Puntung, one of Malaysia's last surviving Sumatran rhinos, is now at death's door. The female rhino has been diagnosed with squamous cell cancer, which has been spreading rapidly over the last few weeks. (Latest photo of Puntung courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department)

KOTA KINABALU: Puntung, one of Malaysia's last surviving Sumatran rhinos, is now at death's door.

The female rhino has been diagnosed with squamous cell cancer, which has been spreading rapidly over the last few weeks.

Specialists from various countries have all delivered the same devastating verdict: with or without treatment, the cancer will be fatal for the 25-year-old rhino.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga, announcing this, said that as of today, Puntung can no longer breathe through her left nostril.

"She can also no longer vocalise. She is in pain and her condition is declining fast.

"Other than administering painkillers, there is nothing more anyone can do," he said.

Tuuga said the department has been left with little choice but to make a very difficult decision.

"We are left with no other recourse except to agree with professional medical advice and accordingly, we have authorised euthanasia."

"This was a very difficult decision to make, but the specialists agree that on balance, this is the best out of a very small number of unpleasant choices," he said.

The euthanasia will be done on June 15.

In April, Puntung underwent an operation to extract two molars and a premolar from the upper left side of her jaw, which had been causing severe abscess.

The surgery was performed by veterinary dentist Dr Tum Chinkangsadarn from Thailand, who found that the source of the abscess was a formation caused by an accumulation of bacteria on the severely-calcified molars.

The calcification also loosened two adjacent teeth.

Tuuga said it turned out that the swelling on Puntung’s left cheek that alerted them to the infected tooth root had a more serious origin.

"After the surgery, the swelling progressed, and two subsequent biopsies revealed squamous cell carcinoma," explained Tuuga.

Sabah is home to only three out of the last few critically-endangered Sumatran rhinos. The remaining numbers are in Indonesia.

Puntung, another female rhino Iman, and male Kertam, are being cared by a non-governmental organisation, Borneo Rhino Alliance, at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu.

Puntung was captured in 2011. It was subsequently established that she was the last remaining wild rhino in the Reserve.

The loss of Puntung would prove to be a catastrophic loss to the future of the species as at 25-years-old, she still has a few years of egg production left to be used for in-vitro fertilisation.