Borneo rhinos known since 1830s
Published on: Wednesday, December 04, 2019
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The last Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, a female dubbed “Iman,” died on Saturday (Nov. 23) at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary.
Photo Source: NST
Kota Kinabalu: The first time that the world became aware of the existence of the Sumatran Rhinocerous – the last known of which, Iman, died in Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah recently – was 1830 through the efforts on naturalist and collector A.H. Von Henrici.

It was reported that he sent a skull of the animal to the natural History Museum in Brussels that year. Unfortunately, the specimen failed to capture attention.

The following year German Salomon Muller spoke of a sighting in central Kalimantan. However, he mistakenly reported that it had a solitary horn.

The existence of the Bornean rhino only gained attention in the 1860s and a decade later reports emerged of a two-horned species. And in 1896, the Zoological Gardens in Amsterdam bought a young female Sumatran rhinoceros for 2,400 guilders. It died within six months in 1869 from the cold while arriving by sea, according to NST.

It was said that while the Jawa rhino had one horn, the Sumatran rhino had two. 

 It took another four decades before knowledge on the Bornean rhinoceros received further significant expansion and recognition as a subspecies of the Sumatran rhinoceros.

Tom Harrisson, a British polymath, arrived in Borneo for the very first time with the Oxford University expedition team in 1936. He returned again at the end of World War 2 in 1945, where he and three other British parachutists landed in Bario in the Fifth Division and later in Pasir Nai in Sarawak’s Third Division to liberate Sarawak from the Japanese.

When Sarawak was ceded by its third rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, to Great Britain in 1947, Harrisson was offered the post of government ethnologist and Sarawak Museum curator, a job that he held for twenty years until his retirement in 1966.

During the duration, Harrisson embarked on many expeditions in Borneo and tried to assess the status of the Bornean rhinoceros by talking to locals and through personal observation.

In 1956, he wrote an extensive paper on the local rhinoceros in the Sarawak Museum Journal that incorporated older accounts, as well as his personal discoveries. While that publication has remained the single most important definitive work on the subject, Harrisson did not rest on his laurels and continued to put pen to paper whenever new discoveries came to light.

During the course of his studies, Harrisson became aware of the precarious situation facing the Sumatran rhinoceros. In his opinion, the low population size spread over vast areas of dense jungle put the animal in grave danger of becoming extinct.

He was adamant in making the world sit up and take notice that he, together with Hugh Gibb, produced a six-part series that highlighted the people and animals, including the Bornean rhinoceros, in Sarawak. The Borneo Story was broadcast by BBC in 1957.

His tireless crusade to help the animal he loved most did not go unnoticed. The scientific community acknowledged his efforts by immortalising his name in the nomenclature of the Bornean subspecies of the Sumatran rhinoceros, calling it Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni.

During his tenure as museum curator, Harrisson, who was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1959, was also interested in archaeological work and invested a lot of time getting to know the Malays, Ibans, Kayans, Punans and Baketans to further his understanding of Sarawak’s rich cultural heritage.

Harrisson’s largest and probably most important archaeological project in Borneo was the Niah Caves initiative. Covering over two decades and involving hundreds of thousands of dollars, the study was of the same order of magnitude as many of the world’s largest excavations at that time that focused on advancing knowledge on all things prehistoric.

Although he was not professionally trained in this area of study, Harrisson applied many of his sound ideas and achieved results worthy of a first-class archaeologist.

The first pictures of the Great Niah Cave appeared in a 1956 scientific paper that Harrisson jointly published with George Jamah in the Sarawak Museum Journal. His most important discovery in that gigantic cavern was a human skull dated by radiocarbon to be 40,000 years old and widely considered as the earliest date for modern human existence in Borneo.

The first major funding for the Niah Caves research did not come from government coffers. Harrisson, through his personal friendship with influential executives in the Shell Oil Company, was able to secure initial funds and continued assistance not only in terms of financial support, but also loan of expensive equipment, like helicopters, which he used to great advantage during survey work.

On a smaller but equally important scale, he received grants from the Portuguese Gulbenkian Foundation and wealthy businessmen in Sarawak and Singapore. While feeling grateful, Harrisson knew that all the support that he had received would not have been possible without his famous Mr Sarawak image and the worldwide publicity given to the Niah Caves through television broadcasts.

Subur, a female Sumatran rhinoceros, lived at the Copenhagen Zoo from 1959 to 1972.

Upon his retirement, Harrisson travelled the world and lived in the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Both he and his wife died in Thailand when the bus they were in collided with a timber truck on Jan 16, 1976.

Although losing Iman is a great loss for Malaysia and the world as a whole, the work of Harrisson and his fellow researchers will not be in vain as certain quarters in the scientific world are harbouring hope that remote places in Sabah, like the Maliau Basin Conservation Area in the heart of Borneo, might reveal the presence of undiscovered Bornean rhinoceros populations.


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