Work with Indonesia on wildlife conservation efforts, experts urge

A Sumatran rhinoceros named Gelugob seen at the Lok Kawi zoo near Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in 2014. Gelugob died of old age at about 37 years old. (Bernama pic)

KOTA KINABALU: Experts are pushing for a collaboration on wildlife preservation between Malaysia and Indonesia, saying this would be the best bet for the country’s conservation efforts which have been under scrutiny since the death of Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhinoceros last month.

Wildlife expert Benoit Goosens acknowledged that Malaysia’s efforts to preserve the animal had not seen much progress over the last 30 years.

However, he said the country had also gained some valuable expertise in assisted reproductive technology (ART) as well as biological material that could be used to boost genetic diversity.

He said both Malaysia and Indonesia would stand to benefit from cooperation in this area.

“Yes, absolutely. They should work as a team,” he told FMT.

Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Christina Liew recently said the state intends to resume talks with the Indonesian government on the possibility of using ART to breed the country’s last remaining rhinoceros, a female named Iman.

Wildlife expert Benoit Goosens.

She said she would lead a delegation of officials from the Sabah wildlife department in discussions with the Indonesian government after Hari Raya, expressing hope that the latter would agree to help efforts to keep the Sumatran rhinoceros from extinction.

Previous discussions on this bore no fruit as Indonesia was unwilling to enter into an agreement with Sabah despite the establishment of 13 memorandums of understanding.

Tam, Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhino, died of old age and multiple organ failure on May 27. Tam was believed to be about 35 years old.

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

He also claimed Malaysia had done too little, too late for the Sumatran rhinoceros.

Other local experts suggested that efforts to save the animal from extinction had reached a dead end, and that resources should be channelled towards preserving other species now.

Bill Bateman, a wildlife conservation and animal biology expert at Curtin University, said this is always the decision faced by conservationists.

Curtin University’s wildlife conservation and animal biology expert Bill Bateman.

However, he opined that any loss of species, particularly a megafauna like the rhino, should be “fought until the very end”.

He, too, agreed that inter-country collaboration is vital to such efforts.

He said the rhino population could be down to less than 100 animals in the wild, as their original range throughout Asia is now confined to a few reserves and national parks in Sumatra and Borneo.

“The sad fact is that Sumatran rhinos do not breed well in captivity, unlike African rhinos, particularly white rhinos.

“White rhinos can be relatively happy in captivity and have bred well in other parts of the world.”

Sumatran rhinos, on the other hand, often fall ill in captivity and have inter-birth intervals of up to four or five years sometimes.

Goosens, who is director of research outfit Danau Girang Field Centre, recommended a shift in how the state handles its conservation management, noting that Malaysia had lost Tam despite its advancements in ART.

“We may have to make drastic changes in the way we develop and fight against poaching and trade, and in the way we protect and manage our forests. The future of Sabah depends on its natural resources,” he said.

Adding that Indonesia is Malaysia’s “last hope” of saving the Sumatran rhino from extinction, he voiced hope that Liew’s discussions with Indonesian authorities would bear fruit this time around.

He said with cooperation with Indonesia, cryogenically preserved semen from Tam could be used to inseminate a female rhino from Sumatra.

“This could be his legacy,” he added.