Malaysia: Fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos left

OLIVIA MIVIL New Straits Times 18 Dec 16;

ALL the remaining Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia and Indonesia, which number less than 100, should be managed as a single population to facilitate the reproduction of the critically-endangered species.

Researchers believe only a few of the species are left in Malaysia. Two females, Puntong and Iman, and a middle-aged male, named Kertam, have been relocated to the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu, Sabah.

Puntong, 20, had her front left foot torn off in a hunter’s snare trap when she was an infant, while Iman was the last wild rhino to be captured in Danum Valley, Sabah, in 2014.

Both have problems conceiving due to the conditions of their reproductive system.

Iman, despite being diagnosed with severe fibroids in the uterus, can still produce eggs.

Sabah-based Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora) executive director Datuk Dr Junaidi Payne says over a period of two-and-a-half years, 15 Sumatran rhino eggs have been obtained from Iman and Puntong.

Bora’s role is to care for rhinos in the sanctuary, and seek and capture rhinos in the wild.

All rhino eggs have been used for in-vitro fertilisation efforts, but have yet to yield results.

“We need more females in the programme to secure the first embryo faster and work out the protocols and conditions for success,” Payne says.
He says many factors affect the success of fertilisation, including old age, poor quality of sperm and eggs and other infertility-related conditions.

Factors that need to be considered include the optimum pH level, ideal temperature and protein requirements for the egg maturation liquid during procedures at the laboratory.

On the male rhino’s part, its sperm can be frozen with liquid nitrogen, so that it can be used later for in-vitro fertilisation.

Payne says even though about a quarter of all remaining Sumatran rhinos have significant fertility issues, efforts to boost the reproduction rate are in the pipeline through advanced reproductive and cellular technologies.

“We should not rely on hope to save the endangered species in the wild. In the past few decades, there have been too few individuals in any one area to form a viable breeding population,” he says, quashing a recent report by a researcher on the possible discovery of a rhino footprint in the Danum Valley conservation area.

Last year, Malaysia declared that there were no more Sumatran rhinos in the wild.

Since 2006, an experienced field team from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia has been searching for rhino footprints. Tens of thousands of hours of footage have been recorded, but no trace of rhinos have been found.

However, during a survey between Aug 16 and Aug 29 at the conservation area, WWF Sabah Terrestrial Conservation Programme manager Sharon Koh Pei Hui said the team spotted a 23cm-wide footprint that might be from a Sumatran rhino.

Payne says it was inconceivable that a half-tonne mammal would leave a vague outline of a single footprint, with no other signs of its existence in the vicinity.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga says discussions with the department’s Indonesian counterpart was underway to cooperate on rhino breeding.

He says government is committed to conserving the critically endangered species.

“In-vitro fertilisation requires experts and high technology to increase the success rate.

“For now, we are relying on expertise from Germany, and the cost for each fertilisation attempt is about RM300,000.”

To support the effort, the Federal Government has allocated RM11.9 million for advanced reproductive technology for rhinos.

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