BREEDING SUMATRAN RHINOS
Progress on reproduction research at cellular level is fast, but the experimental process is costly and laborious
WHEN Lok Kawi Wildlife Park opened about a decade ago, it provided a chance for locals and tourists to get to know a lot more about endemic animals like orangutans and Borneo pygmy elephants.
The park, located 45 minutes from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, provided a lush and natural backdrop for staff to conduct rehabilitation on species facing extinction, while at the same time, educating the public on their survival and challenges in the context of human-wildlife conflict.
It was at this facility I had the chance to see the elusive Sumatran rhinos in person, the first and very likely the last chance I would have in this lifetime.
The female rhino was no longer there. Gelugob died in January 2014 of an age-related illness, where at 37, she was the oldest rhino to have died in captivity.
Back then, she was one of 10 rhinos in captivity worldwide, and conservationists estimated that there were less than 150 wild rhinos in Sumatra and Borneo.
Today, there are three rhinos in captivity in Malaysia and seven in Indonesia, including two born to the same parents.
“However, there are none left in the wild in Malaysia. A few, about 20 in total, are predicted to be in Kalimantan and southern Sumatra. Maybe a few in Acheh,” said Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora) executive director Datuk Dr Junaidi Payne.
Bora is a non-governmental organisation contracted by the government to care for the three rhinos in captivity at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Lahad Datu.
The threat of losing the species recently made headlines again when one of the trio, Puntung, was critically ill and in danger of dying. Puntung was captured in 2011, after which it was determined she was the last remaining wild rhino in the reserve.
The female rhino, estimated to be 25, endured surgery to extract three of her teeth on April 19. So far so good, as Puntung is on the road to recovery. However, veterinarians said it would take months before she fully recovers.
Sumatran rhinos have a life expectancy of 35 years, and the loss of Puntung would be a tragedy, said Dr Zainal Z. Zainuddin, Puntung’s vet.
Puntung was initially planned to be mated with Tam, but uterine cysts made her unable to bear calves. According to Bora’s website, attempts to breed the three rhinos naturally, including female Iman, were unsuccessful. While Tam’s sperm quality was not ideal, Iman too, has reproductive pathologies that have rendered her unable to carry a foetus.
Puntung and Iman are still producing eggs, and since 2014, efforts have been directed towards in-vitro fertilization — the merging of a sperm and egg in a laboratory.
Trying to avoid the same mistake as with the Javan rhinoceros, which is officially extinct in Vietnam, Malaysia, in the past, had tried engaging Indonesia on collaborations in Sumatran rhino programmes — exchanging gametes and possibly rhino mates — but sources said the Indonesian government was not keen to do so.
“In-vitro work continues, but it depends on the availability of specialists from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Germany), funds and the oestrus cycle (the period in the sexual cycle of female mammals, except higher primates, during which they are in heat) of the rhinos.
“Our last try was in April and only one egg was obtained. While there’s no success now, it is just a matter of time for all the details to be in place for a successful fertilisation,” said Payne.
He said those involved in the advanced reproductive technology method included experts from Italy’s Avantea Laboratory, Indonesia’s Bogor Agricultural Institute, Singapore Zoo, Sabah Wildlife Department and the Wildlife and National Parks Department.
Bora, in the past, had stated that the experimental process was costly and laborious, and as of the middle of last year, their funds ran out, calling the need for further financial assistance.
“The progress on reproduction research at the cellular level is remarkable and fast and not known to the public.
“It won’t be far off before sperm and eggs can be made in the lab from skin cells of the male and female rhinos.
“Of course, one can also wait for new and scientific-minded decision makers in Indonesia to allow collaboration.
“As in many endeavours, timing is critical as well as the actual work,” said Payne.
The progress on reproduction research at the cellular level is remarkable and fast and not known to the public. It won’t be far off before sperm and eggs can be made in the lab from skin cells of the male and female rhinos.
Puntung after it was captured in Tabin, Sabah, in 2011. She is one of three rhinos in captivity in Malaysia.