Conservation news

Rare rhino’s death should light a fire under Indonesia (commentary)

  • Tam died on Monday, likely from old age, after living in captivity for 11 years.
  • Tam never bred in captivity despite repeated attempts with captive females.
  • Tam represented hope when he was captured – today he represents the need to move aggressively on measures to save his species.
  • This post is part of “Saving Life on Earth: Words on the Wild,” a monthly column by Jeremy Hance, one of Mongabay’s original staff writers.

On May 27, Monday morning, I woke to the news that Tam, the last male Sumatran rhino in Malaysia and the last known male Bornean rhino, had perished. As clichéd as it sounds, I felt like I’d been punched.

It was not surprising news. Tam’s health had been in decline for months and reports had gotten direr in the last week. He was old for a rhino, in his mid-30s, and was suffering from kidney and liver damage. It was, put simply, his time.

But Tam was special — to the world and, selfishly, to me. I had the honor of meeting him in 2009. I was a young environmental journalist then, with just a year under my belt, writing for Mongabay. I was in Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, for a colloquium on orangutans and palm oil, but I made a long detour (flying over oil palm plantations, sprawling towns and rainforest patches) to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve for a single reason: Kertam, or just Tam for short.

Tam in his forest home in Sabah in 2009, one year after his capture. Photo by Jeremy Hance

Just a year before my visit, Tam had stumbled into an oil palm plantation, one of many that had spread across Sabah in the 2000s. He would live for the next 11 years at the Bornean Rhino Alliance (BORA) facility at Tabin, receiving around-the-clock protection and a large pen of the rainforest habitat his species had evolved with over millions of years.

My meeting with Tam would be fortuitous in my life. Our few hours together would kick-start my devoted obsession to the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and the writing of more words than I can count on this species.

Despite untold efforts, Tam never produced children. Yet perhaps we can take at least one lesson from Tam’s life and death: time is running out for the Sumatran rhino. The much-welcomed new program, Sumatran Rhino Rescue, must move faster and be willing to take more risks than past efforts if we are to have any chance of success in conserving the species.

Indonesia, with its intransigence on cooperating with Malaysia and its historic tepidness over taking more drastic actions, has kicked this can down the road for long enough. Now is our last, best chance to save the species.

Light a fire under Indonesia

The situation is this: we now have nine Sumatran rhinos in captivity — one in Malaysian Borneo, one in Indonesian Borneo, or Kalimantan, and seven in Sumatra. But only one pair of rhinos, in Sumatra, have so far been proven capable of reproduction, and two of the females, Iman and Pahu, are an island apart from the others.

Meanwhile, in the wild, the Sumatran rhino is on the precipice of extinction. In 2017, I wrote a series on the species that, based on numerous conversations with experts, put the number of Sumatran rhinos left at just 30 to 80. And these populations are separated over four distinct habitats — one of which may already be devoid of rhinos.

Male Sumatran rhino named Jackson of the northern subspecies, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis lasiotis, at the London Zoo in the early Twentieth Century. This subspecies used to roam mainland Asia as far as India and Bangladesh. It is now extinct. Two subspecies remain: the Bornean and the Sumatran.

Given this, our best chance for the species is now to build a sustainable captive population to ensure survival — and to do that we desperately need at least a few new young, healthy males and females. This would mean, like the European bison or the California condor, that if the species vanishes from the wild, it could be reintroduced back into the jungle one happier day.

Today, there are only seven animals at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas (most of them directly related), and we haven’t seen a birth for three years. The sanctuary requires the influx of new animals with divergent genetics – and his will require embracing risk. Capturing a rhino is by no means easy and sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes a capture ends in death, as the demise of a young female, Najaq, proved in 2016 – and a number of other animals in the 1980s and 90s.  This doesn’t mean a mortality at capture is acceptable or that we shouldn’t learn from our mistakes – only that, while we must do what we can to avoid injury or death, we must accept this is a risky business. But so is leaving the rhinos where they are.

Tam’s epitaph is clear: We no longer have the luxury of time or easy decisions.

For decades, conservationists counted and estimated Sumatran rhinos for decades with little success — and in all cases overestimating the number of the animals. This has happened in every place the Sumatran rhino has been counted: from Peninsular Malaysia (now extinct) to Sabah (now extinct in the wild) to Kalimantan (where estimates of 15 animals are almost certainly overoptimistic) to a number of large parks in Sumatra, where reputed rhinos were just ghosts.

This problem is likely due to the fact that tapir footprints look like those of Sumatran rhinos, and when anyone, even well-trained rangers, goes looking for a specific species, it’s often easy to find something — anything — that could be taken as a sign. But a “sign” doesn’t mean there’s actually a rhino. Camera traps are the best tools to actually verify rhinos and then monitor them for capture.

Today, we need to skip trying to count and instead capture. If and when rhinos are confirmed in potential populations (aside from the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra) a capture program should be initiated immediately, especially if the rhinos appear to be in good breeding health. History has shown it can take years to successfully capture a single animal.

Tam under general anaesthesia undergoing the electro-ejaculation procedure in Malaysian Borneo to collect sperm, which is today frozen for potential use. From left to right : Zainal Zainuddin, Willson Kuntil (senior rhino keeper), (green shirt not acing camera) Dr Abdul Hamid Ahman (BORA chairman; performing manual stimulation ), (colorful shirt) Abraham Mathew (senior veterinarian, Singapore Zoo) and Zubaidah Kamarudin (Department of Willdife and National Parks, Peninsular Malaysia, PERHILITAN) jointly responsible for anaesthesia and monitoring of vital parameters. Image courtesy of BORA.

There may already be zero animals left in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, and if there are any, it’s very likely not a viable population. If any rhinos are confirmed there, captures should begin immediately. Kalimantan could still house around a dozen animals, officials say, but again that’s hardly a viable population in the long term. Moreover, left in the wild, those animals could easily fall prey to poaching or snaring (numerous captured rhinos, for example, have had evidence of snare wounds). Captures, here too, shouldn’t wait.

Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra could be slightly better off in terms of population, but only slightly. And even if Way Kambas has, let’s say, a population of 30-plus rhinos that are breeding (the most optimistic estimate I’ve heard), it’s important to take the risk of capturing a few animals here for captivity now. Way Kambas is also more likely to have young, healthier animals than either Bukit Barisan or Kalimantan.

The biggest question mark is Leuser. Here, I can understand taking things a little slower. For one thing, Leuser may be our best chance of a viable wild population. For another, successfully capturing rhinos there will be more difficult due to its remoteness and difficult terrain. Leuser can wait — if rhinos are found elsewhere.

Even if the total Sumatran rhino population is larger than we expect (highly unlikely unless Leuser holds some surprises), the species is still in perilous decline. The Sumatran rhino has suffered the same fate everywhere: deaths have outweighed births, and the population has slowly, but inevitably, fallen to zero. Females that don’t reproduce regularly soon develop tumors and may become unable to reproduce at all. Rhinos that are not captured now face the risk of a life of poaching, snares, and possible childlessness.

The rhinos of Borneo

The death of Tam is about so much more than one individual. Tam is the last known male rhino of the Bornean subspecies (D. s. harrissoni). If no new males are found in Indonesian Borneo, then his death could well represent the extinction of a subspecies that split off some 300,000 years ago from the population on Sumatra. The Bornean rhino, the smallest on Earth, contains genetics and morphology distinct from any other.

There are two known chances, though, of preserving at least some of this subspecies’ distinct genetics: Pahu and Iman, the last two remaining Bornean rhinos in captivity — but both female. Sadly, Iman is in perilous health and will likely never bear children, but she’s still producing viable eggs. Those eggs should be utilized: whether they are sent to Indonesia or sperm from Indonesia is sent to Sabah (as has been long requested) no longer matters. What matters is that it gets done and fast.

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.

Tam’s sperm has also been preserved and could be used to attempt to impregnate Pahu, in Indonesian Borneo, or any of the female rhinos in Sumatra. But all of this depends on Malaysia and Indonesia working together — something they have failed to do over the last several decades, essentially dooming a number of opportunities to produce more babies. The Sumatran rhino has already suffered enough lost chances due to bureaucratic squabbling between the two countries.

These animals’ eggs and sperm are tools we can employ to increase the chance of more births. And while Indonesia has long been reluctant to employ such methods, it’s time to start using all the tools in our possession.

In the meantime, Pahu should be sent to the captive breeding facility in Sumatra and not wait for a male to be found in Kalimantan. If a male is found in Kalimantan — a really big if — it might take years to successfully capture him. If it’s not possible to send her, attempts should be made to artificially inseminate her with Tam’s or another male’s preserved sperm.

Estimated to be around 25 years old, Pahu is no spring chicken in rhino years; her breeding chances may already be slim. We need to try breeding Pahu now if her Bornean genetics are to be preserved and if she’s to prove useful to the species.

In 2012, stakeholders agreed to mix the Bornean and Sumatran subspecies in order to produce more rhinos. But seven years later, not one attempt has been made. Neither Tam or his sperm were ever sent to Sumatra where reproduction could have been attempted.

Tam represents lost chances; Pahu should not.

If later a Bornean male is captured, breeding can still be attempted.

But let’s stop assuming the best-case scenario. Let’s assume the worst and act accordingly.

My gentleman

All day, I’ve been thinking back to my visit to Tabin to meet Tam, 10 years ago. Before I met him, Cynthia Ong, the head of local NGO Leap, had told me Tam was “very manja,” which meant sweet, cuddly, or lovingly spoiled. She compared him to an attention-needy house cat.

I had a hard time imagining any rhino as such.

But when I was brought to his pen, where he awaited lunch, he was so manja. He squeaked at me like a dolphin, sniffed me curiously, and nearly crushed my camera against the bars as he tried to rub against me. Although technically the Bornean rhino is the world’s smallest, Tam was still huge.

Tam in 2009. Photo by Jeremy Hance.

Last year, veterinarian Zainal Zahari Zainuddin described Tam to me as “a perfect gentleman” and told me the story of how a fly once got the better of Tam.

Just before breakfast, one morning, Tam noticed a biting fly in his stall. In an attempt to dislodge it, he sent a spray of urine at the little insect and then waited outside a few minutes before entering his stall. But as the gentleman rhino walked inside, he noticed the urine had not deterred the fly: it was buzzing around. So the 620-kilogram (1,370-pound) megafauna ran away and hid in the forest.

Tam was several hours late for breakfast that day.

“That’s him … a proud big fellow, but scared of these biting flies,” Zainuddin laughed at the time.

Tam wasn’t just a member of an endangered species or subspecies. He was an individual with his own personality. And his loss is a sad day for Sabah and the world. It’s also a warning.

When I met Tam in 2009, experts said there were probably around 250 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild. They were wrong. They also said that Sabah might be home to 40 animals — also wrong.

Let’s not spend another decade squabbling while the remaining animals disappear. Let’s do something. Let’s stop with the missed opportunities and shrugged-off chances. Let’s put aside national differences and egos and work together. Let’s act for Tam. While he never had children, it doesn’t mean he can’t have a legacy.