Time running out for Sumatran rhinos

The Sumatran rhino is a close relative of the ice age’s woolly rhino. Today, there are fewer than 100 left in the world. ― Malay Mail pic
The Sumatran rhino is a close relative of the ice age’s woolly rhino. Today, there are fewer than 100 left in the world. ― Malay Mail pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 22 ― There are only three Sumatran rhinoceroses left in Malaysia and time is running out for conservationists to save our gentle giants from becoming extinct.

In Operation Sumatran Rhino, a documentary by National Geographic Channel, the plight of the endangered rhinos is given a spotlight along with the challenges faced by the Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora), a non-governmental organisation based in Sabah.

The smallest rhinoceros species but the loudest in vocal capacity (they are also known as singing rhino), the Sumatran rhino is a close relative of the ice age’s woolly rhino and consumes a diet of rainforest plants leaves.

Before it became critically endangered, the Sumatran rhino roamed freely in the rainforests, cloud forests and swamps of Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, China, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Today, fewer than 100 are left. In August last year, the Sumatran rhino was declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia.

According to Bora executive director Datuk Dr John Payne, the process of the Sumatran rhinos’ extinction began over a thousand years ago due to habitat loss. By the 1930s, it became clear extinction was inevitable.

Their habitats continue to disappear with palm oil and logging taking up fertile land.

“The palm oil sector has an ethical responsibility to shoulder a bigger role in conserving wildlife. Unfortunately, the government does not share that view, and tends to support the oil palm sector much more than nature conservation — that ought to change,” Payne said.

Rhino horns are deemed valuable in traditional Chinese medicine and poaching too, became a major factor for their speedy decline, despite proven to have no medicinal value.

Just last week, the Wildlife Justice Commission announced a public hearing in The Hague, the Netherlands, after a year-long investigation of a Vietnamese wildlife trafficking hub. Among the vast volumes of endangered species traded were 579 rhino horns, a figure that makes up half the amount of South African rhinos poached last year, according to the Wildlife Justice Commission executive director Olivia Swaak-Goldman.

In Malaysia, hope now rests on the three rhinos under the care of Bora, located in Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Payne and his team believe the only viable solution to save the last Sumatran rhinos is to capture all remaining rhinos in the wild and breed them no matter what it takes.

“All rhinos now in the wild have to be brought into managed, fenced conditions so that fertile females and males can be in the same place as often as possible, bearing in mind females ovulate only about once per month,” explained Payne, who has been studying rhinos for the past 40 years.

Although Bora has one fertile male and two females, natural conception proved futile when it was revealed both the female rhinos have reproductive abnormalities. Their only hope is in-vitro fertilisation to produce a rhino embryo. With scientific advancements and the help of experts from Germany, Italy and Indonesia, the possibility of implanting a test tube embryo into a healthy surrogate is the best case scenario to ensure their survival.

Providing a glimpse into their personality traits, Payne elaborates: “Their sense of hearing is moderate and sight is poor. They rely mainly on odour to detect danger and to locate one another.”

At Bora, no one works closer to the trio of rhinos — females Puntong and Iman, and Sabah’s only captive male rhino, Kretam, affectionately known as Tam — than field manager and veterinarian Dr Zainal Zainnudin who has been working with rhinos since 1985. 

The best part of Zainal’s job is interacting with these ancient creatures and discovering their unique personalities. Tam the bull, he says, “is a gentle creature who comes back on time for breakfast and dinner.”

He also loves wallowing in mud pools and “eats like a gentleman.”

While the intelligent Tam can sense changes in his night quarters, Puntong isn’t very fussy when it comes to sleeping arrangements.

“She is a princess that will take her own sweet time to come back for mealtimes — many times, the keeper had to go and get her out of her mud wallow for breakfast,” said Zainal, adding that Puntong is the most stubborn of the three but loves to be touched.

The third and newest addition to Bora, Iman, is said to be the noisiest of the lot and loves vocalising, even during feeding. While she enjoys wallowing and returns regularly to eat her meals, a tumour in her uterus makes her rather temperamental.

Endearing traits aside, the controversial million dollar question some scientists have asked is: If saving all the world’s endangered species costs billions of dollars and is a part of evolution, what are the benefits?

To put things into perspective, Payne said: “Every day, trillions of dollars circulate in the global economy. At least billions are locked up by wealthy individuals to preserve their power and wealth. The amounts going into species conservation are less than trivial, a tiny fraction of a percentage of global human wealth.”

Operation Sumatran Rhino airs tonight on National Geographic Channel, Astro Channel 553 and HD 573 at 7pm.

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