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Indonesian government puts off Sumatran rhino IVF program

  • Indonesia says a long-awaited program to breed Sumatran rhinos through IVF has been postponed, citing the lack of viable eggs from a female rhino in Malaysia.
  • The news becomes the latest setback in the years-long saga between the two countries, with some conservationists in Malaysia blaming the Indonesian government inaction for the dwindling odds of a successful artificial insemination attempt.
  • There are only an estimated 40 to 100 Sumatran rhinos left in the world, scattered on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

JAKARTA — Hopes for a long-awaited collaboration between Indonesia and Malaysia to breed the near-extinct Sumatran rhino are fading fast, as the last of the species languish amid government inaction.

Conservationists in both countries have long pushed for in vitro fertilization of the critically endangered Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). Indonesia is home to an estimated 100 individuals, at most, while Malaysia has just two. Under their plan, researchers hope to use sperm from one of Indonesia’s captive male rhinos to fertilize eggs from the lone remaining female of the species in Malaysia.

But those efforts have been stymied as the Indonesian government continues to hold out against making the sperm available or applying for a permit that would allow Malaysia to send over the eggs, according to some observers in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, officials in Indonesia point to fertility problems in Malaysia’s rhinos to explain the lack of progress. In the latest blow to the program, the Indonesian environment ministry’s head of conservation, Wiratno, said the IVF plan had been postponed because the Malaysian female rhino, Iman, who is being treated for a tumor in her uterus, ceased to produce viable eggs.

“It’s pending,” Wiratno told Mongabay in Jakarta. “No [viable] eggs are formed.”

Officials from the Sabah Wildlife Department, in Malaysian Borneo, reported last December that Iman had suffered a ruptured tumor in her uterus, leading to massive bleeding. Since then, however, an intensive regimen of medical treatment and feeding has raised hopes about her prospects for recovery.

Conservationists and officials in Sabah are hoping that Iman, whom experts believe to be fertile, can recover and resume supplying fertile eggs for in vitro fertilization attempts.

Though the IVF program has long focused on transferring sperm samples from Indonesia to Malaysia, scientists from both countries have recently agreed on a plan to ship Iman’s eggs to Indonesia and attempt to produce embryos there.

Widodo Ramono, executive director of the Indonesia Rhino Foundation (YABI), told Mongabay that there was supposed to be a transfer of eggs from Sabah to Indonesia this past April.

“Every month we receive [a] report from Sabah that there aren’t any oocytes ready,” he told Mongabay on Oct. 8. “Iman is getting weaker, the chance is getting slimmer.”

As for access to the sperm taken from two males at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia, conservationists in Sabah say the Indonesian government continues to stall. This despite Wiratno indicating this past January that Indonesia was amenable to sharing sperm samples, after previously ignoring Malaysian requests.

A Sumatran rhino and calf in Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

John Payne, executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), said he was disappointed to hear the latest news from Indonesia about the suspension of the IVF program.

“I am utterly speechless,” Payne told Mongabay in an email on Oct. 3. “The reality is that Sabah has done everything humanly possible since 2013 to promote collaboration on Sumatran rhino through application of advanced reproductive technology.”

He said conservationists in Malaysia only needed the Indonesian government’s assurances that it would make “good quality sperm” available for the program. Indonesia would also have to apply to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for the necessary permit to allow Malaysia to send any eggs over.

If these requests had been acted on much sooner, the likelihood of obtaining viable eggs from Iman, and inseminating them with sperm taken from the SRS males, would have been much higher.

“Every year and every month, [the] prospects to get eggs are lower,” Payne said.

A female rhino with her calf at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary at Way Kambas. Image by Susie Ellis/IRF.

The languishing of the IVF program comes as scientists in Germany report success producing embryos of an African species, the white rhino, through IVF. Before this, this form of assisted reproduction technique remained unproven in rhinos, and some experts were skeptical it could be perfected in time to stall the extinction of a species.

A successful attempt at producing a viable Sumatran rhino embryo through IVF would add much-needed diversity to the captive population. Four of the seven rhinos at the 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 thousands of years.

There’s a growing urgency to step up the captive-breeding program for the critically endangered species, compelled by the death in June last year of Puntung, Malaysia’s only other female Sumatran rhino at the time. Hopes of starting an artificial rhino breeding program were dashed when scientists were unable to recover any eggs from Puntung’s ovaries.

Experts believe that no more than 100 Sumatran rhinos, and perhaps as few as 30, are left in the wild, scattered in tiny populations across Sumatra and Borneo. With such a small population to draw from, the risk of genetic defects being passed on through captive breeding are high — which makes the need for the Indonesia-Malaysia collaboration all the more important.

Malaysia has offered to send Tam, the last male rhino in Sabah, to Indonesia for attempted breeding with one of the captive females at the SRS. But the Indonesian government has not responded to the offer, according to Payne.

“We are waiting, and waiting and waiting,” he said.

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