Friday, 30 March 2012

All About Rhinos (Part 1)

Remember, I said I would feature my rhino stories some time soon? That day is now. Here is the first. There are three.

In August 2008, a male rhino walked out of the forest and into an oil palm plantation, inadvertently triggering the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary breeding programme. He was named Kretam (Tam for short) after the forest reserve he wandered out of. Tam put an end to years of bickering and negotiations about how to most effectively save the rhino. Just one year before, what had started out as yet another wildlife conference had resulted in a pretty significant shift in the understanding of what it would take to save the rhinos.

The Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) executive director Dr John Payne says the stakeholders had realised by this point that it would take more than measuring footprints and analyzing dung to do the job. They would have to bring this large, taciturn animal together and force them to breed, if they had to.

It was not like they hadn’t thought of it before. There was a landmark meeting held in Singapore in October 1984 which brought together various groups concerned with the dwindling numbers of this ancient mammal and trying to figure out how best to arrest the decline.

The meeting was led by International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) and it included the various parties interested in saving the Sumatran rhino from Sabah, Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia as well as the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

“The general idea of focusing on establishing protection forests for wild rhinos and forming a globally-managed captive breeding population were endorsed,” he says.
The Captive Breeding Programme aimed at capturing 10 pairs of rhinos from the wild, six in Sabah and four in Peninsular Malaysia. This six pairs from Sabah would represent the Sumatran rhino’s Borneo sub-species. The first two pairs would be kept in Sabah, at the Sepilok research station near Sandakan for breeding purposes. The other four pairs would go to the US, with the Los Angeles, San Diego, Bronx and Cincinnati Zoos getting one pair each. The four pairs from Peninsular Malaysia would be kept for breeding at the Malacca Zoo.

So far so good. But the Malaysian environmental NGOs threw back their heads and howled. One and all, they were dead set against the idea. From March to July 1985, local newspapers in Sabah, to say nothing of the Brunei-based Borneo Bulletin published a barrage of articles quoting the environmentalists as to why “exporting” rhinos to the US would be a bad idea.

For instance, a council member of the Malayan Nature Society, Dr Kiew Bong Heang was quoted as saying he would kick up an international fuss if it was true. “The idea of capturing any of the rhinos for export is a serious cause for concern,” he added, pointing out that if any breeding was to be tried, it should be done in Malaysia.

The president of the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia Gurmit Singh was not behind in his views either. He said there was no reason for the rhinoceroses to be exported when they could not “meet local demand” and that the breeding of the animal should be done here in its natural habitat with the participation of Malaysian zoologists, instead of being done by foreigners.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia took it a step further and claimed that proposed agreement between Malaysia and the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums would result in this country losing its national heritage.

“Their attention focused, misguidedly, on the prospect of Malaysian rhinos being sent to the US, rather than on the overall concept or on the details of the plan, which had agreed to the first two pairs of any rhinos caught staying in Sabah,” Payne says.

Perhaps it was understandable that under this spate of negativity, the Sabah state government buckled. A new state government had been formed in April 1985, in the middle of this furore. In August of that year, the new government decided to withdraw from the global rhino plan. Unfortunately, there was no Plan B.

In Peninsular Malaysia, attempts to start a captive breeding programme for rhinos in Sungai Dusun failed miserably. The sanctuary was established in 1991 and there were seven rhinos rescued from various parts of the Peninsular, two males and five females. By 2003, all were dead, five of them within a span of three weeks due to septicaemia, that is, blood poisoning, and enteritis, that is, inflammation of the intestine.

Ironically, there was only one pair of Sumatran rhinos successfully bred in captivity – at the Cincinnati Zoo. The pair, from Sumatra, had three cubs and the eldest, Andalas, has been returned to Sumatra as a breeding bull.

Payne is understandably bitter about all this. “When the global rhino plan was aborted, a committee was formed to look into the matter. And we all know what happens when committees meddle in affairs that require passion and specific technical knowledge.”

Between 1985 and 1994, some 40 Sumatran rhinos were caught in Indonesia, Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah but each region ran its own programme. As mentioned above, only Indonesia collaborated closely with the US zoos.

“In Sabah, of the 10 rhinos captured from forests which are now oil palm plantations, eight were males and mostly old, so the odds were already stacked against reproduction,” he points out.

With the lack of any coherent plan in place, the numbers continued to dwindle. “Despite the establishment of protected forests, guarding and monitoring, the entire wild Sumatran rhino populations, which may have numbered up to a thousand or so in the 1970s have now dropped to around 150, almost all in Sumatra and Sabah.”

At best, he says, numbers have stagnated due to insufficient breeding, but almost certainly Sumatran rhino numbers continue to decline. “We have reached a stage where rhinos are so rare, that no technique exists to provide a reliable estimate of their actual number. But it is not rocket science to image a graph where the number of rhinos reaches zero in about 20 years from now if they are left where they are in the wild.”

When Tam walked into the oil palm plantation and refused to leave, the various interested parties had to scramble to put together a programme for his adoption and care. He was translocated to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve to start the breeding programme. Now, all he needed was a mate.

In 2009, the state government formally approved the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary programme to prevent the extinction of the species. Sime Darby Foundation provided immediate support in the form of a RM5 million grant over a three-year period to help develop and operate the programme.

The first thought was to mate him with Gelogob, a female rhino which had been captured before in Lok Kawi. But Gelogob was too old and infertile.
In 2010, they decided to capture a mate for Tam, specifically, a specific wild rhino that had been first sighted in 2005. During this time, Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin of Perhilitan, a full-time rhino veterinarian joined the programme at Tabin.

It, however, took 20 months to capture Puntung because as soon as the decision was made, Sabah experienced one of its wettest years in history and the traps, set by the river, were useless. She however, walked into one of the traps on December 18 last year and has since that time, been found to be “cycling” (with reference to her oestrus cycle) which makes her a good candidate for breeding, if not the natural way, then through artificial insemination. This will be led by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and funded by the German Government and the Leipzig Zoo.

Sime Darby’s money runs out in July of this year, but with the capture of Puntung, the foundation’s CEO, Yatela Zainal Abidin has ammunition to ask for an extension. There is one problem, however. Sime Darby had agreed to come in and finance the development and operational costs for this programme with the understanding that the state government would bear the responsibility for financing the construction of the essential permanent breeding facilities that would form the core physical element of the entire programme.

“It is certainly a disappointment that there is no sign of the construction of the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary breeding facilities, even though the Sabah Development Corridor document published in February 2008 suggested a national level governmental commitment to the Sumatran rhino in Sabah,” Payne points out.

But even if the government does fulfil its promise, there is still the question of how to make the programme sustainable. BORA’s annual operational costs are about RM2 million. This covers the cost of 25 full time staff, running five vehicles, food, medicine and other costs of caring for rhinos, as well as the costs of seeking, trapping and translocating the rhinos, maintenance and repair of the human and interim rhino facilities and building interim facilities in the absence of permanent facilities.

“If Sime Darby Foundation is not able to continue its financial support, we would probably have to close down and hand it over to the government as our alternative options are insufficient to survive,” Payne says.

He has given the matter some thought, however, and come up with radical solutions to the question of sustainability. “I have quite strong personal views on this issue, which do not necessarily reflect those of BORA or any other institution.”

Payne says with very rare exceptions, governments are not appropriate mechanisms to prevent the extinction of endangered species. “To provide a serious incentive to save endangered species, governments ought to be willing to sell rare wild animals for private owners to look after and breed, or if that is considered too drastic based on philosophical or ethical arguments, then they should formally delegate responsibility for an agreed programme of actions to a non-governmental entity.”

He points out that any case of a seriously endangered species represents a situation where passion, non-stop effort, opportunism, abrupt changes of plan and absence of institutional ego are all needed for success. “This has always been the case. When the African and Indian rhino species were seriously endangered species in the late nineteenth century, private individuals took the initiative to prevent their extinction.”

He adds that apart from zoos, there are no institutions in the world today which are either philosophically or financially equipped to prevent the extinction of seriously endangered species, in cases where management in fenced facilities is necessary. “This is one of the major reasons other species of large animals will continue to go extinct. Unless one can get established successful and well-capitalised corporations involved.”

This, Payne says, has happened to some extent, with the grants provided by Sime Darby Foundation mainly channeled via BORA for the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary programme. “But of course this is not sustainable in the sense that eventually the passionate people involved in both of those institutions will have gone and funding will stop.”
Which is why he has an even more radical idea. “The resources needed to prevent species extinction are akin to those needed for any entrepreneurial attempt to provide a good or service, except that typically there is no product desired by lots of people, nor a financial reward.

“In the case of the Sumatran rhino, we have the opportunity of a life time because there are many people, albeit with more money than sense, who will buy powdered rhino horn at exorbitant prices, for its supposed cooling properties in traditional Chinese medicine. Sumatran rhinos ought to be saved be entrepreneurs who want to prevent their extinction and would breed them for their horns – which, by a stroke of luck, can be harvested sustainably, although at a rather slow rate.”

With this in mind, he says, the Sime Darby Foundation commitment could be regarded as seed money for such a venture. “Hundred percent guaranteed there will be people in government and many NGOs and concerned citizens who will be dead against this idea. It will be 1985 all over again. I have to be rude; those sorts of objections are usually sclerotic and irrational thinking, and those who voice them never have a viable alternative, nor are they willing to spend the next thirty years of their life doing what needs to be done to save the species.”


  1. I really liked the article. I tend to forget that the rhinos living in that part of the world are quite a bit smaller than their African cousins. What does its nose feel like? Is it scratchy? I wonder if they'd eat apples from your hand like horses.


  2. Hey thanks. Sort of rough, I guess, but not scratchy. Although they ARE hairy. And yes, these two would eat apples from your hand - they love fruits - but they tend to eat native fruits like bananas and jackfruit.