Progress on re­pro­duc­tion re­search at cel­lu­lar level is fast, but the ex­per­i­men­tal process is costly and la­bo­ri­ous

New Straits Times - - Opinion - KRISTY INUS The writer, a staff correspondent for the NST Sabah bureau, is open to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing new things and ad­ven­tures. She re­cently em­braced the Muay Thai train­ing as a life­style

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.

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