Malaysia’s last surviving Sumatran rhino in deteriorating health

Deputy Chief Minister Christina Liew (centre) and Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga (left) speaking to the media in Kota Kinabalu today.

KOTA KINABALU: Wildlife authorities fear the country’s last surviving Sumatran rhinoceros is nearing its end.

The health of Iman, a female rhino under the special care of veterinarians and experts at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the state’s east coast Lahad Datu district, is fast deteriorating.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the state assembly sitting here today, Deputy Chief Minister Christina Liew said Iman, aged 25, had lost significant weight as she was not eating regularly as before.

Liew, who is also state tourism, culture and environment minister, said Iman’s weight was now 476kg, which is 44kg less than her average weight over the past few years.

“She is not eating her normal amount and is being given supplements. The situation reminds us of the case of Puntung, who was euthanised on June 4, 2017, because her squamous cell carcinoma (tumour) was incurable and she was in pain.

“The problem is that the tumours in Iman’s uterus, detected soon after her capture in March 2014, have been growing in size since then. Although they are not malignant, they are spreading to her urinary bladder.

“The vets tell me that there is no way to halt the growth of these tumours, and surgery to remove them always was and still is too dangerous. There would be inevitable major blood loss that would result in her quick death,” she said.

An in-vitro fertilisation procedure using an egg cell recovered from Iman and thawed sperm from Tam, its mate that died last May, failed last Sept 30.

Subsequently, Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said they would continue the work to harvest eggs from Iman.

Liew said the state was now in a race against time to preserve Iman’s egg cells.

They are also eager to formalise an agreement with Indonesian authorities to collaborate in saving the Sumatran rhino species in Malaysia.

“Various options on the best thing to do will need to be considered, based on the advice of experienced veterinarians. Whatever happens, I would like to assure interested parties that our interest to collaborate with Indonesia remains strong.

“This is because we want to play our role to help prevent what is emerging as the first mammal species extinction of the 21st century,” she said, adding that Iman already had the tumour when wildlife authorities saved it five years ago.

The Tawau MP said the memorandum of understanding (MoU), nearly ready to be signed with Indonesia, included collaboration on research, reproductive biology, husbandry and exchange of knowledge and experience.

“We target to sign the MoU next week. There are certain legalities to sort out between our two countries,” she said.

Among others, she said, this would involve who would own the offsprings from a successful IVF procedure involving Iman’s eggs and sperm from Indonesia’s male rhinos.

Tuuga said the IVF procedure could be done either at Universiti Malaysia Sabah here or in Indonesia following the signing of the agreement.

In any case, he said experts from Indonesia and Germany had been assisting the state in the IVF process previously.