KOTA KINABALU: Not so long ago, hopes were high on finding the Sumatran rhinoceros in the wild in Sabah. It was one of the rarest species in the world and an all out effort was undertaken to prevent it from becoming extinct.
Despite the optimism, backed with a belief that there could be about 30 or more wild rhinos in the state, only three were caught in the last 20 years. Flags were raised recently to urgently conserve the species as reality sank in.
In May, state Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun revealed that the three captive rhinos were possibly the only ones left in the country.
“We are facing the prospect of our Sumatran rhinos going extinct in our lifetime,” he said.
The following month, an international scientific journal on conservation, Oryx, published a report with a similar conclusion, confirming what Masidi said.
Conservation efforts began in 2000 by an organisation called SOS Rhino, later renamed SOS Rhino Borneo, and eventually became the Borneo Rhino Alliance or Bora.
For more than a decade, teams of trackers, rangers and scientists were routinely despatched into jungles to track down Sumatran rhinos at the slightest word, or evidence, of its possible existence.
Two potential areas identified as the animal’s habitat were the 120,000ha Tabin Wildlife Reserve and 80,000ha Danum Valley conservation area, both in Lahad Datu. But surveys were also conducted in other forests in the east coast of Sabah.
Soon, telltale signs began appearing and by 2008, a male rhino was caught outside of Tabin at a plantation owned by Kertam Holdings, where it got its namesake.
A captive female known as Gelugub was available back then, but all attempts failed to produce any offspring from the two.
The age of the female rhino, caught in Kinabatangan in 1994, might have been a factor that contributed to its infertility.
Then, in 2011, a female with a severed front left hoof was caught. This was four years after it was first discovered within the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Hopes withered as it was discovered that it had cysts in its reproductive organs.
Last year, another potential mate was found for Kertam at the Danum Valley conservation area, but like the others, Iman, as it was eventually named, had a tumour as big as a football in her uterus.
Bora executive director Datuk Junaidy Payne, who is also co-author of the report published in Oryx, had said a number of baby Sumatran rhinos must be produced to save the species from extinction.
“The only way now to achieve that is to use in vitro fertilisation to produce the embryos, and to have a few fertile females in well-managed facilities and excellent care for the surrogate mothers.”
To do this, Payne had suggested that all parties work together as each rhino needed to be closely managed to ensure the survival of the species.
Echoing similar sentiments in a statement recently, Rasmus Gren Havmøller, the lead author of the Oryx report on the rhinos, said the key to saving the species relied on whether “all remaining Sumatran rhinos are viewed as a metapopulation”.
This meant that all should be managed in a single programme across national and international borders in order to maximise the overall birth rate, including individual animals held in captivity, he said.
In Indonesia, there are about 100 Sumatran rhinos in the wild and five in captivity. There is also a male rhinoceros at the Cincinnati Zoo in the United States.
Sperm and egg cells had been collected from the three rhinos in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the hope that a surrogate mother could be found someday.
Experts from Universiti Putra Malaysia, Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute in Serdang, Selangor, and Leibniz Institute of Wildlife in Berlin, Germany, are working with Bora to achieve this. An obvious option to save the rhinos from extinction would be to work with Indonesia.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said he would bring up the possibility of a rhino breeding programme when he meets his Indonesian counterpart, Siti Burbaya of the Forestry and Environment Ministry, soon.
Sabah Wildlife director William Baya had said to save the rhinos from extinction, Malaysia and Indonesia had to work together.
“I hope this will happen sooner rather than later as the Sumatran rhinos are living on borrowed time.”