A Tapir’s Tale

by Isaac Yuen


I turn to the page on you, eventually. I am sorry that it’s been so long, that I am so late. This edition of All the World’s Animals in my hands is not the one I had growing up, but a used copy I scoured from the Internet. I had to scour because I had forgotten names, left only with scraps of moods and textures. A coarse canvas cover, navy-blue. A dazzle of zebras under letters of embossed gold. Thoughts of you pushed me to make the effort though, and the thin tome on hoofed mammals arrives, upper corner bent, creasing the sections on pygmy hogs and hippopotami, but sparing the brindled gnu, the Himalayan tahrs.

The scent of paper, bleached yet vegetal, pulls me through the years. As I leaf through the pages, the boy within stirs to life, shyly at first, then with unabashed glee. We pause at the section on camels and llama-kin, page 74, to linger on photographs of dainty vicunas and long-lashed guanacos. Next stop, page 92, where optimal foraging theory is explained through a moose’s salt tooth for pondweed and bladderworts. Pulses quicken in concert on page 102, still a favorite, as we dream of pronghorns with matchstick legs blazing across golden fields beneath azure skies.

Enough about me. Back to you. Back to tapirs. Out of all the world’s odd and even-toed ungulates, it is your family, the Tapiridae that I wish most to revisit. Your clan occupies a scant two-page spread, compared to eight reserved for mixed goats and twelve on assorted antelope. Even hyraxes, those obscure fur clumps that live up trees, on rocks, in bushes, command four. A pity. Your section contains no live photographs, only muted watercolors for each species: Mountain, Brazilian, Malayan, and you – at the bottom of the page – Baird’s, with young. Unlike your bristle-maned South American sibling or your panda-esque Asian relation, the illustration does you no favours. You are portrayed in an awkward pose, neither sitting nor standing. The nose is too big, even for you. You resemble more a misshapen pig than one of a lineage that stretches back twenty million years unchanged. Apologies for comparing you to another instead of allowing you to be what you are. I’m forgetting myself.


It’s been a decade since I saw you last, when I traveled to Belize to attend a field school to cap off my biology undergrad. It was in Belize where I first learned the importance of hydration, unofficial derivations of campfire songs, the shoe-piercing capabilities of fer-de-lance fangs, and most importantly, the words and deeds that forge lifelong bonds and shapes one’s course. Those times spent hiking through premontane forests, camping in lowland jungles, and snorkeling near mangrove roots remain dear to me. As do my encounters with you.

I met you first at the Belize zoo. Up close, I understood why people dubbed you part pig, part hippo and cow, you being stout and slick and barrel-esque. Watching you pace behind gridded squares, I recalled other meetings, with other creatures. A bull elephant when I was four, caked in yellow dust behind a moat at a Hong Kong zoo long defunct. A rescued rhinoceros calf in Nepal three years ago, orphaned by hunters and blinded by villagers. The same mix of love and pity.

From behind the fence you flirted with my colleague Max, the same Max who broke up with his girlfriend back home to pursue new conquests. You posed for him, letting him snap shots of you, the same ones I’m scrolling through on my computer. Who could resist those dark doe eyes, that moist flared trunk? You lured him in, then turned and doused his shoes and pants with a jet of urine.

Oh, how we laughed and laughed.


Our next encounter came eleven days later during a canoe trip down one of Belize’s major waterways. After days of camping in Honduran pine forests and a tense morning threading the rapids of the Cave Branches tributary, I breathed a sigh of relief as we eased into the lazy meanders of the Sibun.

It was late morning. My canoe partner Sammy and I were alone, ahead of some and behind others of the group. The wind was down. A patch of clouds shrouded the sun, but the afterglow suffused the air and laid bare the river’s supple curls and secret riffles. Two weeks of full-on sun had turned me mahogany-brown, and I was glad for the brief reprieve. Still I fared better than my pink and peeling friend. Poor Sammy from Saskatchewan.

I cannot recall the exact order of events that follow. When I concentrate memories begin to surface as flickers, like glints of minnows scattered by diving kingfishers, like flash sightings of otters slipping into dark waters. The dull knife edge of a nearby karst shore against palm. The airy wake trailing a pair of fishing bats on hair and scalp. Their wheeling forms crossing filigree shadows cast by overhanging trees. A ripe fig falls in the water and ripples out. Interplay between sound and silence. Layers and moments circling a creation unfinished.

You shattered that tranquility for me. I do not begrudge you, but you were undoubtedly the cause. We jammed our paddles down into gravel to slow to where the others stopped, forming a half-ring around a raised section of the riverbed. Tracing the gazes of the others, I spotted you, this time inert, in parts: Hoofed feet, butchered neat, exposing the white of joints, light enough to be stirred by the current but too heavy to be carried away. One set of hind legs, thick and three-toed. A pair of forelimbs, an extra digit on each arm, smaller and askew, higher up on the foot.

Functional only on soft ground, my blue book states.

Butchered. I choose this term now not as an attempt to evoke high dramatics, but rather the opposite, as resistance against the impulse, even after all these years. For butchery is a cold and clinical act, the ultimate reduction. It still fits.

Around the bend and before a waterfall laid the rest of you, an open chest of organs and viscera that glistened like a cache of pale and dark jewels. In the nearby shallows we recovered your hide and head. It took two to lift up your sodden coat out of the water, one corner of it thick with maggots. How strange, the transition between life and object, from you to it. I examined your head up close, in profile. The head looked ready to be mounted, with the only blemish being a hole just below the white-tipped ears. One bullet sent carefully into the skull. Dark doe eyes.

No smell. No blood spooled thin from the remains, having already been cleansed by the water. The ruined body bulked like one of the many grey boulders that had always been part of the channel. The noon heat buzzed. Birds sang. The river flowed on. So we went on.

Sammy took pictures, but later lost them when he dropped his camera into saltwater.


To this day, I do not know why you were killed that May morning. My professor speculated that poachers may have been supplying meat for cruise ships seeking to entice tourists with “a taste of Belize.” My book states that your hide provides good-quality leather, much prized for whips and bridles. But nothing was taken. No sense was to be had. Parts of you laid strewn about the river like toy blocks awaiting assembly.


Should I apologize? If it helps, then I offer it. You were not yet fully grown, having shed your baby coat of spots and stripes only months prior, and my book remarks that your lifespan is measured in decades. Would you be alive today if not for that fateful encounter? Perhaps you would have perished in a clash with the resident jaguar that exists in my mind as your eternal foe. Or maybe both of you would have succumbed to the strains threatening so many species around the world, like the fading saiga and screwhorn antelopes of my book, like the Spanish ibex and scimitar oryx that have vanished since its publication. But most likely, I suspect you would still be roaming those lowland jungles, siring and bearing, growing wise to the mysteries of tapir life. For this theft of years, as part of the tribe that is the coming of the cruise ship, I am sorry.

Yet I do not believe an apology is what you seek. We both know that I played no role in your death, was not the one who robbed you of life. Perhaps you would even regard such a gesture as an insult, a platitude to excuse those responsible.

What I can offer instead, should you choose to accept it, is to serve as witness. To be the one who tells your tale and ensures that it echoes beyond death. Perhaps that is why I sought out this old book on the tenth anniversary of our last meeting, so that I could converse with you once more. Tapir, you who now exist only within these pages, in these lines of words I write, can I tell you of your legacy?

After our meeting, I found myself sensitized to those who fight to protect the natural world.  A parasitologist instilling in students a reverence for the lowliest of creatures. A Hawaiian working to save his native koa and ‘Ōhi’a Lehua forests from invasive ginger and guava. A Nepali boy soaking up the Latin names of ibises and flycatchers spotted by his park ranger brother. A friend single-handedly building my province’s largest volunteer conservation network from her basement. An author extending her consideration to the realities of ants, lichen, and rock. A man, moved by grief and joy, embarking on a journey towards connecting the human and non-human.

But you do not ask questions. Nor do you accept answers. For all our encounters and all my musings, I realize now that I have never heard your voice. Perhaps it is time I cast off my words in exchange for silence. Maybe then I will hear what no art or weave of phrase can teach me. Perhaps then I will at last understand your slow and secret tongue. I close the book and trace my finger along the spine, lingering on the gilded letters that form the title: All the World’s Animals. Not forgotten.


Isaac Yuen pens critical and creative work exploring the intersection of nature, culture, and identity. An attendee of the 2015 Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference, he is the creator of Ekostories, an essay blog that explores the power of narratives to affect personal and societal change.