Zookeepers nurse tapir calf born at San Diego Zoo

A 13-day-old endangered Baird’s tapir calf strutted his unique striped coat—with a watermelon-like pattern—before his scheduled bottle feeding at the Zoo’s Harry and Grace Steele Elephant Odyssey. (Photo: San Diego Zoo)

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Zoo welcomed its first endangered Baird’s tapir calf in 30 years, the organization announced Tuesday.

Baird’s tapirs are herbivorous mammals similar in shape to pigs, but with short trunks. Calf coats also feature spots and stripes, like the surface of a watermelon, that serve as camouflage in the dispersed light of forest floor habitats.

First-time mom Luna gave birth June 13 after a 13-month gestation period, though she hasn’t provided nursing opportunities for the newborn. With no explanation for Luna’s hesitance — which also happens among other species in the animal kingdom — staff stepped in to rear the calf to ensure consistent feeding and strong health.

The calf’s birth and upbringing is a valuable research opportunity, animal care manager Matt Akel said.

“Animal care and veterinary staff performed ultrasounds, using protective contact, for months leading up to the calf’s birth, to identify milestones in Luna’s pregnancy and provide useful information for future pregnancies of this endangered species,” he said. “The last endangered Baird’s calf born at the zoo was in 1988, so we’re thrilled with the arrival of this male — and happy to provide him with optimal care, since mom wasn’t successful.”

The calf, which weighed 22 pounds at birth, receives five bottle feedings per day. Keepers initially milked Luna to provide the calf with necessary nutrition. Now, the animal’s diet is supplemented with goat’s milk and a protein mixture.

Luna and the newborn are able to interact, and staff are monitoring both animals to see if full reintroduction may eventually be possible.

The calf will begin to lose his distinctive markings after a few months, eventually resembling a miniature adult before he is a year old. Visitors can see the animal in a mixed-species zoo habitat that also features capybaras and guanacos.

Native to Mexico and Central America, the calves are key to maintaining biological diversity in tropical forests, according to the zoo. Tapirs disperse seeds and keep forest floors fertilized, which facilitates growth of new plants that provide food and shelter.

Habitat loss and hunting have contributed to an estimated 50-percent population decline over the last 30 years.

The zoo participates in a handful of projects to maintain a genetically viable species population and prevent extinction.

Officials work with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Tapir Specialist Group and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on its Baird’s tapir Species Survival Plan.