In death, Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhino Tam to be immortalised but is it too little, too late for the species?

Julia Chan
Tam, the last male Sumatran rhino, plays in mud in Sabah May 2014 in this picture obtained from social media on May 27, 2019. — Reuters pic

KOTA KINABALU, May 29 — The death of Tam, Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhino, made global headlines this week with the sobering realisation that the species is one step closer to extinction, with just 50 to 80 animals left worldwide.

In Sabah, the hefty but gentle Tam, known as the smallest and hairiest among the rhinoceros species, will be immortalised via taxidermy for future generations to appreciate and to perhaps never forget.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said that it would be preserving Tam’s carcass, but had yet to decide where to place it.

“The Sabah biodiversity conservation centre wants it to be displayed at the new chief minister’s office but we have not made any decision yet,” he said, adding that Puntung, the last female Sumatran rhino, was also immortalised and displayed at the Tabin information centre.

The 30-something-year-old Tam had always been a great ambassador for his species, calm and steady but still cheeky enough to be likeable, and very photogenic.

When he died, after some 11 years in captivity, his caretakers and vets were by his side, as they had been in the last few days of his life.

His illness and death came hard and fast but was not unexpected due to his age and health.

Exploring old hopes

Despite the engulfing sadness, Tam’s death has kickstarted another round of efforts with Indonesia’s Sumatra, where there is a sizeable number of about seven captive rhinos, for a breeding programme if they desired.

With renewed determination from Sabah’s Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew to personally visit her counterpart, there is some hope that a bilateral collaboration can keep Malaysia’s Sumatran rhino legacy alive with its last female rhino, Iman.

Liew said she would propose Iman’s egg be fertilised with sperm from an Indonesian male rhino and implanted to a surrogate Indonesian female mother rhino, and the offspring be shared between the two countries, but residing in the Way Kambas Rhino Sanctuary, Lampung in Sumatra.

Some, including Curtin University wildlife conservation and zoologist associate professor Bill Bateman, agree that a bilateral co-operation is the only solution for any hope of keeping the species alive here.

“I think the best answer is that Malaysia and Indonesia have to work together (and not forgetting the few Sumatran rhinos in captivity in the US) to help increase the population through both conservation of suitable habitat and through pursuing technological advances in techniques such as in vitro fertilisation,” said Bateman in an email interview.

“The US has been relatively successful in getting Sumatran rhinos to breed, but even so, more died than were born. I’m not saying that Indonesia and Malaysia must collaborate but one issue is that with so few rhinos left there is a risk of inbreeding, so any genetic diversity from other populations would help,” he said.

Bateman said that although originally the mainland rhino population and the island population were regarded as different sub species, there was now so few of either species left there is no room for the luxury of keeping these populations separate.

Danau Girang Field Centre director Benoit Goossens said that so much money has already been spent in the last few decades on rhino conservation here, that any avenue that could use the samples effectively should be explored.

“Tam’s sperm could be used for artificial insemination using Sumatran females. I really hope that the species can be saved in Sumatra. It would be a shame to lose the species for eternity. We need some hope in conservation. Even if the future of the species is extremely bleak,” he said.

In line with preserving the species, both experts agree that in order to survive, the animal needed habitat protection — large areas of land to roam freely and breed.

“What we should do in parallel to saving the species is to protect large forests so that, one day, if rhinos can be saved from extinction, they can roam freely and mate. This has been the biggest issue for the rhinos... lack of connectivity between individuals, lack of mating opportunities,” said Goossens.

“The sad fact is that Sumatran rhinos do not breed well in captivity, unlike African rhinos, particularly white rhinos. The best thing to conserve animals is to give them natural areas large enough for them and in which they are safe from death through poaching.

“The Sumatran rhino doesn’t really have much in the way of natural predators after all. Unfortunately, the population is now so low and scattered that even this may not be enough,” said Bateman.

But is this enough?

Some of those who have been working on rhino conservation for years in the system say it is too little, too late, and the time, money and effort is more urgently needed elsewhere.

“Since we started rhino conservation, maybe 30 years ago, we have spent about RM40 million. A bulk of this was shouldered by corporate funders, but to what end?

“Almost all, if not all of the rhinos caught have died in captivity and those we know of have reproductive problems,” said a wildlife conservationist here who wanted to remain anonymous.

“Yes, people say we should save even the last of its species, but realistically, 20 to 30 years of trying is enough.

“We have now one female left with a ruptured tumour in her uterus and cannot conceive. Her eggs are OK but she is on medication to stop the bleeding in her uterus. We can spend RM5 to 6 million to get her eggs to Indonesia, plus consultants and vets and all.

“Or at the end of the day, you can put this money towards a species, equally special that has a good chance of survival — the pangolins and our elephants,” added the conservationist.

Even if Malaysia is ready and financially able, it needs the agreement of the Indonesian government who has, in the last four years since talks began, been putting off any formal collaboration.

Agreements came close, the last time was last April when it signalled it was ready to attempt to fertilise Iman’s egg with sperm from a proven breeder at a rhino facility in Sumatra.

However, they later pulled out, citing the lack of viable eggs from Iman, although experts here disagree.

Naysayers says it is unlikely that Indonesia is going to turn around and agree now, as chances grow even slimmer the more Iman ages.

But the Borneo Rhino Alliance’s John Junaidi Payne, who heads the leading NGO in Sabah who has been spearheading many of the state’s rhino efforts, says it is still possible.

“It is always worth another try. The Minister of Forestry Indonesia is a woman. The Head of Biodiversity Conservation (equivalent to Perhilitan) is also a woman.

“Perhaps a woman’s touch from Sabah might do the trick,” he said, in reference to Liew’s announcement that she would personally go to Sumatra.

Goossens also says it is necessary to try, in the name of science.

“Working on advanced reproductive technology in rhinos can help advance the research for other species as well. Even if it might be too late for rhinos, it could be vital for other species,” he said.

There is also another hope, way down the line, that scientists here have yet to explore.

“Active cell lines have been taken from the four rhinos here — Tam, Iman, Puntung and Gelugob — they’re being kept in labs in Italy, Germany and a local university,” said the conservationist.

These “live” cells are important because theoretically, the cells can be used as reproductive cells, coaxed into sperm or eggs that can be fertilised to produce an embryo, much like Dolly the sheep.

“This technology is five to ten years away but there has been some advancement, and we can keep these cells alive indefinitely while we wait for the technology. This is good for the future of the species. These alone may be worth the RM40 million spent so far,” he said.

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