Of the five modern-day species of tapir, four occur only in the New World and are uniformly dark brown/black in colour, whereas the fifth, the Malayan tapir Tapirus indicus, is an Old World speciality and is further differentiated by virtue of its 'saddle' - an area of striking white fur encompassing much of its torso and haunches (however, click here to check out a rare, all-black variant, known as Brevet's black tapir). Already known to exist in mainland Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, and the large Indonesian island of Sumatra, there is a good chance that this species' current distribution extends even further afield - onto the island of Borneo, where it supposedly died out only a few millennia ago during the Holocene, fossil remains having been found during cave excavations in the Borneo-situated Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah.
Over the years, a number of unconfirmed reports of tapirs existing in this extremely large yet still little-explored tropical island have been briefly documented in the literature, but these have incited conflicting opinions. Whereas, for instance, L.F. de Beaufort accordingly included Borneo within the accepted distribution range for T. indicus, Eric Mjöberg adopted a more circumspect stance, stating: "It is not yet certain that the tapir has been met with in Borneo, although there are persistent reports that an animal of its size and appearance exists in the interior of the country".
In 1949, however, Dr Tom Harrisson, then Curator of the Sarawak Museum, reported that tapirs were spied in Brunei (a small independent sultanate in Borneo) on two separate occasions some years earlier by Brunei resident E.E.F. Pretty, and he believed that the existence of such creatures in Borneo might yet be officially confirmed. Curiously, the Malayan tapir was featured on a 1909 postage stamp in a series issued by what was then North Borneo (now the Malaysian state of Sabah) that depicted species of animals supposedly native to this island. Wishful thinking perhaps - or an affirmation of reliable local knowledge that deserves formal acceptance by science?
When investigating the pedigree of any cryptozoological creature, we must always consider the possibility that the eyewitness reports ostensibly substantiating its existence are in truth nothing more than misidentifications of one or more species already known to science. In the case of Borneo's tapir, however, there is only one such species with which it might be confused - the Bornean bearded pig Sus barbatus. This beast possesses not only a long snout, but also a distinctly pale 'saddle' over its back and haunches.
Even so, with a total head-and-body length of 3.5-5.5 ft, a body height not exceeding 3 ft, and a weight of 330 lb, it falls far short of the Malayan tapir's stature - as the head-and-body length of this latter species (the largest of all modern-day tapirs) can exceed 8 ft, its shoulder height can reach 42 in, and its weight can typically be as much as 800 lb (but with certain exceptional specimens having weighed up to 1190 lb). Nor could the bearded pig be mistaken for immature tapirs that have not attained their full size - because just like those of the four American species, juvenile Malayan tapirs are striped, only acquiring their characteristic white-backed, unstriped appearance when adult.
In short, the bearded pig cannot be contemplated as a likely identity of supposed tapirs encountered in Borneo, but it does offer one item of interest with regard to this subject. Its distribution corresponds almost precisely with that of the Malayan tapir, except for one major difference - the bearded pig is known to exist on Borneo. Yet until near-Recent times during the present Holocene epoch, the Malayan tapir was known to occur here too (thereby greatly reducing the likelihood that any tapir living on this island today could belong to an unknown species). If the bearded pig could persist into the present day on Borneo, why not the tapir too? The island is more than sufficiently spacious to house a very respectable number of tapirs, and their ecological requirements are more than adequately catered for. Indeed, the absence of the Malayan tapir from Borneo is really far more of a mystery than its disputed existence there!
According to the report (and always assuming, of course, that this entire episode was not a fabrication or a dramatic distortion of some much more commonplace event), the captured creature's body was similar to that of a tiger, its neck resembled that of a lion, it had an elephant-like trunk and the ears of a cow, its legs recalled those of a goat but its feet had chicken-like claws, and it reputedly sported a goatee beard like a billy goat's. Emphasising its composite appearance, the news agency referred to this amalgamated animal as a 'tigelboat' - a portmanteau word presumably derived from 'TIGEr', 'Lion', 'Bird', and 'gOAT'.
In spite of its bizarre appearance (or because of it?), the 'tigelboat' apparently failed to elicit any interest from scientists - which is a tragedy. If only someone had taken the trouble to analyse its description methodically, a major zoological discovery might well have been made - for as I have shown in various of my writings, when considered carefully it can be readily translated to reveal a creature that can be identified after all.
Chromolithograph from 1864 depicting an adult Malayan tapir and its striped offspring (public domain)
Let us examine the features of the 'tigelboat' one at a time. If its body was similar to a tiger's, this must surely mean that it was striped. Equally, as the most noticeable aspect of a lion's neck is its mane, the tigelboat probably had a mane or a ridge of hair along its neck. An elephant-like trunk implies the presence of an elongated snout and upper lip, and cow-like ears would be relatively large and ovoid. If its legs recalled a goat's, then they must have been fairly long and sturdy (but not massively constructed), and chicken-like claws could be interpreted either as claws like those of certain mammalian carnivores or as distinctive, pointed hooves. As for its goatee, this might been merely a tuft of hair on its chin.
The tigelboat is an impossible hybrid no longer. Combine most of the translated features noted above, and the result is a description that can now be seen to portray very accurately a particular creature already familiar to science - a juvenile tapir. As already noted, unlike the adult the juvenile tapir is striped. Moreover, its ears are certainly large and ovoid, its limbs fairly long and sturdy but not massive, its hooves distinctive and pointed, and its snout and upper lip drawn out into a conspicuous proboscis or trunk.
Juvenile Malayan tapir, clearly possessing the tigelboat's most notable characteristics (public domain)
It is true, of course, that whereas its three New World relatives are maned, the Malayan tapir normally lacks any notable extent of hair upon its neck (though juveniles are somewhat hairier than adult); equally, it is not bearded. However, during its existence upon the island of Borneo for 10,000 years since the end of the Pleistocene, totally separated from all other populations of T. indicus elsewhere in Asia, it is probable that a Bornean contingent of Malayan tapirs would evolve one or two morphological idiosyncrasies (just as isolated populations of many other widely distributed animal species have done). Nothing very spectacular, but enough to permit differentiation from all other T. indicus specimens; such features could readily include a mane or a beard or both.
Certainly, in view of the otherwise impressive correspondence between the tigelboat and a juvenile tapir, the mere presence of a mane and beard is much too insignificant morphologically to challenge the identification of the former beast as the latter one.
The capture in Borneo of what was assuredly a young Malayan tapir should have attracted attention from zoologists, especially as the animal was maintained alive for a time at a prison in Tengarong. Tragically, however, it received no attention at all, and eventually it 'disappeared' - the fate of so many mystery beasts. No further news has emerged regarding this monumentally missed opportunity, and the whereabouts of the tigelboat's remains are unknown - so there is no skeleton or skull available for identification, let alone the living animal itself. Not even a photograph of it has turned up, and so the Bornean tapir is still a non-existent member of this island's fauna - at least as far as official records are concerned.
Even so, there is still hope that its existence will be confirmed one day. Borneo is a huge island, with extensive, little-penetrated rainforests and swamplands - ideal territory for secretive tapirs. And for absolute proof that large beasts can remain undetected here, look no further than the Sumatran rhinoceros Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, deemed extinct in Sarawak from the early 1940s - until a herd was found in a remote Sarawak valley in 1984.
If rhinos can exist unknown to science in parts of Borneo, how much greater is the likelihood that the smaller, well-camouflaged Malayan tapir can elude discovery there too?
This ShukerNature blog post is excerpted and updated from my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors.