Malaysia’s last 4 rhinos ‘alive’ — in cell cultures

Augustine-Tuuga-rhinoKOTA KINABALU: The genomes of all four of the last Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia are being kept in living cell cultures, both overseas and locally, a Wildlife Department official said.

These include the genomes of Puntung, the second last female rhino in Sabah, which was euthanised in June.

“We are building up Malaysian expertise in other essential skills, such as conducting safe general anaesthesia for large mammals, collection of semen and eggs, and in vitro fertilisation,” Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said in a statement today.

“Semen of sun bears and macaques was collected and stored in liquid nitrogen in 2017.

“The same will be done for the clouded leopard and proboscis monkey in 2018.”

Augustine added that several local and international organisations had partnered with the department for this purpose.

They include Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Faculty of Sustainable Agriculture in Sandakan, where an advanced reproductive technology laboratory is being developed.

“They work along with Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research of Germany, Agro-Biotechnology Institute Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia and the International Islamic University Malaysia in Kuantan.

“Other specialist institutions which are helping us include Morula IVF (Indonesia), Avantea (Italy) and the Zoological Park Association of Thailand.”

According to Augustine, the department sees the Bornean banteng, or tembadau, as the most endangered wildlife species in Sabah after the rhino.

“This is definitely a species suitable for captive breeding and application of advanced reproductive technology, with a view to re-introduction into plantation landscapes in the longer term,” he said.

“We would be interested to partner with one of the big oil palm plantation companies for this work.”

Augustine also responded to fears recently expressed by two wildlife experts based in Sabah over the status of endangered wildlife species, including the Sumatran rhino, banteng, elephant, sun bear, orangutan and pangolin.

“We thank them for their supportive comments and would like to expand on two of the methods that they noted, namely assisted reproduction and captive breeding.

“These methods are currently not fashionable in wildlife conservation circles, either here or globally.

“But rare wildlife species will keep on going extinct if we do not grasp the realities and think of new and supportive means to save them.”

Augustine said setting aside protected areas was “absolutely necessary”, but they would never be enough to save every species in the world from eventual extinction.

“The best lands are taken up by the human population, and it is the large animals that are the most at risk,” he said.

“Another point is that many wildlife species are actually quite adaptable in terms of their habitat requirements, and we need to make some profound mental adjustments if we are to plan for the future.

“If we had 20 fertile Sumatran rhinos and 20 fertile Bornean banteng available, I would be happy to set up a joint venture with a big oil palm plantation and let the animals live and breed under the oil palms, where they could get most of their food by eating weeds.”

A third and critical point, he said, was that once a species dwindled to very low numbers, it was more important to increase birth rates than merely reduce deaths.

“To cite the Sumatran rhino case, despite what you might read on global NGO websites, poaching ceased to be the main problem many decades ago, after the 1960s.

“It was more due to insufficient number of births.

“The Sumatran rhino case also showed us that about 80% of more than 20 female rhinos captured in Indonesia and Malaysia since the 1980s had significant reproductive pathology. This prevented them from being able to bear a foetus.”

He added that advances in animal cell and molecular biology were proceeding at a rapid pace.

He said not many people knew that over the past two years, it had become possible to create the sperm and eggs of mammals from the skin cells of the relevant species.

“If this had been possible 20 years ago, we could be producing Sumatran rhino embryos in vitro and potentially implanting the embryos into surrogate mother rhinos in another country.”

Augustine said the department was supported by the natural resources and environment ministry, and had initiated a programme on the application of advanced reproductive technology in the conservation of endangered species in Sabah under the 11th Malaysia Plan.

“This programme of national significance started in 2010.

“We have appointed an NGO, Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora), to assist us. They now have two wildlife veterinarians, a senior laboratory technician and two research students on their payroll, as well as their rhino keepers.”

Iman, Malaysia’s last living female Sumatran rhino, is said to be seriously ill despite receiving treatment.