Only 3 Sumatran rhinos remain in Malaysia – Is it too late to save them?
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Only 3 Sumatran rhinos remain in Malaysia – Is it too late to save them?

WITH only three Sumatran rhinos left in Malaysia, conservationists are desperate to find a way to save the critically endangered animal from being completely wiped out.

Executive director of Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) Dr. John Payne said the trio, comprising only one male rhino and two female rhinos, were being held in captivity in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah.

“The three Sumatran rhinos left were caught and have been placed in captive breeding programs until today,” he told reporters on Thursday.

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According to Bernama, Payne said the biggest threat faced by the Sumatran rhino was poaching, as there is high demand on the black market for its horn, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine.

He added that the best bet to replenish the rhino population was through using In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) with the remaining rhinos, adding that the next IVF attempt was scheduled to take place in November.

“BORA has been fighting an uphill battle trying to save Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhinos. The only way this could be done was to capture all the remaining specimens in the wild – which was a dangerous and costly operation – and to breed them,” said Payne.

In order to raise awareness regarding the rhinos’ plight, BORA has collaborated with the National Geographic Channel to make a documentary on Malaysia’s efforts to conserve and protect the species, called “Operation Sumatran Rhino”.

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Earlier this month, researchers in Sabah announced the possibility of cloning existing rhinos as a last resort, should efforts to breed them in captivity prove unsuccessful.

University College Sabah Foundation (UCSF) said it needed to fully sequence the genome of the Sumatran rhino first, however.

UCSF Vice Chancellor Prof. Dr. Ghazally Ismail said: “A high quality reference genome will be produced, and compared with as many rhino individuals as possible to capture the remaining genetic diversity of the entire species.”

“In combination with reproductive technologies, this information should be crucial in saving them as well as other important species on the brink of extinction,” he added, as reported by local paper the Daily Express.

Days after, a group of scientists and wildlife managers from the Sabah Wildlife Department, Swedish Museum of Natural History, and Danau Girang Field Centre said it had successfully sequenced the complete genome of the Sumatran rhino, using blood samples from one of the surviving rhinos.

Danau Girang Field Centre Director Dr. Benoit Goosens told the daily that the whole genome sequence would be available for free.

“We hope that this work will help understand the pathologies that have decimated the Sumatran rhinoceros population in the wild and in captivity,” said Dr. Goosens.

“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 in their endeavor to save this emblematic species from extinction,” he said.

Last year, a study declared the rare species effectively extinct in Malaysia, as no wild rhinos have been discovered on the Malaysian peninsula since 2007.

Meanwhile, researchers estimate that fewer than 100 individuals are left in the wild altogether, spread out across three wild rhino populations in Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan.

According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Sumatran rhinos are the smallest of all rhino species and is the only Asian rhino with two horns. Female rhinos give birth to one calf at a time, every three to four years, with pregnancies lasting approximately 15 to 17 months. Their average life span is thought to be around 35-40 years, similar to other rhino species.