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Published: Wednesday May 15, 2013 MYT 10:52:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday August 6, 2013 MYT 10:55:10 AM

Wildlife experts want Malaysia, Indonesia to help Sumatran rhinos meet and mate

KOTA KINABALU: With just about 100 Sumatran rhinos around, wildlife researchers want Malaysia and Indonesia to urgently work together so that the rhinos get to meet each other, mate, reproduce and get off the critically endangered list.

“The Sumatran rhino population is facing a decreasing trend with the isolated populations in Indonesia (Sumatra and possibly Kalimantan) and Malaysia (Sabah)," said wildlife research NGO Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) executive director of BORA Dr Junaidi Payne.

"Although habitat loss and poaching are the reasons for the decline, today's reproductive isolation of individuals, too sparsely scattered even within protected areas, is the main threat to the survival of the species," he added.

Payne was the co-author of a paper published this week in the scientific journal Oryx, in which researchers demonstrate the vital necessity to consider the remaining populations of Sumatran rhinoceros in Sumatra and Borneo as a single conservation unit.

The paper was the outcome of a joint study by BORA, the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Cardiff University and Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC).

DGFC director Dr Benoit Goossens, the paper's lead author, said a cohesive approach in the Sumatran rhino conservation efforts made sense.

"For a species such as the Sumatran rhinoceros, where time is of the essence in preventing extinction, we must ask to what extent should genetic and geographical distances be taken into account in deciding the most urgently needed conservation interventions," said Goossens.

"Genetic differences are minimal and we strongly believe that the observed differences do not justify keeping the Sumatran and Bornean populations as separate management units,'' he said.

'A study of the Javan rhinoceros showed low genetic diversity in that population and that there was a critical need for population expansion for the species to survive,'' Goosens added.

He said despite clear results demonstrating that the Ujung Kulon (Indonesia) and Cat Tien (Vietnam) rhino populations represented separate evolutionary significant units it was argued that demographic considerations should override genetic issues in the short term.

'The Indonesian and Vietnamese governments were urged to exchange Javan rhinoceroses before it was too late. No action was taken and, in Cat Tien National Park, the last individual in Vietnam was found dead in April 2010," explained Goossens.

"We certainly do not want the same thing to happen to the Sumatran rhinoceros and we, therefore, strongly recommend to act now and exchange gametes such as semen and ovocytes (and possibly individuals) between the captive populations of Sumatran rhinoceros in Sabah (Tabin), Sumatra (Way Kambas) and Cincinnati Zoo, when it is still possible," said Goossens.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu said state authorities had working with foreign researchers including rhino reproduction biologists from Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research.

"We understand the need to exchange gametes between countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. Actions to initiate genome resource banking and artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization are underway in Sabah and elsewhere," added Ambu.

"We are seriously considering sending Tam, our captive male rhinoceros, to Cincinnati Zoo in the US to breed with their mature female," added Ambu.

"By doing so, we will make an historical step towards the survival of one of the most charismatic, ancient and enigmatic large mammals; a species that Sabah is not prepared to see extinct," he added.

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Tags / Keywords: Wildlife, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sumatran rhinos

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