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Face-to-face with what may be the last of the world’s smallest rhino, the Bornean rhinoceros (insider)

  • Jeremy Hance writes about his experience of meeting Tam, one of the last surviving Bornean rhinos, in Malaysia.
  • “Nothing can really prepare a person for coming face-to-face with what may be the last of a species,” he writes.
  • This is an insider story. To read, please become a member.

Nothing can really prepare a person for coming face-to-face with what may be the last of a species.

I had known for a week that I would be fortunate enough to meet Tam. I’d heard stories of his gentle demeanor, discussed his current situation with experts, and read everything I could find about this surprising individual. But still, walking up to the pen where Tam stood contentedly pulling leaves from the hands of a local ranger, hearing him snort and whistle, watching as he rattled the bars with his blunted horn, I felt like I was walking into a place I wasn’t meant to be. It was as though I was treading on Tam’s space: entering into a cool deep forest where mud wallows and shadows still linger. This was Tam’s world, or at least it should be.

Tam, one of the captive Bornean rhinos representing hope for assisted reproduction efforts. Photo by Jeremy Hance.

A living, still surviving, Bornean rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), Tam is only one of an estimated 40 left in the world, maybe fewer. At 620 kilograms (1,430 pounds), Tam is a full-grown male rhino. Researchers have estimated his age to be about 20, with at least another decade before him. Surprisingly pinkish in color, he is sparsely covered in large black hairs, while both of his horns (other Asian rhinos sport only one horn) have been rubbed dull against the walls of his pen.

Tam is a survivor, that’s for sure. He survived his forest habitat being whittled into smaller and smaller pockets. He survived his front right foot being caught in a poacher’s snare, leaving an inch-wide white scar circling his ankle. And he survived when he wandered directly into an oil palm plantation in early August of last year, probably propelled by his injury. He had beaten the odds, this one.

Everything has changed for Tam now. Cynthia Ong, director of the group Land Empowerment Animals and People (LEAP), which has worked to raise funds to save the Bornean rhino, said that since wandering into the plantation Tam had become “very manja.” Not being Malaysian I didn’t know the word, but she assured me every Malaysian mother’s daughter knew it, and it meant something like “lovingly spoiled.”

It’s true that Tam has entered a kind of retirement. Instead of being butchered for his horn, a fate suffered by a female Bornean rhino in 2001, Tam was immediately seen as a symbol of a dying, but not yet dead, species. His surprising arrival at the plantation brought the government and conservation community of the state of Sabah into action. He now has a 2.5-hectare (6-acre) pen of his own, complete with forest cover and two mud wallows; he is fed a selection of greens gathered every morning and afternoon by rangers with the Sabah Wildlife Department; and he is protected 24-7 by an anti-poaching squad.

Of course, the situation is not perfect. It would be best if Tam could have remained in the wild to live out his life near other rhinos, instead of the forest patch where he was trapped and alone. But his injured foot required care, and now he is too accustomed to humans to simply be placed back in the wild, because he would likely wander into human habitations again — where he may not be so lucky again.

However, his appearance on the human stage has given Tam another role to play: a survivor’s role.

Tam, this massive, purplish, very manja animal who almost crushed my hand against the bars as I tried to take rapid photos in his pen because he probably thought I was trying to feed him the camera, could be the key to bringing the Bornean rhino back from the brink.

Tam in Sabah. Photo by Jeremy Hance

The story of the two-horned Asian rhino

The story of Tam and his kind goes back — way back.

Bornean rhinos are a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), of which there are only an estimated 250 left in the world. Sumatran rhinos and their Bornean subspecies are the last remnants of the genus Dicerorhinus. Most researchers believe the Sumatran rhino is the last living representative of early Miocene rhinos and therefore the oldest rhino species left in the world, one that emerged between 15 million and 20 million years ago.

This also makes the Sumatran rhino the closest living relative to the legendary woolly rhinoceros, which roamed the Eurasian steppes during the Ice Age. Evidence of their ancient ancestry is seen in the Sumatran rhinos’ thick black strands of hair; the same hair that probably covered the woolly rhinoceros, only not quite as thick.

For millions of years, Sumatran rhinos inhabited Southeast Asia, from Borneo to northeastern India. Living largely solitary lives, they preferred deep tropical forests near muddy and swampy areas. Not known to fight over territory, the Sumatran rhino is actually quite a gentle creature, despite its heavy bulk and huge horns. Considered the most vocal of all the rhinos, it makes a number of surprising noises, including one which has been compared to a whale singing.

After millions of years the rhino’s fate turned. Following the same path as many lost and threatened species in the region, habitat loss and large-scale hunting drove the rhino into smaller and smaller pockets of forest until it finally reached its current pathetic state. The rhino’s horn is key to understanding the demise of the animal; it fetches hefty prices (upward of $30,000 per kilogram) on the black market, where it is sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Despite decades of anti-poaching measures and laws, and zero scientific evidence to back rhino horn’s purported medicinal qualities, the trade is still booming and rhinos across the world are still paying the price. In fact, this year has been a particularly bad one for rhinos worldwide: poaching is at a 15-year-high, and rhino horn is more valuable than gold, pound for pound.

The Sumatran rhino has already lost one subspecies to extinction — the northern Sumatran rhino, once prevalent in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh — while the remaining two subspecies, the Bornean and the western Sumatran rhino, hang on by a thread in Borneo, Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia.

On top of all of this, Junaidi Payne, chairman of the Borneo Rhinoceros Alliance (BORA) and a longtime conservationist with the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) in Malaysia, says a new and insidious threat faces the species: population collapse.

“In the past, rhinos were threatened by poaching, loss of habitat and so on. But now they are mostly threatened by the simple fact that there just aren’t enough of them around in one place anymore,” Payne told Malaysian newspaper The Star.

Habitat is so fragmented and rhino numbers so low that many remaining rhinos are simply unable to locate another individual to breed with. They are caught in pockets of forest surrounded by oil palm plantations, with no opportunity to safely cross the plantations and reach other rhinos. Tam is an example of this: the snare he was caught in was mostly likely put out by oil palm plantation workers.

“Most workers in oil palm plantations, as well as rural people in general, do not earn big incomes and survive how they can” Payne says. These workers, mostly immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as local people in some areas, are known to set snares to catch deer and other animals for meat. But the snares trap indiscriminately, and sometimes injure or kill Bornean elephants, sun bears, rhinos and other imperiled species.

But it’s not just the situation on the ground that has brought the Sumatran rhino so close to extinction; it is also a matter of perception. Both Payne and Ong told me that Tam and his kind have been largely overlooked by the public, both local and international.

“People don’t understand the significance of the rhino,” says Ong, who describes the Sumatran rhino as “one of the top five endangered mammals in the world.” She adds that the public simply doesn’t realize how rare the Sumatran rhino is or its evolutionary importance as the last representative of an ancient mammal line.

In Sabah, most of the conservation focus is on orangutans, with elephants coming a distant second. When compared to the huge amount of information available on orangutans, there are few research papers and books and no documentary films on Sumatran rhinos. Any conservationist knows that it is difficult to save a species that doesn’t excite the imagination of the public, and since rhinos are so secretive and rare, they have largely been out of sight, out of mind.

“It could be an intimate relationship [between humans and rhinos], but how we choose to engage shows us where we are at as a human community,” Ong says.

The good news is that the Sumatran rhino has a new champion. Having worked to save numerous species in Sabah, Payne says he has now dedicated his time to saving the embattled rhino.

However, his decision raises some eyebrows.

Why, after all, work to save a species that is doomed to extinction?

It’s a question Payne gets asked all the time. Why not work on a species with a little more promise, like, say, the orangutan or elephant?

“Simple reason,” Payne told me. “There are estimated to be 11,000 orangutans [in Sabah alone] and probably 1,500 [Bornean pygmy] elephants, but there are no more than 40 rhinos and new populations have stagnated and are going down slowly. It’s about need.”

However, Payne is not shy about the difficulties facing him and others who have joined the new effort to save the Bornean rhino.

“One can guess that there might be only 6-7 fertile females [of Bornean rhinos] in existence,” he says, adding that with this knowledge in hand “anyone, any common sense person, would agree that [attempting to save the subspecies] is a waste of time.”

I asked Payne if he believed, then, that the rhino was doomed.

“Probably,” he said. “Yet maybe not.” And it is that “maybe not” that really interests and excites Payne. He remains hopeful — and with good reason.

Payne pointed out to me that past conservation success stories prove the rhino is not a lost cause. At the end of the 19th century, Africa’s white rhinoceros, once widespread, was down to just over 20 individuals surviving in one location in South Africa. Intensive conservation measures pulled the white rhino back from the brink; today, an estimated 17,480 white rhinos live in east and southern Africa, making it the most populous rhino species in the world.

But it’s not just the white rhino. Over a thousand European bison survive today, all of which are descended from just a dozen individuals in captivity; and after going extinct in the wild in the 1970s, the Arabian oryx has been successfully reintroduced into its native habitat, several hundred strong, while at least 6,000 survive in captivity.

Despite these and other success stories, Payne says there has been a “strange change where academics claim [species] are doomed unless you have a certain minimum number of individuals — often the number 500 has been proposed.”

Payne calls this the “geneticist’s tyranny,” where in spite of “empirical evidence” that large mammals have gone through genetic bottlenecks and come back, many geneticists would claim that the fate of the rhino is already decided.

“People are forced to give reasons why we save these species,” Ong added, but it’s clear that “you can change the course of events.”

Of course, the question of why could be asked of any endangered animal. Why put money, time and energy into saving a species at all? Certainly, species provide what are called ecosystem services; they act in concert with their environment, provide pollination, clean water, clean air, food, medicine, etc. But are there other reasons?

“I can only say — I’m shy to say it […] but the general answer would be that humans, having even thought about [saving a species], gives some responsibility to actually save them,” Payne said.

Ong agrees that the decision to save a species says just as much about humans as it does about the embattled and vanishing species. “I see this as a question of where we are in our evolution and how do we respond to this critical situation,” she says.

She then puts it in more personal terms: “When our great grandchildren ask ‘when you found out about [the rhino] what did you do?’ How will we respond?”

Tam in Sabah. Photo by Jeremy Hance

The plan going forward

Of course, it’s not enough to simply decide to save a species on the precipice of extinction; large-scale action and a lot of funds are required. In the case of Sumatran rhinos, there has already been a concerted effort to save the species, but it ended in failure.

In 1984, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) brought together a wide range of interested parties from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, Indonesia, the United States and Britain to discuss how to save the Sumatran rhino. They decided the best thing would be a globally managed program of captured individuals for breeding in captivity in a number of different locations. Between 1986 to1994, around 40 Sumatrans rhinos were caught and placed in zoos, as well as other closely managed situations.

The government of Sabah embraced the plan. In 1988, it established the Sabah Wildlife Department, previously a division of the Forestry Department, which was created in part as a means to facilitate rhino conservation.

Unfortunately, the well-thought-out plan didn’t deliver. Only one breeding pair was successfully established, at Cincinnati Zoo, bearing three offspring. Nearly all the original rhinos caught are now dead; the only female to bear offspring died just this year.

Starting in the late 1990s, another breeding site of 100 hectares (250 acres) was established at Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra. However, while the conservation center includes three females and two males, no offspring have been born. Conservationists hope that will change, since the second male was only brought in two years ago.

“The thinking is that the whole idea of very closely managed rhinos in captivity isn’t working as well or as fast as is needed to save the species,” Payne says.

In 2007, researchers concluded at a conference on rhino conservation in Sabah that due to reproductive issues and possible inbreeding, rhino numbers in the Malaysian state had stagnated and were probably declining, therefore simply preserving habitat for rhinos would not save them. Nor, they thought, would captivity. A bold and innovative proposal was put forth.

As Payne tells it, the conservation community was confronted with a choice: either do nothing, or place rhinos in a large conservation area that would be less closely managed.

Two years later, Payne and BORA are in the midst of assisting the Sabah Wildlife Department in implementing a vast fenced-in sanctuary spanning 45 square kilometers (17 square miles), where Bornean rhinos can be brought together. The rhinos will be monitored, but will have “minimal human influences.” They will be largely left alone in the hopes that nature will take its course and the rhinos will breed.

“In theory we are putting one half of Sabah’s rhino eggs in one basket,” Payne says of the plan.

Ong adds that conservationists have to “make a decision to go all the way with human intervention or why bother.”

Only rhinos which are cut off from others will be placed in the new sanctuary. Rhinos in parks like Tabin or Danum, which are known to be breeding on their own, will not be a part of the sanctuary, but will be left in the wild and protected by anti-poaching units.

A Sumatran rhino in Indonesia’s Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The sanctuary already has its first resident. It is, of course, none other than Tam, who is biding his time until the new sanctuary is built and the other rhinos are caught and brought in. If all goes according to plan, Tam will come face-to-face with a female, perhaps his first ever. Payne says the sanctuary only needs one more male and two females to make the program “just about doable.”

The plan has received full support from the government, and funds have been promised to the tune of 8 million ringgit (about $2 million) by the national government and 250,000 ringgit ($70,000) by the State Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment for interim holding paddocks for rhinos. The sanctuary has also received a large donation by the Sime Darby Foundation, a corporate social and environmental responsibility arm of one of Malaysia’s largest palm oil companies. All that needs to happen now is implementation on the ground: basic infrastructure is scheduled to be completed by next year.

Payne says the director of the Sabah Forestry Department, Datuk Sam Mannan, and the state’s minister of tourism, culture and environment, Datuk Masidi Manjun, have both taken lead roles in supporting the early stages of the program. “[B]oth have shown a strong personal interest in pushing it forward,” he says.

Masidi, well-known in Sabah for his unwavering commitment to environmental issues, headlined a fund-raiser in the spring organized by LEAP that raised 530,000 ringgit ($150,000) for BORA. Without such government support, the plan to save the rhinos would have stalled before it even started.

Payne believes that Sabah is the best hope for the Sumatran rhino going forward, despite Indonesia having a larger population of the rhinos.

“Due to human population pressures in Indonesia and the massive expansion of big-scale plantations that compete for land with smallholders,” Payne says, “it may be only a matter of time before the Sumatran rhino vanishes from the wild in Indonesia.”

A large number of unanswered questions remain — such as just how many rhinos are left and how many are capable of breeding — but Payne says the answers are largely unnecessary for conservation efforts.

“What is the point spending 10 years researching if the population is 10 or 15 individuals when the species is still going down?” he says.

Conservation, according to Payne, cannot always wait for hard science and data; often it comes down to using one’s “best judgment” at the time to save a species.

The hairy hide of the Bornean rhinoceros. The rhino, Tam, is a captive individual representing hopes for ex-situ breeding of the Critically Endangered subspecies of the Sumatran rhino.

Tam, again

When I left Tam the first time, I thought it would be the last. But the next morning, to my surprise, we were able to visit him again. Beforehand we followed rangers with the Sabah Wildlife Department in a pickup truck as they cut branches, leaves and vines for Tam’s breakfast.

By the time we reached Tam, he was already waiting at the gate where they feed him, rubbing his head against the bars. Tam was “like a cat rubbing against you,” Cynthia Ong had told me, and it was true. He would rub his head along the bars like a pet looking for attention. In fact, he had largely rubbed away his magnificent horns. This shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing: without horns he is of little interest to poachers.

Ong described the day that Tam wandered injured into the oil palm plantation as a “fortuitous and unplanned event,” because “it pushed the idea of [the] proposal” to start a massive rhino sanctuary.

Tam, she told me, “is not an accident.”

After eating his breakfast, carefully measured out on a scale meant for a giant, and having his photo taken a few hundred times, Tam turned and made his way back into the forest. First, he spent a moment wading in the mud, and then slowly, but surely, he wandered back into the deep green of Borneo’s jungle. One moment he was there, roaming on the forest’s edge, and the next he was gone, as if he had never been.

Days before, when I asked Junaidi Payne if this was the last chance to save the species, he told me simply: “Yes.”

It’s true that this story will end in one of two ways. In the first, Tam and all of his kind will vanish from the dwindled forest, leaving not even their ghosts behind. In this version, he will become another member of those animals painted so nicely in books on extinction: Tam, I imagine, will appear somewhere between the dodo, the Tasmanian tiger and the great auk.

In the second version, Tam and his kind will continue inhabiting the deep, largely unseen areas of Southeast Asia’s magnificent forests. While this version is dependent on many factors not in our control — factors where previous generations have already failed the rhino — it is our choice now whether or not we give this ending a chance.

I don’t know what we will find when the last page is turned, but having been among the fortunate few to come face-to-face with the two-horned rhino of Asia, I can’t help but dread the day we fail, while simultaneously hoping for the day where I can take my children to meet Tam’s.

This story originally appeared on Mongabay December 3, 2009 and later appeared in Jeremy Hance’s book, Life is Good. Photos were updated when this story was re-posted in November 2018.