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Glimmer of hope as Malaysia’s last female Sumatran rhino shows signs of recovery

Iman is now one of two remaining captive Sumatran rhinos in Borneo. A tumor in her uterus ruptured in 2017. Scientists don't believe she can carry a baby to term, but her eggs could still be utilized. Photo courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department.

  • The worst appears to be over for Iman, Malaysia’s last female Sumatran rhino, after she suffered massive bleeding from a ruptured tumor in her uterus earlier this month.
  • Veterinarians and rhino experts are hopeful but cautious about Iman’s recovery prospects, and continue to provide around-the-clock care.
  • The rhino is Malaysia’s last hope for saving the nearly extinct species, which is thought to number as few as 30 individuals in the world.

JAKARTA — Malaysia’s last remaining female Sumatran rhino appears to have overcome the worst of a serious health condition, less than two weeks after it was announced that her condition had deteriorated.

Officials from the Sabah Wildlife Department reported on Dec. 17 that Iman had suffered a ruptured tumor in her uterus, causing massive bleeding. Since then, however, an intensive regimen of medical treatment and feeding has raised hopes about her prospects.

“A week ago, I was sure she would die,” John Payne, head of the wildlife conservation group Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), which is involved in the treatment of Iman, said in a text message to Mongabay. “But somehow she did not.”

Iman, one of only two remaining Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in Malaysia, was captured in 2014 for a breeding program aimed at saving the critically endangered species from extinction. Though Payne said he was “optimistic” about her recovery, he cautioned that she would still require intensive care.

“[The] worst seems [to be] over, but we are still worried because there is still flow of blood from [her] uterus and she is eating much less than normal,” he said. “The worry is a combination of not eating enough, for more than a week now, and risk of sudden major bleeding.”

Veterinarians and rhino keepers continue to coax the rhino, which currently lives in a paddock at the Wildlife Reserve in Tabin, near the coastal Lahad Datu district of Malaysia’s Sabah state, with her “favorite foods plus intravenous supplements to make up for blood loss,” Payne said.

A team of veterinarians and rhino experts provides intensive care for Iman. Photo courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department.

Payne said BORA’s team of vets, led by Zainal Zainuddin, was providing around-the-clock care for Iman. The group hopes that the rhino, which experts believe to be fertile, can recover and resume supplying fertile eggs for in vitro fertilization attempts.

“If Iman dies soon, the opportunity will be lost forever, as we do not have the technology to successfully freeze and thaw rhino eggs,” he said.

Experts believe that no more than 100 Sumatran rhinos, and perhaps as few as 30, are left on the planet, scattered in tiny populations across Sumatra, Borneo and maybe peninsular Malaysia.

The critically endangered species was decimated by poaching and habitat loss in the past, but today observers say the small and fragmented nature of their populations is their biggest threat to their survival. This has led to the establishment of semi-wild sanctuaries in both Sabah and Sumatra in a last-ditch effort to bring together male and female rhinos, which are naturally solitary animals, for breeding purposes.

Iman was named after a river near where she was discovered in Sabah’s Danum Valley. She and a male rhino called Kertam, or Tam, are kept at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve under the care of BORA.

The news of Iman’s deteriorating health came less than six months after the death of Puntung, Malaysia’s only other female Sumatran rhino at the time. Puntung was euthanized on June 4 after suffering for three months from skin cancer.

Hopes of starting an artificial rhino breeding program were dashed when scientists were unable to recover any eggs from Puntung’s ovaries. Meanwhile, repeated requests from Malaysia for frozen sperm from a larger captive-breeding program in Sumatra to inseminate eggs taken from Iman were ignored by the Indonesian government.

Banner image: Iman, Malaysia’s last female Sumatran rhino, is under around-the-clock care after a tumor in her uterus ruptured, causing massive bleeding and a steep decline in health. Photo courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department.

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