Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhinoceros is dead – a painful blow to the world’s animal conservation efforts.
Tam, aged between 30 to 35, was the country’s last hope to naturally repopulate the once wild and magnificent creatures.
His death now leaves even less hope for a successful repopulation.
Tam was discovered wandering around one of Malaysia’s palm oil plantations back in 2008, where he was captured and transferred to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the state of Sabah.
Efforts were made to breed him with two female rhinos – Puntung, captured in 2011, and Iman, captured in 2014. These efforts weren’t successful.
Now, with Puntung euthanized in 2017 due to cancer, Iman is the only remaining member of its species in Malaysia.
Tam’s keepers noticed the rhino’s lack of appetite and alertness around late April. Tabin Wildlife Reserve’s veterinarians gave him the best palliative care that they could. Despite this, Tam eventually succumbed to health complications.
According to Malaysian officials, Tam’s death was the result of old age and multiple organ failure likely caused by kidney and liver damage. More information will be available following a post mortem.
The rhino once roamed across most of Asia.
However, decades of poaching and habitat loss have reduced Sumatran rhinos to dwindling numbers. They are now considered critically endangered.
Today they’ve almost completely disappeared from the wild. As little as 80 Sumatran rhinos are thought to be roaming free, most of which are in the nearby islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
Even the remaining subpopulations are so small (groups of 2-3 animals) that they will eventually disappear.
As to the specific cause of their decline, Susie Ellis, Ph.D., Executive Director, International Rhino Foundation explains:
“For several decades, Sumatran rhinos have been devastated across their range by poaching to feed illegal trade in horn for Asian markets – with more than 70 percent of the population lost.
“In Sabah, logging, which decimated the region’s rainforests, followed closely by extensive development of palm oil plantations, also was a contributing factor.
“Like Sabah, Sumatra also has seen massive deforestation and rain forest fragmentation, pushing Sumatran rhinos, tigers, elephants, and orangutans to the brink of extinction despite ongoing protection.”
Conservationists hoped to breed Tam naturally with Iman and Puntung.
However, the male rhino did not have high-quality sperm. Both females also had uterine tumors which complicated the chances of conception.
Left with no other choice, they turned their efforts towards advanced reproductive technology – producing embryos through in vitro fertilization, which would be placed in surrogate rhinos.
Still, the odds continued to be low.
“With limited knowledge about Sumatran rhino reproductive physiology, and the complexities of converting cells in the laboratory into viable embryos, these methods were a long-shot, at best. Even so, they were the best chance for Sabah’s rhinos.
“Efforts to exchange gametes with Indonesia did not pan out for a variety of reasons.”
Conservationists believe that isolation will be the most likely cause of the Sumatran rhino’s extinction.
Female rhinos suffer from reproductive pathologies – if they grow older and do not breed, they will develop cysts and tumors in their reproductive organs. This will make it near-impossible to bring pregnancies full-term.
There Might Be Hope
The fight for the Sumatran rhino is not over yet.
Last year, the world’s leading conservation groups, including the National Geographic Society, announced a collaborative project called the Sumatran Rhino Rescue.
Their aim is to find as many wild rhinos as they can and safely capture them for captive breeding.
According to Margaret Kinnaird, wildlife practice leader for WWF International:
“Tam’s death underscores how critically important the collaborative efforts driving the Sumatran Rhino Rescue project are.
“We’ve got to capture those remaining, isolated rhinos in Kalimantan and Sumatra and do our best to encourage them to make babies.”