KOTA KINABALU: A dramatic helicopter rescue of a young and rare female Sumatran rhinoceros on Christmas Day has boosted hopes for the survival of the species that is facing extinction.
Sabah wildlife department director Dr Laurentius Ambu described the helicopter airlift of the rhino as a world’s first in a tropical rainforest.
The rhino, aged between 10 and 12 years and named Puntung, was first caught on Dec 18 in a joint operation by the department and the Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora).
It was kept within a temporary enclosure at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve and placed in a crate on Christmas eve for relocation to the nearby Borneo Rhino Sanctuary, also within the reserve. However, rains and foggy conditions delayed the airlift.
“It was only on Christmas morning that the fog cleared temporarily and gave us a window to let the helicopter lower its cables to hook up the crate,” said Dr Ambu.
With an estimated 20 to 30 rhinos left in the wilds of Sabah, the capture and trans-location of Puntung gives conservationists another shot at breeding the species in captivity. It is hoped Puntung would mate with a lone captive male rhino, named Tam.
Dr Ambu said the conservation programme here is in touch with a similar programme in Sumatra.
“This is now the very last chance to save this species, one of the most ancient forms of mammal. We need collaboration and support in our efforts to prevent the extinction of this unique species that was once found in abundance,” he added.
Meanwhile, department chief veterinarian Dr Sen Nathan said they hoped to get Puntung to mate with Tam, a middle aged male rhino, which was rescued in 2008 and placed at the rhino sanctuary.
“Attempts to get Tam to mate with another rescued female rhino, named Gelegup, failed as she was old and infertile,” he said, adding that Puntung looked healthy enough for breeding.
“We captured Puntung because, after two years of observation, we found that there were no male rhinos in the vicinity and it was unlikely for it to find a mate within its natural surrounding,” Dr Sen said.
“From camera trap observations, Puntung also had old injuries on its front left limb, giving more reason for her capture.”
Bora executive director Dr Junaidi Payne said Puntung was doing reasonably well.
“It was trapped, kept in an enclosure for a while and then airlifted in a noisy helicopter. It suffered some minor abrasion and is being treated with antiseptics.
“She is allowing people to handle her now and is drinking and eating well,” Dr Junaidi added.
He said the helicopter used in the rhino rescue, operated by American company Erickson Air Crane that has an office in Miri, was brought in for the airlift at a cost of US$70,000 (about RM210,000).
Yayasan Sime Darby has provided large financial support for Bora’s efforts to save the rhinos while Malaysian Palm Oil Industries Council was also aiding the wildlife department’s rescue unit.
Since 1996, the Sumatran rhino has been listed as “critically endangered”, which is just a step away from being extinct in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List.