SOS Rhino Specials
Rhino Species
Rhino FAQ

Other News ::

Current Rhino News
Archived News
Press Releases

SOS Rhino : In the News : Behind the rhino deaths

Behind the rhino deaths

  Tuesday January 6, 2004
The Star Online

IN RESPONSE to the various articles and letters Æ some very critical, erroneous, and prejudiced Æ that have appeared recently in the newspapers about the rhino deaths at the Sungai Dusun Sumatran Rhino Conservation Centre, the Malaysian Rhino Foundation, the International Rhino Foundation and I personally believe that some facts and clarifications are in order.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks is responsible for rhino and other wildlife conservation in Peninsular Malaysia. I have worked for the Department for 34 years, and served as its director-general for 21 years. Since my retirement from the Department in December 1992, I have continued to be actively involved in rhino and other wildlife conservation.

My contributions have been recognised by international organisations. I remain the chairman of the Asian Rhino Specialist Group, of the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union, an appointment I have held since 1986. I am also a member of the international board of the Save the Tiger Fund and several other specialist groups.

The various Malaysian rhino and wildlife experts cited by Dr M.R. Jainudeen in his article More to rhino deaths (Speaking Up, Dec 16) acquired their expertise while serving as members of the Department. Unfortunately, many of them have not remained in the Department nor sustained an active role in conservation. At the request of the Department, the Malaysian Rhino Foundation (MRF) and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) provided financial support for the Sungai Dusun Sumatran Rhino Conservation Centre (SRCC) and the in situ Rhino Protection Units. MRF and IRF have also provided technical assistance to the SRCC. The Department operates two rhino conservation committees, and I remain as the only non-departmental member because of my commitment to wildlife conservation, even 11 years after my retirement.

The Sumatran rhino captive breeding programme at Sungai Dusun has failed to produce any pregnancy since its commencement 12 years ago. This was largely due to the fact that the animals were not placed together for breeding because of concerns about aggression. The Cincinnati Zoo in the United States is the only facility with Sumatran rhinos that has succeeded in achieving pregnancies and to a great extent this success was due to their ability to place animals together without injury.

Hence it was only sensible to request the assistance of the Cincinnati Zoo and other reproductive biologists associated with success in rhino reproduction. Thus the keeper from Cincinnati Zoo was requested to help develop a method of placing animals together on a regular basis. As a result, the SRCC programme produced 70 matings over the last three years compared to virtually none prior to this.

In fact, what seems optimal and has been attempted is the development of a collaborative programme of all the facilities with Sumatran rhino in captivity, especially those that had achieved the greatest success.

Global cooperation had taken place since the inception of the captive breeding programme in 1984, but was more aggressively pursued and formally initiated at a major workshop for all the managers on research on the Sumatran rhino conducted in Malaysia and Indonesia in 1999. A number of recommendations from that workshop contributed to significant progress and success with captive propagation of the Sumatran rhino, including the successful pregnancy at Cincinnati Zoo.

The best hope for a pregnancy at Sungai Dusun was Minah, who was born in Malacca Zoo in 1987 to a female that was captured pregnant in 1986. In the course of conducting research, veterinarian Dr Zainal Zahari misplaced a progesterone implant (intended for the reproductive tract where it was to be removed five days later) into Minah's bladder. Minah's reproductive cycle stopped, she lost weight, and almost died. Through the expertise of the American colleagues, this misplaced implant was detected and removed, thus saving MinahÍs life.

The MRF and IRF have contributed to capacity development by training Dr Aidi Mohamad, curator and veterinarian at the SRCC, to become proficient at routine ultrasound examinations of these rhinos. Dr Aidi and the head ranger from SRCC went to Cincinnati Zoo for an exchange of knowledge. The SRCC also worked very closely with the endocrine lab at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). More recently, the Cincinnati Zoo helped establish an endocrine lab at Sungai Dusun and has trained Dr Aidi to perform the analyses.

The deaths of seven rhinos over the last two years are indeed a catastrophe and a tragedy. However, much misinformation has circulated about these mortalities.

Even though E. coli had been detected in the dead rhinos, the continued contention that colisepticemia was the cause of death and that this infection is a result of unhygienic management at the SRCC is not substantiated by circumstances and the facts of the case. E. coli is found in abundance and is a normal intestinal inhabitant. Overgrowths of these bacteria are often a secondary development following death, and colisepticemia in animals is not always a result of unhygienic conditions.

Extensive and intensive analyses of samples from these rhinos are continuing at labs in Malaysia and abroad to determine the actual cause of death. As soon as these results are available, the Department and the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry would issue a formal press release.

In the meantime, some comments concerning the deaths that have occurred in 2003 seem useful. ShahÍs death was diagnosed by several experts as inflammation of the colon (colitis). This disease is often associated with stress and there was significant evidence at post-mortem that Shah suffered from a long-term case of emphysema. The findings of E. coli were considered a non-significant and secondary finding. Based on current evidence, the most probable cause of death for Rima, the rhino that died in April, was a tetanus infection. Subsequent to this discovery, all rhinos were vaccinated against tetanus, something that had not occurred previously.

The first of the five rhinos to die most recently was Seputih and the necropsy performed by UPM, which has not issued its official report, suggested intestinal torsion. She died within 24 hours of being moved back into the rhino barn after nearly two weeks in the large 1.6ha enclosure in the adjacent forest. There was no clear alert from this death that virulent epidemic was occurring at Sungai Dusun.

Ten days later when the next animal became ill and died within 24 hours, intense biosecurity measures were initiated, including further disinfection of the facility, administration of broad-spectrum antibiotics that would have been effective against common pathogens like E. coli, and separation of the animals, especially the most valuable Minah.

There was discussion of moving the surviving animals to another site but it was decided that the stress of such a move would be greater than the benefits of the relocation. We even considered releasing the animals into the larger enclosure in the forest, but the strong suspicion that Seputih actually carried the infection from the forest into the barn ruled this out.

From the first signs of illness, there was continuous veterinary attention and intervention by Dr Aidi, the resident veterinarian at Sungai Dusun, assisted by a team of competent and dedicated veterinarians from Zoo Negara. There were also constant consultations with our veterinary consultants from abroad.

While the captive propagation programme has been considered integral to the conservation of the species, the MRF and IRF have placed emphasis on in situ protection of the rhino. Both IRF and Asian Rhino Specialist Group under my chairmanship secured a major grant of US$2mil (RM7.6mil), which was equally divided between Malaysia and Indonesia, from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Development Programme. With this we established the system of anti-poaching teams known as the Rhino Protection Units which have been successful in protecting the rhino in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The IRF and MRF continued to provide and raise funds to support the Rhino Protection Units after the GEF funds were used up. A total of over RM2mil has been provided since the GEF grant ended in 1998. Without this support, the Rhino Protection Units would not be able to operate as regularly and effectively as they have.

If the Sumatran rhino is to be saved from extinction, it is vital that there be as much cooperation as possible at national and international levels. There will be setbacks. However, it is all part of the learning process with a species that is very complex and difficult to conserve.

Mohd Khan Momin Khan, Chairman, Asian Rhino Specialist Grou