Puntung’s euthanasia a wake-up call for Sumatran rhino conservation, groups say

Puntung was captured in 2011 and is now being kept at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Lahad Datu with one other female and a male Sumatran rhino. — Picture via Borneo Rhino Sanctuary
Puntung was captured in 2011 and is now being kept at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Lahad Datu with one other female and a male Sumatran rhino. — Picture via Borneo Rhino Sanctuary

KUALA LUMPUR, May 29 — Puntung, one of Malaysia’s last three Sumatran rhinoceros’ impending euthanasia due to skin cancer should be a wake-up call to ramp up conservation efforts of the species as it could well go extinct within the next ten years, groups have said.

In a statement, WWF Malaysia pointed out that the country is now left with only one female Sumatran rhinoceros and one male rhinoceros, Iman, and that the only other country for the species is neighbouring Indonesia — where there are less than 100 of them scattered in small, isolated groups in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

“If we want to reverse this trend, then the focus of Sumatran rhinoceros conservation should be on rescuing all remaining wild individuals for management in excellent fenced facilities, increasing the number of births, and facilitating the movement of the individuals and gametes among facilities as a population management tool.

“In summary there should be a single programme with the sole goal of making baby Sumatran rhinos,” WWF Malaysia said.

It suggested the use of advanced reproductive technology (ART), as advocated by Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) and being attempted with renowned international reproductive scientists as a means for conservation of the species.

“Additionally, the WWF Network Executive Team (NET) has mandated the creation of a Sumatran rhino working group, comprising of representatives from WWF-Indonesia and partner offices (including WWF-US, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar) with the view of pushing the Sumatran rhino conservation to the top of the agenda for the relevant governments, and to seek a common approach and agreements among all NGOs working on Sumatran rhino conservation.

“We therefore call upon the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia, and all Sumatran rhinoceros conservation organisations, to work together as a dedicated team. Let Puntung’s passing be the final wake-up call we desperately need for an international collaboration to finally take place. Together, anything is possible.”

In a separate statement, Yayasan Sime Darby (YSD) Chairman Tun Musa Hitam said that those related to the conservation efforts should reflect on the present situation.

“After spending so much time and funding to conserve the Sumatran rhinoceros since 2009, I regret that it has come to this and let this be a lesson to all those related to the efforts as well as the world at large.

“This is a very sad development. Future generations would certainly blame us for failing to save this species from extinction,” Tun said.

From 2009 to February this year, YSD had spent RM13.8 million towards conserving the Sumatran rhinoceros, with funds channelled towards an artificial reproductive technology (ART) programme to help breed the Sumatran rhinoceros and help save the species from extinction.

Since 2009, YSD has committed RM131 million towards the protection of high conservation value ecosystems, vulnerable and endangered species as well as initiatives promoting the preservation of the environment and biodiversity.

Puntung, a 25-year-old rhino, suffered from an abscess that would not heal despite treatment since mid-March.

Last month, veterinarians assisted Puntung in extracting two molars and one premolar from its left upper jaw in bid to heal the abscess.

Puntung was captured in 2011 and is now being kept at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Lahad Datu, with one other female and a male Sumatran rhino. The sanctuary is managed by the non-governmental organisation Borneo Rhino Alliance contracted by the SWD.

The sanctuary had planned to mate her with another captured male rhino, Tam, in a managed facility, but then found she had cysts in her uterus that made her unable to bear a pregnancy.

However, the sanctuary was reported to be working on in vitro fertilisation to breed more rhinos and to keep the species from becoming extinct altogether.