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Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino no more

Written by Science

Within the last 20 years the population of Sumatran rhinos has declined by 70%, and hence, within our lifetimes, we could see the disappearance of the world’s most primitive rhino.

In 2008, the IUCN classed the Sumatran Rhino as critically endangered, with 220 – 275 individuals remaining. At the time, conservation programmes and international legislations were in place in attempt to help the species, but despite these efforts, the population now dwindles at fewer than 80 individuals (with some estimates as low as 30).

The death of 25-year-old Iman on the 23rd November 2019 marks the annihilation of the Malayan population of Sumatran Rhinos. A species which once roamed Asia and parts of India, is now restricted to just 5 fragmented populations within Indonesia. The populations have been isolated and cut off from each other due to deforestation and mountainous terrain, meaning the probability of rhinos meeting and interbreeding is reduced immensely. As numbers decrease, the likelihood of survival rapidly decreases. To enhance this problem, the fertility of females decreases if they do not regularly mate, as they have a tendency to grow cysts in their reproductive tracts. Iman herself suffered from these cysts, and failed to reproduce when introduced to Tam (the last male Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, who died in May this year).

Despite the doom and gloom, survival of the Sumatran rhino might be possible if large efforts are taken in Indonesia.

The Sumatran Rhino Rescue alliance is working with the Indonesian government to build two new Sumatran rhino sanctuaries, and to bring all Sumatran rhinos into a single breeding programme. In their first year of action, they found and relocated a healthy female rhino (Pahu), they grew in terms of number of partners (joining with zoological societies from all over the world), and three more rhinos have been identified in need of relocation.

Hope for the future relies on IVF, captive breeding, and protection of the species, all of which have been of increasing interest and investment in recent years. A large amount of funding is required, for example relocation of each rhino costs $800,000, and development of sanctuaries by the alliance is likely to cost $2.8 million.

With habitat loss from deforestation, it is uncertain whether the Sumatran rhino will ever thrive in the wild again, but we do know that right now is an absolutely critical time for conservation of the species.

Sumatran rhinos make up a tiny proportion of 25% of all mammals which are threatened by extinction. The death of Iman serves as a reminder that 2019 is a critical time for all species threatened by deforestation, poaching and climate change.

Last modified: 10th December 2019

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