Sumatran rhino misjudged to be pregnant found to have tumour

KOTA KINABALU: Hopes for the likely birth of a calf was dashed when a captured female Sumatran rhino named Iman, thought to be pregnant, was found to be suffering from uterine cancer.

Specialists from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research Berlin (IZW) had conducted a detailed ultrasound examination under anesthesia of Iman.

It was revealed that what had been suspected to be a fetus is in fact a collection of tumours in the uterus.

Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun said excitement had mounted among those involved in the rhino’s capture operation and her transfer to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve on March 21 when they saw indications of pregnancy on the mammal.

Dr Thomas, Dr Frank performing the ultrasound examination on Iman as Dr Zainal looks on.
Dr Thomas and Dr Frank performing the ultrasound examination on Iman as Dr Zainal looks on.

“The signs included feisty behaviour, a torn ear, probably a result of a past tussle with a male, a mass with blood vessels inside the uterus, and minor bleeding from the private parts,” he said.

However, test results not only proved their assumptions wrong, it also showed that the rhino was sick, he added.

“With the serious blow to the Global Sumatran Rhino Breeding programme with the death of Suci in Cincinnati Zoo, this new revelation of Iman’s very poor reproductive capability due to her uterine tumours is very sad news to all of us,“ Masidi said.

However, he said they would not give up and will continue to work one of the world’s best large mammal reproductive specialists from Germany (IZW) to make this programme work.

“With their assistance and technological know-how, we will make the best out of this worst case scenario,” he said.

In this respect, Sabah Wildlife Department director Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu said it was very clear that they needed to embark on a biotechnology approach to save this species, with focus on techniques such as in vitro fertilization.

“And with the death of Suci in Cincinnati Zoo, where we were planning to send Tam to breed with her, we now have to focus all our efforts on Iman and hope she can successfully breed with Tam,” added Ambu.

Meanwhile, Sabah Wildlife assistant director Dr Sen Nathan said the reproductive tract pathology in Iman was very similar to the lesions found not only in Puntung, the other female Sumatran rhino rescued in 2011, but also in the poached female rhino in Kalabakan in 2001.

Iman being put on a mattress to be further examined via ultrasound after being anesthetized.
Iman being put on a mattress to be further examined via ultrasound after being anesthetized.

The poached female rhino was a very young healthy female but her whole reproductive tract was unviable and full of large tumours as well.

Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) veterinarian Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin said it had been known since the 1990s that female Sumatran rhinos were very susceptible to growth of cysts and tumours in the reproductive tract, a syndrome associated with long periods without breeding.

“This is confirming our thoughts that rhinos are no longer breeding in the wild and we need to bring rhinos into managed conditions and try out advanced reproductive technologies if we want to save the species,” he said.

IZW reproductive specialist Dr Thomas Hildebrand said Iman’s condition meant that she had not been sexually active for a long time probably without a male partner for maybe five to 10 years.

Chairman of Yayasan Sime Darby, the main founder of the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary Programme (BRS) Tun Musa Hitam was devastated to hear about the news but remained hopeful,

“Our hearts are saddened by the turn of events with Iman but all hopes are not lost yet,” he said, adding that quick and bold measures were needed to ensure the survival of this species.

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