KOTA KINABALU: Wildlife researchers are hoping to be more successful in future captive breeding efforts for the highly endangered Sumatran rhinos after successfully sequencing the complete genome of the animal.
This would enable scientists to identify the genes causing health issues to rhinos in captivity which are preventing them from producing offspring.
“These health problems include iron overload and reproductive tract problems,” said Dr Love Dalen from the Swedish Museum of Natural History (SMNH).
SMNH was involved in the genome sequencing together with the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) and Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora) using the blood sample from Tam, one of the three remaining Sumatran rhinos in captivity.
Identification of their genes and mutations would enable comparisons with human diseases, leading to a better understanding of the causes and consequences of such ailments in rhinoceroses, she said.
“We can then directly apply this information to captive breeding programmes and rhino management with the hope of saving this species from extinction,” said Dr Dalen, adding the information would be available to anyone once published.
Sabah Wildlife Department assistant director Dr Sen Nathan said apart from Tam, they had also collected blood samples from other rhinos in captivity — females Puntung and Iman — as well as Gelugob before she died in 2014.
“We want to do everything we can to save the Sumatran rhinoceros from extinction,” he said.
Dr Sen however added that sequencing the genome would not lead to any immediate possibility of cloning the Sumatran rhinoceros.
“Cloning or genome editing are not substitutes for the current captive breeding efforts and advanced reproductive techniques being carried out by Bora and the department, “Dr Sen added.
DGFC director Dr Benoit Goosens said the genome sequencing initiative would enable scientists to better understand the pathologies that have decimated the Sumatran rhinoceros population in the wild and captivity.
“Even if it is probably too late to save the species in Sabah, this research can hopefully assist our friends and Indonesian colleagues in Sumatra and Kalimantan,” he added.