Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhinoceros, Tam, has died—a serious blow for the critically endangered species, which is already extinct in the country.
Discovered poking around an oil palm plantation in 2008, Tam was captured and transferred to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the state of Sabah. Efforts to breed him with two female rhinos—Puntung, captured in 2011, and Iman, captured in 2014—proved unsuccessful.
With Puntung’s euthanisation in 2017 due to cancer, Iman is now the nation’s sole remaining member of its species in Malaysia. Due to decades of habitat loss and poaching, fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos are thought to exist in the wild, most on the nearby island of Sumatra. The rest are scattered across Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo.
Sumatran rhinos are so few, in fact, experts now believe isolation is the single biggest threat to the species’ continued existence. This is because females of this species can develop cysts and fibroids in their reproductive tracts if they go too long without mating. (Such was the cause of Iman’s infertility. Puntung's inability to carry fetuses seemed to stem from injuries sustained from a poacher’s snare and a failed pregnancy in the wild.)
That's why, in 2018, the world’s leading conservation nonprofits, including the National Geographic Society, announced an unprecedented collaboration called the Sumatran Rhino Rescue. The aim? To find and safely capture as many wild rhinos as possible so that they can be brought together for captive breeding. (Read: “The Unprecedented Plan to Save the Sumatran Rhino.")
“Tam's death underscores how critically important the collaborative efforts driving the Sumatran Rhino Rescue project are,” Margaret Kinnaird, wildlife practice leader for WWF International, says in an email.
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“We've got to capture those remaining, isolated rhinos in Kalimantan and Sumatra and do our best to encourage them to make babies.”
A slow decline
Tam’s condition had been steadily declining since late April, when his appetite and alertness declined, Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga told Malaysian newspaper The Star. Urine tests revealed that the rhino’s kidneys and perhaps other organs had begun to fail.
Authorities can’t say yet why Tam deteriorated so quickly, but it may simply have been old age. Tam was estimated to have been in his thirties, and these animals only have a life expectancy of 35 to 40 years, Tuuga told the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times.
“We hung so much hope on Tam to produce offspring in captivity, but that hope was dashed when the remaining two females at Tabin were unable to carry fetuses,” Kinnaird says.
While Tam wasn’t able to produce any offspring on his own, his presence in captivity did help us better understand his kind.
“The work that the Borneo Rhino Alliance did with advanced reproductive techniques, especially harvesting eggs and attempting to create embryos, took us one step further towards understanding of the species’ biology,” says Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation.
“The public needs to understand how precarious the survival of Sumatran rhinos is,” says Ellis. “Tam’s loss represents roughly one percent of the population.”
As tragic as Tam’s death is, it's a wakeup call to find more animals in the wild, says Kinnaird, who has been coordinating WWF International’s Sumatran rhino efforts for the last two years. (WWF is also part of the Sumatran Rhino Rescue coalition.)
The good news is that late last year the coalition had already succeeded in capturing a new female, named Pahu. Her transfer to a new breeding facility in Kelian was so important, the rhino was afforded an escort from both police and mudslide-clearing bulldozers.
So far as experts can tell, Pahu does seem to be reproductively healthy, says Kinnaird; she is thriving in her new home, and, with any luck, she may soon have company.
“Our most recent surveys indicate there are other rhinos still roaming in Kalimantan's forests," Kinnaird says, "which gives me renewed hope."
“We need to continue to be laser-focused on saving the remaining 80 Sumatran rhinos, using a combination of intensive protection and captive breeding, and working with local people to instill pride that the rhino is part of their biological heritage,” says Ellis. “This is a battle we cannot afford to lose."
Lead Image: A male rhino named Harapan poses at the White Oak Conservation Center in Florida, where he lived briefly before being moved to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK