Death of last male Sumatran rhino jolts conservation efforts, but all is not lost for the species

Death of last male Sumatran rhino jolts conservation efforts, but all is not lost for the species

The Sumatran rhinoceros, which is also known as the hairy rhinoceros or the Asian two-horned rhinoceros, is a rare member of the already threatened species of the one or two-horned animal. Of all the different species of rhinos that have or currently inhabit the planet, the Sumatran rhino is the smallest. It is still a pretty large animal, however, standing at almost 5 feet tall and weighing between 1,100 to 2,200lbs. This particular species of rhino has reddish-brown hair that covers most of its body and gives it a unique look.


Members of this particular species had, at one point, inhabited the dream-like cloud forests, wet rainforests, and swamps that stretched from India, across China, and all the way to the islands of Indonesia. The species is now critically endangered and their numbers are also difficult to determine as they are solitary animals that are scattered across vast swathes of land.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has estimated that fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos currently remain across the world and almost all of them are on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia and Malaysia. After enduring decades of poaching and habitat loss, the biggest threat the species faces right now is the enormous distances that separate the small populations from each other.

A cloud forest in Sabah, Borneo, considered to be a habitat for the elusive Sumatran rhino (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Tam, the last male member of the species who died on May 27, 2019 of old age, came from a tiny population of the subspecies in central Borneo. Dr. Elizabeth Berkeley of Otterbein University told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) exclusively: "Tam was the last male Sumatran Rhino in Malaysia but there are still males left on Borneo and Sumatra. Our hope lies in cooperation between the countries and wildlife scientists worldwide who are working together to come up with a strategy."


Indonesia's government along with an alliance of conservation organizations and on-ground experts known as the Sumatran Rhino Rescue have since begun a focused international effort to bring the animal back from the grasp of extinction. The alliance is currently trying to locate and then safely relocate the remaining animals to specialized facilities that were designed for their care.

This is all being done in the hopes of, at some point, bringing the population back to stable numbers that will allow the animals to be returned back to the wild. IVF treatment has been used to try and breed the species in the past but this has not been successful. When asked about the possible environmental impacts of losing this species, Dr. Berkeley said: "Large animals such as rhinos and elephants can act as “ecosystem engineers” by remodeling the landscape and also dispersing seeds across large areas."

It was reported earlier that Tam's genetic material has been preserved to try and continue breeding efforts. Dr. Berkeley said: "Preserving Tam’s genetic material is just one tool in a toolbox that must include habitat preservation, preventing illegal trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products, and management strategies to address the fragmented Sumatran rhino population."


Tam's genetic material has been preserved to try and continue breeding efforts. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Tam was captured by wildlife experts on a palm oil plantation in 2008 when he was around 20-years-old. He lived for more than 10 years in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Borneo but had several unsuccessful breeding attempts with two females. John Payne, the executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, the organization that was instrumental in looking after Tam, said in a statement: "His loss is profound for the people involved and those who love wild animals."

"Two decades from now, however, his death will be a small part of a big story. The big story will be either the final extinction or the early stage of an exciting revival of the species." Tam is said to have died from something called "end-stage renal failure" which was closely related to his old age.


The last living Sumatran rhino in Malaysia is a female called Iman who was captured in 2014 for a captive breeding program. Iman, however, has never given birth and she was found to have a ruptured tumor in her uterus in December 2017. Putung, another female, was captured in 2011. She also had health problems that included multiple cysts in her uterus. Wildlife officials had euthanized her in June 2017 after she developed skin cancer.

Even though the recent captive-breeding efforts of the species have ended in failure, a ray of hope shines through for the Sumatran rhino. Biologists have said that just 20 unrelated adult animals could be able to provide enough genetic diversity to make sure that the species survives.

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