And then there were none: Malaysia’s rhinos are no more

24 November 2019

Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino has died of cancer in captivity, which means the critically endangered species is now extinct in the country.

The 25-year-old female named Iman was the last of three rhinos kept at a breeding facility where they received round-the-clock care on the island of Borneo. She died yesterday of natural causes.

Earlier this year, in May, the country’s last male Sumatran rhino called Tam, which had been kept at the same facility, also died of disease related to old age.

“[Iman’s] death was a natural one, and the immediate cause has been categorised as shock,” said Christine Liew, minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister in the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo. “Iman was given the very best care and attention since her capture in March 2014 right up to the moment she passed.”

Sumatran rhinos are the world’s smallest living rhinos and their prospects are looking increasingly bleak. They once roamed across much of Southeast Asia, but now they have been reduced to the last few dozen specimens in a part of Indonesia. Habitat loss and the ever-present threat of poaching continue to pose an existential threat to the animals, whose horns are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine.

“Despite us knowing that this would happen sooner rather than later, we are so very saddened by this news. No one could have done more,” Liew observed about the passing of Iman. “She was actually quite close to death when sudden massive blood loss from the uterine tumours occurred on several occasions over the past few years.”

Some experts see the only hope for the rhinos in captive breeding programs of the kind that have worked wonders with some previously critically endangered species like China’s giant pandas. Yet with so few Sumatran rhinos left, time is running out for the species.

Experts in Malaysia had high hopes for a while that offspring could be produced from Tam and Iman, as well as a third female, at a captive breeding program. Yet these efforts proved fruitless in the end despite years-long attempts to try and produce baby rhinos from the ageing animals that had been captured from the wild in Borneo to protect them from poachers.

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