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Despite the failed attempt of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment, there is still hope for Iman and Sumatran rhinos. - NSTP/File pic

KOTA KINABALU: In vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment on an egg retrieved from Iman – the last Sumatran rhino in Malaysia – failed earlier this month.

Specialists attempting to save the species from extinction saw the fertilised cell degenerate within days after thawed-out sperm – harvested from Tam, the last male rhino – was injected into it.

Tam himself has since died.

It is learnt that the egg cell had failed to divide after fertilisation, and no embryo was formed.

However, a source said that while the failure is disheartening, "The team believes efforts should continue and that we should learn from the experience".

The treatment was led by Professor Arief Boediono, a world-class IVF practitioner from Universiti Pertanian Bogor, Indonesia; as well as the Centre for Wildlife and Livestock Innovation, Faculty of Sustainable Agriculture, University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) in Sandakan.

The process of retrieving the egg from Iman was conducted by a team of experts from the Leibniz Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, led by Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu, together with the Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora).

"We believe the quality of the sperm was low, and that to continue the IVF treatment effort, we need to try and get sperm from rhinos in captivity in Indonesia.

"For now, Iman is relatively healthy, and though she has a tumour in her uterus, she is still producing oocytes, or eggs," he said, but added that there is worry that the rhino may stop ovulating.

It was previously believed that the poor quality of Tam’s sperm was a factor in similar failures in previous in vitro attempts. Experts in Sabah, however, will continue to collaborate with Indonesia in the pioneering efforts.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga had previously expressed hope in the attempt to produce an embryo through the in vitro process for the continuation of the species.

Tam’s sperm was retrieved, frozen and kept for breeding purposes before he died in May. However, Iman can no longer get pregnant due to the uterine tumour that is plaguing her.

In August, Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Christina Liew led a delegation of state representatives and the department to Indonesia to discuss conservation efforts for the Sumatran rhinoceros.

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