Tam, the last male rhinoceros left in Malaysia has died, the Borneo Rhino Alliance has announced. With only an estimated 30-80 Sumatran rhinos left alive, prospects look grim for the species. Although it is anticipated without drastic changes human activities will cause up to a million extinctions in the near future, few will leave a gap quite as big as this.
Sumatran rhinos are the smallest and oldest of the surviving rhino species, and once ranged from the Himalayan foothills to Borneo. The only remaining members of the genus Dicerorhinus, they are now extinct on the Asian mainland, but small numbers survive on Sumatra and Borneo. There they are threatened by hunting, loss of habitat, and perhaps most of all the fragmentation of surviving populations that makes it difficult for them to breed.
The members of the Borneo subspecies that inhabited Sabah province, Malaysia, were among the last hold-outs, but declared extinct in the wild in 2015. Tam and the last female, Iman, survived at a wildlife reserve, and it was once hoped they would breed.
Tam had lost his appetite in the last month, and urine tests suggested he was suffering from kidney failure. An autopsy is yet to be held, but Tam received high-quality veterinary care towards the end, and it is likely his death was caused by old age. He was thought to be in his mid-30s.
In a statement reporting Tam's death, Christina Liew, the state minister for tourism, culture and the environment said his sperm had been collected. “We hope that with emerging technologies at cell and molecular levels, he may be able to contribute his genes to ensure the survival of the species,” she said. This may occur with Iman, or with a member of an Indonesian rhino, possibly including a member of the other surviving subspecies.
Optimism for such work rose after the successful production of northern white rhino embryos proved IVF can work on at least one rhino species. However, as long as demand for rhino horn remains, and habitat is torn up for plantations and logging, the survival of any offspring will be fragile.
WWF Malaysia's statement reads: “Our hearts are filled with sadness as we mourn not only the loss of wildlife but the loss of a species... Let the loss of Tam be the wakeup call that we need to spring into action. Our wildlife needs protection now and like it or not, we are their only hope.”
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