More needs to be done to ensure the survival of some of the world’s most endangered wildlife species. At least one, the Sumatran rhino, is virtually gone in the wild, except for two, a male and female in captivity. A few conservationists told the ‘New Sunday Times’ about their frustrations, challenges and hopes.
THE last female Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, Iman, almost died recently at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu, Sabah.
It triggered a round-the-clock watch by a dedicated team that has cared for rhinos for 10 years.
Iman’s condition has gradually improved, but the reality remains: she has a tumour in the uterus.
According to the latest update from Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga, Iman’s uterus continues to bleed, and no experts know how to deal with it.
On June 4 last year, Puntung, one of the three rhinos at Tabin, was euthanised after prolonged sickness.
Only Iman and Kertam, or Tam, remain at the enclosure, where they are closely monitored within the 120,000ha reserve.
Both are under the care of a team under the Borneo Rhino Alliance, an organisation dedicated to saving Sumatran rhinos from extinction.
Leading the team is veterinarian and field manager Dr Zaini Zahari Zainuddin, who has been with the rhinos from the start when Kertam was first captured in 2008, followed by Puntung in 2011 and Iman in 2014.
Puntung’s death has raised the red flag on the survival of other species, such as the tembadau (or banteng), sunda clouded leopard, Bornean pygmy elephant, Malayan sun bear and Malayan pangolin.
Unlike Sumatran rhinos, which became endangered in the last five decades due to its small population over a vast area, the other species are threatened by human activities.
Prized for their meat, tusk, skin, organs and scales, or abhorred when they enter human settlements or plantations, many of these species end up dead.
On elephants, Augustine says in the last 14 months, nine have been killed, some have been mutilated and some have had tracking collars attached to them.
“Some are poached for their tusks. We have encountered cases where Indonesians sought the ivory to be used as dowry.
“For those that are found dead with their tusks intact, it remains a mystery to us,” he says, adding that investigations are determining if the elephants are victims of human-elephant conflict.
Marc Ancrenaz, scientific director of the Borneo-based conservation organisation Hutan, says breeding elephants in captivity is not vital as there are enough of the species in the wild.
“Focus should be on protecting elephants in the wild.
“Hunting is their main threat and mitigation efforts are needed.”
In 2013, Sabah opened the Bornean Elephant Sanctuary in Kinabatangan as a base for efforts to protect the species.
Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora) Executive director Datuk Dr Junaidi Payne, on Sumatran rhinos
“The survival of Sumatran rhinos depend on in-vitro fertilisation. There is a need for Malaysia and Indonesia to work together on this.
“This species dates back 20 million years, but Indonesia and Malaysia are only less than 100 years old.
“The survival of the Sumatran rhino is a metaphor for mankind’s inadequacy to do much other than breed and develop technology by means other than evolution by natural selection.
“Every human will die and leave nothing other than the legacy of whatever efforts they made while alive. Saving Sumatran rhinos is one of the few worthwhile things one can do.
“All ventures ultimately depend on the passion and competence of the small number of people actively involved in it over many years.
“Funding and governments are typically the two major hurdles to achieving success.
“I chose the Sumatran rhino in 1977 because it was the most endangered species in Malaysia at the time and I live in Malaysia.
“I believe my colleagues Bora chairman Dr Abdul Hamid Ahmad and veterinarian Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin have similar personal experiences. It is all down to personal motivations.
“Having one programme with the sole goal of boosting rhino births has always been the only option for this species.
“We will fight for and aspire to reach that aim until it becomes a reality, or until the idiots win and the species goes extinct.
“The Indonesian government has not expressed interest in in-vitro fertilisation or artificial insemination for the Sumatran rhino. I have no idea why.
“But, they have one of the world’s best in-vitro specialists, Professor Arief Boediono, who has worked with us in Malaysia at the Agro Biotechnology Institute in Serdang.
“Of the seven Sumtatran rhinos in captivity in Indonesia, three are adult females. Of the three, only one, Ratu, has bred and had two offspring.”
Danau Girang Field Centre Pangolin conservation officer Elisa Panjang, on pangolins
“The pangolin is one of the most mysterious creatures on earth as scientists continue to face challenges in studying them due to their secretive behaviour.
“It is the most poached and trafficked wildlife species in the world.
“This includes the Sunda pangolin, also known as the Malayan or Javan pangolin, found in Southeast Asia, including Sabah.
“No study has been done on pangolins in the wild. Its population in Malaysia remains unknown.
“In Sabah, the pangolin is widely distributed in forested areas, but it can also adapt to oil palm plantations, fragmented and degraded forests, as well as near human settlements.
“In Sabah, researchers have tagged two pangolins with satellite tracking devices — the first known application to study the species. But, studying their movement and getting conclusive data will take time.
“There have been major cases of pangolin scales being smuggled in and out of Sabah, but without tests, we cannot be certain if the scales are sourced locally or from outside the country.
“The Asian pangolin population is decreasing due to rampant poaching and illegal trade.
“Their scales are usually sold for use as ornaments or medicinal purposes.
“In Asia, the average price for a pangolin is US$1,000 (RM3,997).
“Due to the lucrative business, it is believed that Sabah folk collect and keep pangolin scales and get middlemen to smuggle them out of the state.”
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre chief executive officer Dr Wong Siew Te, on sun bears
“The sun bear is a protected species under many wildlife laws across Southeast Asia.
“According to these laws, anyone found killing, keeping, selling, buying, possessing or consuming sun bears or its body parts are subject to prosecution in court and punishment.
“Unfortunately, only a very tiny portion of the offenders are prosecuted and punished.
“Sun bears reproduce at a slow rate in the wild. Their population cannot withstand any level of human-caused mortality.
“Illegal activities like poaching, selling, consuming and keeping sun bears will all drive the remaining population to local extinction, regional extinction and finally, total extinction.
“Strengthening law enforcement is difficult, challenging, complicated and requires the most resources to conserve protected and endangered species.
“It requires very close partnerships between many government agencies, with sufficient support from uniformed forces and the judiciary.
“All personnel involved in law enforcement must be well-trained and have a background and interest on the matter to do the job right. They must also treat these wildlife crime cases as serious as human crime.
“The sun bear is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, although the current status and population number is not known.
“Since 2008, the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok, Sandakan, has cared for 56 sun bears, but nine have died for various reasons, two have been released into the wild and one escaped after 16 hours at the centre.
“Since the centre was opened, and following the conservation education programme introduced five years ago, public awareness of sun bears has increased especially among locals.
“Improving conservation awareness in rural communities remain a challenge due to limited resources, such as access to mass media, the Internet and technology for rural folk to obtain information.
“Including conservation awareness in school curriculum and at the college level needs to be considered to build a society that supports wildlife conservation.”
Danau Girang Field Centre research and training facility director Dr Benoit Goossens, on tembadau and Sunda clouded leopard
“Swift action needs to be taken to carry out captive breeding of the tembadau, or banteng, in Sabah.
“It is estimated that only 400 are left in the wild. It is the second-most endangered species in the state.
“Last year, four killings of the tembadau were identified. On average, 12 are killed annually, including those that go unreported.
“This is where a dedicated enforcement team with a crime analyst will help keep poachers and smugglers in check.
“Poachers use sophisticated weapons to kill the animal.
“There are suggestions that its meat are exported because of its similarity to domesticated cattle, such as buffaloes.
“The same goes for the dwindling number of Sunda clouded leopards in the wild. They are highly sought after by hunters.
“A joint study by Danau Girang, Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Universiti Malaysia Sabah and Sabah Wildlife Department has found that the number of the species is declining.
“But the study suggests that appropriate management of commercial forests could enhance its conservation value.
“For instance, limiting road access in forest interiors could reduce pressure from poaching and increase enforcement patrols in strategic areas.”