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Loaning our rhino in order to save it
Published on: Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kota Kinabalu: The State Cabinet has finally lifted the export ban of Sabah's Sumatran rhino - genetic material wise and animal wise - and authorised the State Wildlife Department to exhaust all options available to breed the animal to avert its extinction in Sabah.That means Cincinnatti Zoo, engaging top natural breeding experts like Dr Terri Roth, IZW Germany, Way Kembas National Park Indonesia, artificial insemination and eventually an attempt at even test tube babies, etc, are now on the table as Sabah pursues "all options" to leave no stones unturned.

State Culture, Tourism and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun told a conference, Tuesday: "We are creating a global concern rather than just a Sabah concern and I know Cicinnatti Zoo, IZW and the Indonesians are more than happy to offer their technical knowledge and advice.

"If we don't want export, we don't want to loan, we just leave in hope some miracles will happen whether they can mulptiply, of course the risk is that rhinos in Sabah may go extinct altogether even in our life time," Masidi said, in explaining the new State policy.

"Having done all that is reasonable to ensure they multiply on our own soil, I think we have to make a very difficult choice but for us we think is the right choice - to send one sperm to be inseminated in healthy nine year old female Suci in Cincinnatti Zoo.

And if that fails, probably we want to send Tam (reproductive male at Tain Wildlife Reserve) to the Cinccinatti zoo on a one year loan," Masidi said.

Globally, it is believed there are only about 100 such animals left with 10 in Sabah.

In the meantime, Tam will be kept in Sabah and efforts are underway to capture the female known to be lurking in Danum Valley and mate them .

"Our camera traps identified this particular female animal early this year.

We know exactly where it is," said Datuk Dr Dionysus Sharma , Chief Executive Officer of WWF-Malaysia.

"The physical capture is now located within her range and we continue to put men on the ground to patrol the site and protect the animal," Dr Sharma said.

However, no one knows whether the female is reproductive just by looking at the pictures.

"This is the problem because so far all the females we have found are not healthy.

So to say just leave the animals in protected jungles, make sure don't disturb them and they'll multiply we realise is a dangerous assumption ," said Masidi.

"We hope the new female will do better than Puntung," he said.

"Puntung and Tam do not seem to be interested in each other except smell each other, probably one is PR and one is BN," Masidi quipped. "Worse, we believe she as lots of cysts in her reproductive system and even if they mate she may not get pregnant in the end."

In fact, Prof Thomas B. Hildebrandt of IZW Leibez Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research Centre, Berlin, surgically removed the bigger cysts from Puntung and then carried out the first artificial insemination in Sabah last June but that failed too, Bora Executive Director Dr Junaidi Payne, disclosed.

"The main reason is the female rhino cycle and Puntung's estrous cycle is very uneven on two of her cysts and so getting the exact timing to try out artificial insemination is near impossible but there is no reason not to try it again. I hope it would continue in Sabah doing it," Junaidi said.

Guarantee is not in the vocabulary of the breeding of rhinos experts who all agree that the Sumatran rhino is a very peculiar species.

"If you don't do anything but leave it in the jungle, that's the end of it, and I want to tell you that even if we send Tam to the Cincinatti Zoo, there is no guarantee that it will reproduce," Masidi cautioned.

However, siring genetically very strong offsprings from mating Tam and Suci which come from totally different Sabah and Indonesian ancestral lines is the compelling reason why the Americans are particularly keen to get the two animals together to mate, since their offspring are expected to become ancestors of future generations of Sumatran rhinos, Dr Nan Schaefer, former OS Rhino head said.

They have also said umpteen times that artificial insemination is not yet an option at the moment and, therefore, focus on this unproven method at this moment imminent extinction may cause loss of valuable time, citing the female Sumatran rhino's need for the physical act of sex to conceive.

Hence, it still remains debatable the merits and demerits of holding Tam back one more year, in context of April's Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit call to beat time.

However, Dr Laurentius Ambu said Dr Terri Roth will come to Sabah personally to collect eggs from Tam and maybe she has figured something out, as she hinted in Singapore.

Ambu said Sabah will open its door to all partners and experts who can make a difference to avert the imminent collapse of the Sumatran rhino which number no more than 100 worldwide and a low 10 in Sabah, by the latest estimate.

"We have reached a situation where the whole world need to work with each other," Masidi stressed.



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