Malaysia mourns ‘loss of a species’ as male Sumatran rhino dies

Death of Tam leaves Malaysia with just one critically-endangered Sumatran rhino, a female that was captured in 2014.

Tam the rhino, Malaysia
Tam. the last male Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, died on Tuesday at the age of about 30 [Raymond Alfred/WWF-Malaysia]

Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhinoceros has died, officials have said, dealing a major blow to the country’s efforts to save the critically-endangered species, the smallest and oldest of the world’s rhinos.

Tam, who was thought to be about 30 years old, died at a wildlife reserve in Sabah on the Malaysian part of Borneo on Monday, according to wildlife officials in the state.

The rhino had been suffering from kidney and liver problems for some time, local media reported.

“Our hearts are filled with sadness as we mourn the loss of a species,” WWF Malaysia wrote on Twitter. “With Tam gone, we now have only Iman left, our last female rhino. Let the loss of Tam be the wake-up call. Our wildlife needs protection.”

Malaysia declared the Sumatran rhino extinct in the wild in 2015, and has been working with Indonesian officials to help Iman – the only surviving member of the subspecies left in the country that was captured in 2014, – breed using in-vitro fertilisation.

Sumatran rhinos once roamed through Thailand and Myanmar as far as the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, but the population has been reduced to no more than 80 animals in densely-forested pockets of the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Indonesian part of Borneo where it remains at risk of poachers.

Habitat loss, as forests are turned into roads and converted into agricultural plantations, has also brought the animal to the brink of extinction.

Malaysia's last male Sumatran rhino dies in captivity
Tam, Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhino wallows in mud in Sabah in this May 2014 photo [Chris Annadorai via Reuters]

Breeding problems

WWF says there is no indication that the Sumatran rhino population is stable and notes that only two captive females have reproduced in the last 15 years.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said that while Iman was still able to produce eggs, there were problems with her uterus and that she was incapable of becoming pregnant.

“We just have to look after the last remaining rhino,” he told AFP news agency. “That’s all we can do, and try if possible to work with Indonesia.”

The Sumatran rhino is the only Asian rhino with two horns, Covered with long hair, it is the closest relation to the extinct woolly rhino of any of the rhino species that survive today.

Another female rhino, Puntung, died in captivity in 2017.

On Tuesday, Xavier Jayakumar, Malaysia’s minister of water, land and natural resources, wrote on Twitter that Tam’s death was a “great loss for the country’s mega-diverse biodiversity. Efforts to conserve other indigenous species must be doubled if not tripled”.

Malaysia is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and home to endangered species including the orangutan, Asian elephant and Malayan tiger, which are at risk from habitat loss and poaching. 

Maszlee Malik, the country’s education minister, said Tam’s loss was a wake-up call to the Southeast Asian nation.

“We need to protect the wildlife, the endangered species,” he posted on Twitter. “To love is to educate.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies