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Vale the Sumatran rhino – now officially extinct in the wild in Sabah

There are no Sumatran rhinos left in the wild in the Malaysian state of Sabah, government minister Masidi Manjun says.

The Sumatran rhino once roamed as far away as the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas in Bhutan and eastern India, through Myanmar, Thailand, possibly to Vietnam and China, and south through the Malay Peninsula. 

In 2008, there were an estimated 50 rhinos in Sabah state, their last stand. By 2013 that was down to just 10 and now there are none.

“We are facing the prospect of our Sumatran rhinos going extinct in our lifetime,” Manjun told an environment seminar. 

Sabah’s rhino is a distinct subspecies of Sumatran rhino, known as the Bornean rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), and it looks increasingly possible that the Bornean rhino may only be represented by three surviving individuals, all of which are held in fenced, natural conditions at the Borneo Rhinoceros Sanctuary in Sabah. These include one male, Tam, and two females, Iman and Puntung. 
“If numbers of baby Sumatran rhinos can quickly be boosted in the coming few years, there is still hope to save the species from extinction,” said John Payne, the Executive Director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance and one of the world’s top experts on the species. “The only way now to achieve that is to use in vitro fertilization to produce the embryos and to have a few fertile females in well-managed fenced facilities, under excellent care, as the surrogate mothers.” 

Vanishing habitat is the main culprit. Borneo was once covered almost completely in rainforest. Today its remnants are badly degraded by logging that began in the 1960s. More than 80% of Borneo’s forests were removed, the timber sold overseas, mainly to the US and Japan.

The animals that survived that devastation then had to contend with widespread poaching.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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