tapir time! Exotic and so different, with echoes of all the other animals you mentioned, it is a treat to learn about this nocturnal wonder. Loved your description of the dark rainforest setting, and bugs aside, what a lovely scene. So happy there was no cat attack and rampage through the night for this gentle pair.
    Thanks, Jet!

    • Always a joy to share the adventures with you, pc, you don’t miss a thing. There’s so much mystery and potential danger when you’re messing around in the dark in the jungle, so we, too, were glad it was a peaceful and sweet event with the tapirs. We saw several owls that night too, will share that another time. My warmest thanks, as always, and wishes to you and Mrs. PC for a happy weekend ahead.

  3. what an amazing experience, Jet! never heard of tapir until now. as i read along and look at the photographs, my heart goes to them. how gentle and peaceful they look. thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Yes, it is a thrill to see the creatures up close, Sylvia. You would know with all the lovely creatures who wander into your world. I’m really glad I could share this adventure with you. Thanks so much for your visit.

  4. When I was a small kid, I collected pictures of various animals, and one of them was a Tapir. Since then I had not hear anything about them, until your post today. Thank you so much for the information and the marvelous photos!

  5. Wow. It’s so great that you got to experience them in the wild. The last we saw tapirs was at the Singapore’s night zoo, I think. Thanks for sharing the post about them, Jet. Athena’s pictures of the tapirs are so wonderful considering they were taken at night of dark colored animals.

    • Thanks for your delightful comment and visit, Keng. Yes, photographing at night in the dark jungle is tricky, then dark animals too, you are right. She uses a flash extension nicknamed “Beamer” which helps to extend the light. Many thanks, my friend.

    • That was our first tapir in the wild, Cindy, and we had been going out on night drives in the tapir forests for 15 years. I’m sure you know the difficulty. So we were really happy to finally see them. Thanks so much.

  6. Awesome sighting and experience, Jet. Great photos, Athena. The hoof was especially surprising. Thanks for showcasing such an unusual and interesting animal. 😄

  7. What an amazing encounter, Jet! Hard to believe that these gentle and rather curious looking creatures can tame a wild cat. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the tapir adventure, Jo. If you were to see how very large the tapir is, you could see how they can tame a wild cat. Really enjoyed your visit, thank you, as always.

    • Yes, we were so lucky to find the mother and her young one. Two nights earlier we had come upon a margay, which is a wild cat, but most wild sightings are so instantaneous, like the margay. I’m so glad the tapirs stuck around longer, and also happy I could share the adventure with you, Bertie, thanks so much.

  8. I’m not sure if I would have been OK with bugs and bats, Jet. You are a brave woman, I must say. Yet look at what you saw! I never even heard of a tapir much less seen one. What a fantastic treat that I can actually see one from the comfort of my safe chair without fear of charging by a wild animal or getting a bat in my hair. How wonderful that you are able to go to these exotic places. Thank you so much for educating me today. Your photographs are stunning! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

    • I enjoyed your comment, Amy. My hair is kind of thick, and curly, and I have come across many creatures flying into it. But never a bat, fortunately. I live for the outdoor adventures, and oh how exciting I think the night drives are. I’m really glad I can share them with you, Amy, and that you enjoy it vicariously. There are plenty of things I enjoy vicariously too, because hey, we can’t be everywhere all the time, right? Warm thanks and smiles.

  9. It’s wonderful that you were able to see them in the wild after so many years. There are times that I think it’s the search that makes the discovery all the sweeter. Having Athena’s photos is even more special. Simply having the memory of that big, gentle creature might have been enough, but having photos to refresh your memory is even more special.

    You may or may not have realized that parodies come to me frequently, and when I read your title, I laughed aloud. Instantly, I transformed “tapir time” into the title of Don Williams’s song, “Tulsa Time.” The song itself has been playing in my head all day as I revised the lyrics. You can click the link to the tune, and follow along. It’s quirky, but fun. At least I only worked with the first verse and chorus!

    “I left California flyin’ in a big ol’ jet,
    Just about to lose my mind.
    I was goin’ to Costa Rica, maybe on to sweet Beliza
    Where the creatures all live so fine.
    My baby said I was crazy, my friends all called me lazy –
    I was gonna show them all this time,
    ‘Cause you know I ain’t no fool and I don’t need no more schoolin’
    I was born to walk the jungle line.

    Livin’ on tapir time,
    Livin’ on tapir time,
    Well, you know I’ve been through it
    When I set my watch back to it,
    Livin’ on tapir time.”

    • Dear Linda, I did full media here, copy and pasted your super lyrics into Word and read along as I listened to Don Williams’s song, and I laughed and laughed and laughed. What a gift this was for me! That tapir lick we slogged to in the Amazon, where we never saw a single tapir, was through knee-high mud. In the dark. Spiders the size of my hand. A baby crocodile in the shadows of a tree root. The next day I had to throw my hiking boots away because they smelled foul, like dead fish, from the mud that had oozed inside. All that and no tapir! So now I really am living on Tapir Time and I thank you whole-heartedly for sharing your gift and quirkiness with me. It is only 7:30 in the morning and already I have enjoyed this sparkling highlight of the day. My deepest, warmest thanks, Linda.

  10. I’m sure that you might assume that I’ve seen the tapirs, you would be right. I saw them in many occasions while I was in the Amazon Rainforest, their are not aggressive and in fact they avoid confrontations of any kind. They are big and strong but pacific. They look like a mixture of other animals, elephant, hippo, large pig. etc. No? Thank you for your post my friend. Many people have no idea they exist. 🙂

    • I am glad to hear you’ve seen many tapirs, HJ, and that you are familiar with their gentle disposition. It is so fortunate that you had that time and (mostly) great experiences in the Amazon, my friend. Thanks so much for your visit, always a pleasure.

    • I smiled at your wording here, Bill: “the start of an elephant.” A true delight to hear from you, especially knowing that you are very busy on your adventure. Many thanks.

    • Yes, it was really fun to come upon these tapirs that night. Night drives are tricky because they are at the end of a long day, there’s biting mosquitoes, and you often do not see anything. But you go out fully knowing it could end up that way, or conversely, you could see something. I guess that’s like life. Thank you, Janet, I enjoyed your visit. And I agree, it must be quite something to witness a tapir battling a cat.

    • Montucky, we were so thrilled to have seen them. There was a chalkboard at the lodge where people could write down their sightings. And even though it was dark and nobody was around the lodge at that hour, we still wrote down our finding on the chalkboard, used the flashlight. lol. I’m happy to be able to share it with you, thank you.

  11. Pretty amazing, the adventures you and Athena have! Good to know they are capable of defending themselves, though apparently not from humans so much.

    • Every day and night in the jungle is definitely an adventure. Even when you’re just sleeping in bed there’s howler monkeys howling, geckos on the ceiling, giant cockroaches on the floor, and night birds squawking outside your window. Hard to get sleep there! We used to do 2 or 3 weeks, but one week is the max now. Crazy place, the jungle. Thank you Gunta. I am on my way to see what beauty you’ve been collecting….

    • I’m really glad you enjoyed the story and the photos, Frank. The lighting was, as you suspected, super challenging. Rainforests are dark in the daytime, but at night they are pitch black. She uses a “beamer” on her flash attachment to extend the flash, and this makes a big difference. She had every camera we own going, it was as entertaining as the tapirs! My warm thanks.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the tapirs, Amy, and glad I could bring them to you. I thought of you yesterday when I read IM Pei’s obit in the NY Times. You were the person who highlighted this amazing architect for me. If you get a chance, try to read the article, it features most of his work. In the meantime, thank you for your friendship.

      • Thank you for mentioning IM Pei and letting me share what I knew about him and his work. My husband referred the article to me yesterday. Now, we all know a little bit more about him. I, too, appreciate our friendship.

  12. What a cool experience Jet, how fortunate you guys were to see this beautiful animal. Your photographs were superb with clarity. So glad I didn’t miss this post. Enjoyed reading about this rare animal.

    • I’m also glad, Mary, that you stopped by and got to enjoy the tapir post today. I’m glad you’re feeling better, too. Many thanks and smiles to you.

  13. The tapir almost seems mystical! Like others, I knew nothing about them. I think it’s telling that you were allowed a siting of them, and they stuck around so Athena could take those marvelous photos. Thank you for sharing your experience with this creature who I pray will be allowed to thrive.

  14. Not only does crossing tracks with tapirs constitute a rare and wonderful experience which your words reflect, but those photographs are super and seem to capture the spirit of these unusual mammals. Thank you, Jet, for sharing another very enjoyable and informative post.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Walt. I had fun writing it, and of course the experience of seeing them, and Athena capturing their images, was a grand adventure. Happy I could share it with you.

  15. What a wonderful and interesting creature, Jet! Spencer Baird was a zoologist with a wide range of interests and discoveries. Besides the tapir, his name also attaches to a sandpiper and – most remarkably given their relative rarity and obscurity even now – a beaked whale… Hard ti get 3 more different creatures! RH

    • I so enjoyed hearing about Spencer Baird’s colorful namesakes, RH. Sounds like a remarkable man I would like to know more about…. Many thanks, my friend, always a pleasure to hear from you.

  16. Pingback: Tapir Time — Jet Eliot | huggers.ca

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