With so many interesting and exotic animals living in Belize, choosing to see the Baird’s Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) may seem a little unusual. Baird’s tapirs are the national animals of the country and are rarely seen in the rainforests and jungles of Belize primarily because they are only active at nighttime and spend most of their lives completely alone.
But there’s a lot to appreciate about these creatures, the largest indigenous land mammal in Belize. Baird’s tapirs are named for Spencer Fullerton Baird, an American naturalist who first observed the animals in Mexico in 1843 but are known as “mountain cows” by Belizeans.
These mammals can grow up to six feet long (two meters) and weigh up to 500 pounds (225 kilograms). Baird’s tapirs are entirely vegetarian, usually feeding on fruits, leaves, grasses, and aquatic vegetation but they are happy to snack on corn and other crops when they get a chance. But don’t let their size fool you. Despite their big size and ungainly appearance, they are fantastic swimmers. In Belize, Baird’s tapirs range across vast territories, often having to cross rivers, creeks, and wetlands. These land mammals are also excellent at climbing steep terrain even in the thickest jungle.
It takes approximately 13 months for a Baird’s tapir to gestate and three years to grow to full maturity. During those three years, young tapirs will stay close to their mothers, the only time in their lives when they will live in proximity to their parents. It is estimated that they can live 30 or more years in the wild.
Baird’s tapirs don’t actually look like a cow. Their appearance is more of a big, gray anteater or elephant due to their long, prehensile nose. These mammals are actually most closely related to horses and rhinoceroses. Although it’s hard to spot a tapir in the wild, the tracks they leave behind are easily identifiable, a deep, splayed hoofmark with four toes in front and three in the rear.
Baird’s tapirs were once found all throughout Central and South America, but their numbers have dwindled due to poaching and the encroachment of human developments. Today, Belize is home to some of the biggest populations of these mammals. Baird’s tapirs don’t pose any risk to humans. When surprised, they usually like to flee to the nearest body of water, but on occasion, they will emit a loud whistle and stamp their feet.