- Indonesia has sent a memorandum of understanding to the Malaysian government regarding the transfer of sperm for use in a captive-breeding attempt, an official confirmed to Mongabay on April 26.
- Hoping the sperm can be used to fertilize Malaysia’s last remaining female Sumatran rhino, conservationists have been awaiting permission for the transfer for years.
- Herry Subagiadi, secretary to the conservation director at Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, says he expects Malaysia to sign the agreement in mid-May.
- Sumatran rhinos are critically endangered, with just nine living in captivity in Indonesia and Malaysia, and as few as 30 surviving in the wild.
JAKARTA — Indonesia has taken the first concrete step to advancing a long-anticipated cross-border program that will attempt to fertilize the last female Sumatran rhino in Malaysia with sperm from a proven breeder living at a facility in Indonesia.
The Indonesian government on April 12 sent a memorandum of understanding to its Malaysian counterpart regarding the transfer of genetic material, a senior official confirmed to Mongabay on April 26.
“We’re expecting the Malaysian government to sign off on the MoU sometime mid-May,” Herry Subagiadi, the secretary to the conservation director at the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said on the sidelines of a media briefing in Jakarta.
The news comes amid increasing concern about the health of Malaysia’s rhinos, and the prospects of the critically endangered species, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, as a whole.
“It’s great to hear that an MoU on collaboration between Indonesia and Malaysia on Sumatran rhino might be signed in May,” John Payne, director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), told Mongabay by text message. He noted that the core bilateral discussions regarding the MoU took place in October 2017. At the time, he said, Malaysia proposed a draft and expected feedback from Indonesia in November 2017.
“We are at collapsing burning platform stage now for Sumatran rhino,” Payne said. “Decisive action to make baby Sumatran rhinos at all costs is essential. There can be no more delays, egos, jealousy or barriers.”
Following the June 2017 death of female rhino Puntung, just one male and one female Sumatran rhino are known to survive in Malaysia. Both are cared for by BORA at a facility in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, and neither can reproduce without assistance. The female, Iman, fell seriously ill in December. She has since made a slow recovery, and Payne said she is once again producing viable eggs that can be used for fertilization attempts.
Official estimates put Indonesia’s own population of wild Sumatran rhinos at up to 100, but a recent analysis by Mongabay determined that the number could in fact be as low as 30, scattered across four disparate habitats. Another seven live in captivity at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Indonesia’s Way Kambas National Park, including two calves born there.
Discussions about a cross-border breeding program have been ongoing since 2012, and sperm from Andalas, the father of the two calves at SRS, has been sitting in a freezer at the facility since 2015. Conservationists cite official permission from the Indonesian government as the sole remaining hurdle.
High-tech fertilization techniques like in-vitro fertilization (IVF) remain unproven in rhinos, and some experts are skeptical the technology can be perfected in time to save the species.
Payne said he was optimistic such a procedure could succeed, since Iman is still producing eggs. “The thing is: this should have started years ago and done many times … practice makes perfect,” he said.
A successful attempt would add much-needed diversity to the captive population. Four of the seven rhinos at SRS, including all of the males, are closely related. Iman, meanwhile, comes from a population in Borneo that was once considered a separate subspecies, and which has been genetically separated from the Sumatran populations for eons.
With just two rhinos left, Malaysia is also out of options.
Herry said Indonesian officials were sensitive to the urgency of the situation. “We must be extra careful by ensuring the rhino’s health, but also act fast because the last female rhino in Malaysia is dying,” he said.
Once the agreement is signed off, Herry said the two nations would discuss the logistics of the transfer and check on the health of the rhinos. The governments will later talk about who should take care of any resultant offspring, he added. Malaysia has previously agreed to let Indonesia take on the job.
“Our focus is solely on the conservation of the Sumatran rhinos,” Herry said.
Banner image: Ratu with baby Andatu, photographed at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in 2012. Image courtesy of the International Rhino Foundation.
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