For several decades, more than 70 percent of the population of Sumatran rhinos have been lost, because of the devastating across their range by poaching to feed illegal trade in horn for Asian markets. There are, now fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos living in the wild. Borneo Rhino Alliance states that experts believe as few as 20 unrelated Sumatran rhinos could hold enough genetic diversity to save their species from extinction.
However, the world’s animal conservation efforts got a painful blow after the recent death of Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhinoceros – Tam. He was between 30 to 35 age-old, and he was the country’s last hope to naturally repopulate that once wild creature.
Tam was captured near one of Malaysia’s palm oil plantations back in 2008, and then he was transferred to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the state of Sabah. He was joined there by two female rhinos – Puntung, captured in 2011, and Iman, captured in 2014. Unfortunately, these efforts weren’t successful, because Puntung was euthanized in 2017 due to cancer, and now Iman is the only remaining member of its species in Malaysia.
Around late April, Tam’s keepers noticed the rhino’s lack of appetite and alertness. He was then treated with the best palliative care that the Tabin Wildlife Reserve’s veterinarians could give him. Sadly, Tam eventually succumbed to health complications. Malaysian officials announced that Tam’s death was the result of old age and multiple organ failure likely caused by liver and kidney damage.
The rhinos are now considered critically endangered, as little as 80 Sumatran rhinos are thought to be roaming free. Most of them are in the nearby islands of Sumatra and Borneo. But the remaining subpopulations are so small (groups of 2-3 animals), which can lead to their eventual disappearing.
Explaining that specific cause of their decline, Susie Ellis, Ph.D., Executive Director, International Rhino Foundation said: “For several decades, Sumatran rhinos have been devastated across their range by poaching to feed illegal trade in horn for Asian markets – with more than 70 percent of the population lost.”
She also added that another contributing factor for that condition is the logging, which decimated the region’s rainforests, followed closely by the extensive development of palm oil plantations.
What has happened in Sabah recently, was seen in Sumatra, too – massive deforestation and rain forest fragmentation, pushing Sumatran rhinos, elephants, tigers, and orangutans to the edge of extinction despite ongoing protection.
The conservationists intended to breed Tam naturally with Iman and Puntung. Unfortunately, Tam did not have high-quality sperm and both females also had uterine tumors which complicated the chances of conception.
When they found that the natural fertilization is impossible, they turned their efforts towards producing embryos through in vitro fertilization, which would be placed in surrogate rhinos. However, the odds continued to below.
Ellis explained that, because of the limited knowledge about Sumatran rhino reproductive physiology, and the complexities of converting cells in the laboratory into viable embryos, these methods lasted a long time. Nevertheless, these methods were the best chance for Sabah’s rhinos.
Also, efforts to exchange gametes with Indonesia did not succeed out for a variety of reasons. According to the conservationists, also isolation will be the most likely cause of the Sumatran rhino’s disappearance.
Additionally, female rhinos usually suffer from reproductive pathologies. By growing older and not breeding, they will develop tumors and cysts in their reproductive organs. Because of that, the female is near-impossible to bring pregnancies full-term.
There Might Be Hope
The experts are not giving up of saving Sumatran rhinos, yet. The world’s leading conservation groups, together with the National Geographic Society, announced a collaborative project, which is named “The Sumatran Rhino Rescue.” The goal of this project is to find as many wild rhinos as they can and safely capture them for captive breeding.
Following that goal Margaret Kinnaird, wildlife practice leader for WWF International announced:
“We’ve got to capture those remaining, isolated rhinos in Kalimantan and Sumatra and do our best to encourage them to make babies.”