Malaysia’s wildlife conservation ‘incredibly poor’, expert says

Tam, Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhinoceros, died at a wildlife reserve in Sabah on Monday.

PETALING JAYA: A wildlife conservation expert has labelled Malaysia’s conservation efforts as “incredibly poor” following the death of Tam, the country’s last known male Sumatran rhinoceros.

Carl Traeholt, the Southeast Asia programme director of the conservation division at the Copenhagen Zoo, said Malaysia’s wildlife conservation is better than that of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, but far worse than countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Zambia, South Africa and Peru.

Given Malaysia’s financial capability and advanced technological development, he said, there should be no reason for any further loss of biodiversity.

“In Peninsular Malaysia, we have lost the rhinoceros, banteng, green peacock, leatherback turtles and others, right in front of our eyes, despite having all the solutions and means to prevent it,” he told FMT.

Citing other animals on the list of endangered species such as tigers, elephants, seladang, dhole, flat-headed cats and tapirs, he said they too are at a “real risk” of disappearing from Malaysia.

This, he said, was a poor statistic compared to other countries in the region.

Traeholt claimed Malaysia had done very little and acted slowly with regards to the Sumatran rhinoceros.

He said there had been a concerted effort to intervene in the 1980s, with experts meeting in 1984 and developing a “rescue plan” for the species. This involved the capture of more than 40 animals to kick-start a captive breeding programme.

“Considering the emergency situation of the species, this was the right thing to do,” he said.

“The problem was, when some died without seeing any success, it was declared a failure and nothing else happened after that.”

He said wildlife authorities should have invested more effort and resources instead of hoisting the white flag.

With only one female Sumatran rhinoceros left now, he said Malaysia should initiate efforts with other countries that have the same species or the expertise to breed them.

Malaysia has been working with Indonesian officials to help Iman, the female rhinoceros captured in 2014, to breed using in-vitro fertilisation.

However, Traeholt said Indonesia is “exceptionally protective” of its rhinoceros, adding that no animals have ever been exchanged between Sabah and the Way Kambas National Park despite Malaysia’s efforts.

He speculated that there may be political reasons behind this, but said it shouldn’t determine the path of such a critical “rescue operation”.

He suggested a Global Species Management Plan for species on the brink of extinction which would include both captive and wild animals. Breeding efforts could then be guided by a studbook, also known as a breed registry, which is an official list of animals within a specific breed whose progenitors are known.

“We are developing this system for banteng, babi rusa, anoa and the Sumatran tiger in Indonesia,” he said.

“This should also have been the solution for the Sumatran rhino.”

He acknowledged that dedicated conservation biologists like the Borneo Rhino Alliance have such a system in place, but said their efforts have been hampered by a lack of political will on both sides of the border.

Although mating efforts are crucial to the survival of the Sumatran rhinoceros, he said, it is now too late for Malaysia.

“The hope is that Indonesia will learn from Malaysia’s failure.”

Tam, who was thought to be about 30 years old, died at a wildlife reserve in Sabah on Monday. He had reportedly been suffering from kidney and liver problems for some time.

There are now no more than 80 Sumatran rhinoceros in the island of Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo. Many of them continue to be targeted by poachers.