Iman wallowing in the mud. Photo by: John Payne/BORA.
Hopes for one of the world’s most imperiled megafauna rose this month when wildlife conservationists succeeded in catching a female Sumatran rhino named Iman in the Malaysian state of Sabah. The female, which experts believe to be fertile, has since been successfully transferred via helicopter to the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary where experts plan to mate her with the local male, Tam. Located in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary is an uncompleted semi-wild enclosure and home to one of several last-ditch efforts to save the vanishing species from extinction.
“Iman is healthy, but nervous, and will need quite a while to adapt to captive conditions,” John Payne, the executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) told mongabay.com. “The presence of Tam in particular seems to make her fearful.”
Experts believe that no more than a hundred Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) are left on the planet, spread out in tiny populations across Borneo, Sumatra, and possibly peninsular Malaysia. Although the rhinos were decimated by deforestation and poaching in the past, today experts say the scarce and fragmented nature of their populations is their biggest threat. This situation has led both Sabah and Sumatra to set up semi-wild sanctuaries in a desperate attempt to bring together male and female rhinos for breeding purposes. The Sumatran sanctuary has had one major success: in 2012 a baby male was born. However, Sabah has yet to see a successful reproduction.
Top: Iman resting in her wallow. Bottom: Iman in her jungle boma in the forest of Danum Valley. Photo courtesy of SWD.
“The [Sabah] State Cabinet agreed in March 2013 that the only way we can ensure that every Sumatran rhino in Sabah plays a role to save the species is to bring all of them into a managed, fenced facility, with the necessary local and global expertise and collaboration to breed them,” explained Masidi Manjun, Sabah’s Minister of Culture, Tourism and Environment.
To this end, conservationists spent nearly eight months attempting to trap Iman, who is named after a river near where she was discovered in Sabah’s Danum Valley.
“Based on initial examination, we strongly believe that Iman is fertile, with insignificant cysts in her reproductive tract. This is a big boost for Sumatran rhinos,” said Payne. Prior to the successful capture of Iman, Sabah had been planning to send Tam overseas to the Cincinnati Zoo in an attempt to mate him with the female there, Suci. However, if Iman indeed proves fertile it’s likely Tam will stay in Sabah for the time being.
“Once Iman is settled into Tabin, we will review all the potential options on how she can best contribute to her species. We hope that this success will act as a boost to international collaboration on the Sumatran rhino,” said Laurentius Ambu, Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD).
The rhinos are currently housed in temporary facilities, because permanent buildings—promised since 2009—have yet to be built. Funding for the temporary facilities has come from the Sime Darby Foundation and the Sabah Forestry Department. The effort to capture Iman was a statewide collaboration between SWD, BORA, WWF Malaysia, Yayasan Sabah, and Sabah Forestry Department.
Success is hardly inevitable, however. In December, 2011, conservationists captured another female rhino, Puntung, and brought her to the sanctuary with the same intent of mating her with Tam. But after two years of work, pregnancy has proved elusive.
“Puntung is fertile but her endometriosis will make achievement of pregnancy very difficult,” explained Payne. Many Sumatran rhino females have reproductive problems, including cysts, likely due to a lack of mating. Still, the arrival of Iman doesn’t mean that Puntung is shoved aside. The group is planning on attempting to artificially inseminate Puntung with Tam’s or another Sumatran rhino male’s sperm.
Iman being airlifted out of Danum using a Sirkorsky S64 Sky crane. Photo courtesy of the SWD.
Within these captive breeding efforts in Sumatra, Sabah, and Cincinnati—which all told house ten individuals, or around 10 percent of the global estimated population—scientists are planning an even more ambitious step: mixing subspecies. Currently the rhinos found on Borneo are considered a distinct subspecies—Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni—from the ones found in Sumatra—Dicerorhinus sumatrensis sumatrensis—however, scientists and governments have agreed in principle that it’s time to mix the subspecies.
In fact, Payne says the Bornean subspecies is very close to the edge with likely less than ten individuals left and “of those, most would be non-breeders, due to isolation or reproductive tract pathology.”
The stakes are incredibly high. Not only is the Sumatran rhino a distinct species—which once roamed a massive swathe of Southeast Asia—but it is also the only surviving member of the genus, Dicerorhinus. The smallest and hairiest of the five remaining rhino species, the Sumatran rhino is also the oldest evolutionary with ancestors going back 15-20 million years. In fact, the EDGE program (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) currently lists the Sumatran rhino as number nine on its list of the most evolutionary-distinct and endangered mammals.
“Every new step, or achievement, or opportunity with Sumatran rhinos changes the array of options and the current best option,” Payne said. “Certainly, all effort must be geared to saving the species, irrespective of whether the rhino lives in or comes from Indonesia or Malaysia. Saving the species will happen only if national, emotional and other irrational barriers are abandoned.”
Iman in her wallow. Photo by: SWD.
Building the crate to airlift Iman from Danum to Tabin. Photo by: John Payne.
Iman. Photo by: John Payne.
Crate used to airlift Danum to Tabin. Photo by: John Payne.
(03/12/2014) Conservationists have succeeded in catching a wild Sumatran rhino in the Malaysia state of Sabah in Borneo, according to local media reports. Officials are currently transferring the rhino, an unnamed female, to a rhino sanctuary in Tabin National Park where experts will attempt to mate it with the resident male, Tam. The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is one of the world’s most imperiled species with less than 100 individuals left.
(01/08/2014) In 1893, William Bell, a surgeon in the service of the Dutch East India Company stationed in Bencoolen, Sumatra, examined the body of a dead rhinoceros. The animal, a male, was relatively small as rhinoceroses go, measuring only four feet four inches at the shoulder and eight feet five inches from its nose to the tip of its tail. Dr. Bell noted that the animal resembled a large hog and judged it to be a young individual based upon the condition of the bones and teeth.
(10/09/2013) On October 2nd, WWF released camera trap videos of Sumatran rhinos surviving in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. The conservation organization had already announced in April that they had evidence of at least one Sumatran rhino in the province, but the new images confirmed what is likely to be a small surviving population. While this is good news for an animal on the edge of extinction, Erik Meijaard, a researcher who has worked in Indonesia for over 20 years, says WWF has made a mistake publicizing the news around the world, noting ‘the last thing those rhinos need is publicity.’
(06/12/2013) Karman Lubis’s body was found near where he had been working on a Sumatran rubber plantation. His head was found several days later a mile away and they still haven’t found his right hand. He had been mauled by a Sumatran tiger that has been living in Batang Gadis National Park and he was one of five people killed there by tigers in the last five years.
(05/15/2013) A new study argues for treating endangered Sumatran populations in Borneo and Sumatra as ‘a single conservation unit’, lending academic support to a controversial proposal to move wild rhinos from Malaysia to Indonesia.
(04/30/2013) Conservationists and officials meeting last month at a rhino crisis summit in Singapore agreed to a radical plan to loan Sumatran rhinos between nations if it means saving the critically endangered species from extinction. The proposal, which could still be thwarted by red tape and political opposition, could lead Malaysia to send some of its Sumatran rhinos to semi-captive breeding facilities in Indonesia.
(04/08/2013) WWF-Indonesia had considered the impact of the publication of finding traces of Sumatran rhinos in Kalimantan. In the two-month period before it was published, WWF-Indonesia had coordinated with various parties, including the local government, the Forestry Ministry, rhino experts, local university and other related parties to set up strategies and to ensure commitment to full protection of the rhino.
(04/08/2013) Less than 100 Sumatran rhinos survive in the world today, according to a bleak new population estimate by experts. The last survey in 2008 estimated that around 250 Sumatran rhinos survived, but that estimate now appears optimistic and has been slashed by 60 percent. However conservationists are responding with a major new agreement between the Indonesian and Malaysian governments at a recent summit by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC).
(04/04/2013) WWF-Indonesia recently caught the attention of the global media with their announcement that the Sumatran rhinoceros still exists in Indonesian Borneo, some 40 years after being declared extinct there. This sounds like great news for biodiversity conservation. But is it really?
(04/02/2013) Conservationists working to save the Sumatran rhino—one of the world’s most imperiled mammals—heard good news this week as WWF-Indonesia has found evidence of at least one Sumatran rhino persisting in the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, located on the island of Borneo. Small populations of Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) survive on Sumatra and on Borneo (in the Malaysian state of Sabah), but this is the first time scientists have confirmed the presence of the notoriously shy animal in Kalimantan in over two decades.