KOTA KINABALU, Sept 22 — Three years after the extinction of the Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia, rhino conservationist Datuk John Payne has written about his experience and that of the country’s decades-old attempt at protecting the animal up to the last species in 2019.
In his book, Payne, a British zoologist who has been involved in rhino conservation in Malaysia and Indonesia since the 1970s, attributed the extinction to a series of decisions and management failures in the attempt at conserving the rhino.
Payne said that unlike the popular diagnosis, the Sumatran rhino’s extinction had little to do with habitat loss or poaching.
“All the habitat loss and hunting that affected this species in any significant way had already happened by a century ago, 1922. The real reasons are all to do with the way in which the human mind operates, and the ways in which nature conservation institutions are arranged,” he said.
The book titled The Hairy Rhinocheros, one of the extinct animal’s names, details the various meetings by global institutions, national programmes and organisational framework that went into the conservation efforts.
Payne, the executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, was also critical of some of the decisions and process, saying that management by committee was not best suited to the conservation work.
Borneo Rhino Alliance executive director John Payne is seen in this file picture taken on May 20, 2015. — Picture by Julia Chan
“After the mid-20th century, the institutional framework of nature conservation has made it very difficult for small groups of self-organising people to work on targeted programmes to prevent extinctions.
“Instead, we are boxed into risk-free efforts such as awareness-raising, monitoring, camera-trapping, research projects and protection teams,” Payne said.
In the end, because of bureaucracy and risk aversion, it became more unlikely that international institutions and collaboration could serve to prevent extinctions especially because the animals were so fragmented in population.
“A better bet is to do everything within one nation, and for the authorities to delegate the work to small groups of passionate people,” he said, adding that it was better to manage, than simply conserve.
To stamp his point, he pointed out that Sabah was part of a meeting in Singapore convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which was a landmark meeting tasked to decide how to prevent the extinction of the rhino.
In the end, it was decided that individual rhinos which was considered as “doomed” (that was the word used) and unable to contribute to breeding would be captured, while all potentially viable clusters of rhinos would be protected in situ, wild and in the forest.
“Sabah had pulled out of the international programme following a change in the state government in 1985. And every cluster of wild Hairy rhinos existing at that time, except one in Aceh, Sumatra, are now functionally or actually extinct.
“In 1984, there were simply too few fertile rhinos in any one place to be able to reproduce and replace the natural death rate. And because the rhinos were not managed as a single population by the various parties involved,” Payne said.
He credited the Malaysian and Sabah governments for being consistent in the aim to prevent the extinction of the rhino by all means possible, including being open to collaboration with Indonesia.
He also said that Indonesia’s decision not to work with Malaysia on conserving the species together had a big effect on the latter, and possibly the entire species eventually.
“One of the predecessors of the current tourism, culture and environment minister made it very clear to Indonesia that Sabah was willing to loan our last remaining hairy rhinos for captive breeding in Indonesia.
“The offer was ignored. But I want to stress also that I do not primarily put responsibility on Indonesia for the lack of collaboration,” he said.
Payne said that in the future, it would be possible to reproduce the species in a laboratory as DNA from the last four captured rhinos — Tam, Iman, Puntung and Gelogob — were preserved in living cell cultures.
“Over the past ten years, it has become technically possible to create egg cells and sperms from those cell cultures, which were derived from skin biopsies, taken when the rhinos were still alive, and to make embryos in a laboratory,” he said.
It is unclear whether they were of value. Currently, the only potential surrogate mothers are all in Sumatra and using experimental advanced reproductive technology on any of them was considered too risky by the decision-makers.
“My prediction is that the Hairy rhinoceros will — after 20 million years of existence — go extinct about ten years from now, because of the risk aversion attitude of bureaucrats. I hope I am wrong,” he said.