By Jaswinder Kler, Borneo Insider, August 21 2013
Masidi Manjun: “As I have said before, I want to do what is right, not what is popular. If we want to prevent that extinction, we have to do something very bold and drastic very quickly. Give me the best possible solution to this enigma”.
KOTA KINABALU: There has been much exposure this year in the media on Sabah’s rhinos. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, the Sumatran rhino is on the very edge of extinction. Once wide spread in the rainforests, swamps, and cloud forests in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China, it is believed that the species is now confined to two island populations in Sumatera and Borneo (in Sabah and Kalimantan only) .
Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit, a brainstorming meeting of 100 global experts and concerned citizens held in Singapore in April 2013, gave the previously obscure species a new global profile. Experts think there may be about 100 left in the wild, with most in Sumatra and fewer than ten in Malaysia, all in Sabah.
No one can be sure of its exact numbers without a massive survey effort, because these solitary, forest-dwelling rhinos are so few and scattered in remote sites. In any case, the rhino specialists in Malaysia say that there are not enough wild rhinos remaining in Malaysia to form a viable breeding population.
“The second main reason for the media attention” says Datuk Masidi Manjun, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, “one thing for sure is that if assertive action is not taken now, the species will definitely go extinct in Sabah in the next decade.
“If we want to prevent that extinction, we have to do something very bold and drastic very quickly. The big question is: What exactly needs to be done? I have directed The Sabah Wildlife Department and invited the Conservation NGOs in Sabah to get together and give me the best possible solution to this enigma.
DOING WHAT IS RIGHT MAY NOT BE POPULAR
“As I have said in many contexts before, I want to do what is right, not what is popular”
Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu, Director of Sabah Wildlife Department said the department has consulted with a wide range of local and international expertise, including people managing wild and farmed African rhinos, zoo people, specialist vets, rhino ecologists, and people who have been involved in saving other critically endangered birds and mammals.
According to him, the only consensus is that we have to act quickly to boost Sumatran rhino births. “Although a few international people do not agree, governmental and non-governmental professionals in Sabah say that that there is now an urgent need to get as many rhinos into fenced, managed conditions as soon as possible,” he said adding the idea is that every rhino can be closely monitored and treated as necessary, to get them producing embryos.
In my opinion, the exact location where the rhinos are kept is not paramount concern for this programme,” he added.
“We can move them between facilities as long as the care is always world class and the intention is to breed rhinos. I do believe that at this case, Sabah can and should take a leadership role.”
But Dr Sen Nathan, SWD Assistant Director explained that the problem now with wild Sumatran rhinos lies in an obscure wildlife biology concept, called the Allee Effect”.
“Once numbers of a species go below a certain threshold level, breeding success falls below death rate, and the species is set on a steady trajectory to extinction, even in protected areas such as Tabin and Danum Valley,” said Dr Sen.
POACHING HASTENS BUT DOES NOT PREVENT EXTINCTION
“Poaching may hasten extinction, but preventing poaching will not prevent extinction. Factors involved include inability of fertile females and males to find each other, reproductive pathology induced by long periods with no breeding, and inbreeding because only siblings remain in one area.” Dr Sen believes that advanced and possibly as yet undiscovered reproductive technologies will be needed in order to maximize prospects for producing Sumatran rhino babies.
“There is imminent need to translocate the remaining wild Sumatran rhinos in Sabah to captivity as this is a key possibility to beat the looming threat of total extinction of the species,” said WWF-Malaysia Executive Director/CEO, Dato’ Dr Dionysius Sharma.
“We need to expedite this action as the rhinos are at the risk of being poached out or die naturally if left in the wild.”
Dino also added that WWF-Malaysia is working closely with its partners to conduct surveys in the Danum Valley to identify locations of the remaining rhinos, and patrolling the area to protect the rhinos until they are captured for translocation to the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary.
The Borneo Rhino Sanctuary programme was approved by government of Sabah in 2009, with the aim to prevent the rhinos’ extinction in Sabah. So far, only two rhinos are in the sanctuary facilities in Tabin Wildlife Reserve.
TAM, PUNTUNG, SUCI AND CINCINNATI
Tam is a fertile but aging male, while Puntung is a younger female, who probably cannot become pregnant by natural means because she has significant endometrial cyst growth in her reproductive organs. In March 2013, government gave approval to target capture of a wild female rhino in Danum Valley.
The long term aim is to re-establish a fully wild rhino population but the immediate task is to maximize the contribution of every single rhino towards the goal of producing more baby rhinos. In July 2013, several local NGOs and institutions agreed to support a way forward.
If Sabah cannot secure a new, fertile mate for Tam before July 2014, Tam will be loaned to Cincinnati Zoo as a mate for their sole female Sumatran rhino named Suci.
Why Cincinnati? Because this is the only zoo in the world which has successfully bred Sumatran rhinos, producing an infant in 2001 (a male named Andalas), 2004 (a female named Suci) and 2007 (another male named Harapan).
The parents of these three rhinos have died of age-related diseases. The first born male, Andalas, was returned to Indonesia in 2007 and he fathered a baby, born in 2012.
In desperation, Cincinnati Zoo has made it known that they will try to mate Suci with her younger brother Harapan as soon as he is sexually mature, but all observers say that this is a last resort, aimed at breeding Suci before endometriosis starts to set in.
GLOBALLY MANAGED BREEDING PROGRAMME
The NGOs and institutions that gave their blessing to the Cincinnati loan plan include Borneo Conservation Trust (BCT), Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), Danau Girang Field Centre, HUTAN, Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP) and Malaysian Nature Society (Sabah Branch).
Others include the Malaysian Association of Tour & Travel Agents (MATTA), Royal Society Southeast Asian Rainforest Research (SEARPP) programme, Sabah Environmental Protection Association (SEPA), Sabah Environmental Trust, Sabah Tourist Guides Association (STGA), The Sabah Society and WWF-Malaysia.
“There may be about a hundred Sumatran rhinos left in Sumatra, but when numbers get that low, in a nation with a large and growing human population, things don’t look good there either,” said Datuk Junaidi Payne, executive director of a Sabah-based NGO, Borneo Rhino Alliance.
“We have been in frequent contact with our Indonesian counterparts for several years, and the message that we get is that they are very hesitant to contemplate bringing in more wild rhinos into fenced, managed conditions, despite the enormous threats to the wild rhinos.
“Their reluctance is in part due to fear of public criticism,” he said. Junaidi believes that Sabah should collaborate with Indonesia and the best global specialists in sharing rhinos, or rhino ova and sperm, for a globally managed breeding programme”.
That way, he says, “We could together reverse the long term fatal trend that this species is now in, and start to get more births than deaths. Sabah has fewer rhinos and fewer options, but paradoxically there is now the need for Sabah to take a leadership role.”
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