Last Sumatran rhinoceros following the death of Iman at 5.35pm. NSTP/ Courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department

KOTA KINABALU: Malaysia has done its level best to save the Sumatran rhinoceros since the 1980s, including mooting breeding programmes and pursuing conservation collaborations with key parties – all to no avail.

Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora) executive director Dr John Payne told the New Straits Times that many opportunities to save the species had been rejected by “people in positions of authority.”

"Starting with International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) experts in 1984, who argued that only non-breeding Sumatran rhinos should be brought into a global managed breeding programme," he said today.

The IUCN is the world's main authority on the species’ conservation.

Payne observed that the same indifferent attitude prevails today.

"I am particularly disappointed that a letter of intent for collaboration signed by key parties in 2012 has been ignored by all parties, except the government of Malaysia and Sabah as well as Bora, despite our numerous repeated attempts to engage," he said.

Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora) executive director Dr John Payne told the New Straits Times that many opportunities to save the species had been rejected by “people in positions of authority.’

In August this year, Deputy Chief Minister cum state Tourism, Culture, and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew led a Sabah delegation to Jakarta to discuss a Malaysia-Indonesia rhino conservation collaboration.

Payne was part of the delegation, along with Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga and WWF-Malaysia conservation director Dr Henry Chan.

The meeting with Indonesia is said to have borne fruit with the proposed collaboration expected to be inked in September. But the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is still pending.

Prior to the Jakarta visit, the Sabah government initiated continuous efforts to push for collaboration with the neighbouring country.

"I do not want to add to the toxic Indonesia versus Malaysia (debate), but I do want to say that Malaysia is now far ahead of Indonesia in many aspects of Sumatran rhino conservation. The long-awaited MoU is now needed more than ever," stressed Payne.

"Malaysia and our colleagues in Germany, Italy and the IPB (Institut Pertanian Bogor) University have much to offer, not least in management of female Sumatran rhinos with reproductive pathology, safe harvesting of gametes from living rhinos, and cell culture, as well as capture and translocation of Sumatran rhinos from remote areas," he added.

Payne noted that Malaysia's three female captive Sumatran rhinos – Iman, Puntung, and Gelobog – and male captive rhino Tam all live on as cell cultures.

"Technology already exists to make eggs and sperm from these cultures. Technology to allow embryos of one species to be successfully implanted into the womb of another will be with us in the not too distant future.

"But then, the need for this could have been avoided if the decision makers all decided to collaborate from the 1980s," he added.

Yesterday, Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino, Iman, died at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Lahad Datu.

Iman was the last wild rhino spotted deep in the jungles of Sabah in 2014. She was captured at Danum Valley and was taken to the rhino sanctuary for care until she died.

Puntung was captured in 2011 and euthanised in June 2017.

Tam was captured in Aug 2010 and died in May 2019. His body was preserved and is on display at the Sabah state museum.

Gelogob was captured in 1994 and died in 2014. She was the longest-living female rhino in captivity.

Sumatran rhinos in captivity, as listed by Bernama:

1987 – Linbar, male, was captured in Lower Segama, but died of internal injuries that same year.

1987 – Tenegang, male, was captured, but died at the Sepilok Rhino Breeding Centre in 1992.

1988 – Lokan, male, was captured, but eventually died in a pit trap that same year.

1989 - Lun Parai, female, was captured and successfully mated, but no pregnancy occurred. She died in Sepilok in 2000.

1991 – Tekala, male, was captured, but died following a tetanus infection in Sepilok in 1997.

1992 – Sidom, male, was captured, but died in Sepilok in 1997 with no success in mating.

1993 – Bulud, male, was captured and retained at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu but escaped not long after. However, he was sighted once in 1995 not far from Tabin.

1993 – Tanjung, male, was captured and retained in Sepilok, but died after a tree branch fell on it in 2006.

1995 – Malbumi, male, was captured, but died in Sepilok in 1997.