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SOS Rhino : In the News : No success yet, but still lucky

No success yet, but still lucky

  20 November, 2003
Daily Express, Sabah, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu: Sabah's own Sumatran rhinocerous captive breeding programme at the Sepilok Wildlife Sanctuary in Sandakan is fortunate not to have encountered the tragic fate that befell the one in Selangor where five animals died from a mysterious ailment within a space of two months.

"We may not have been successful but at least only one died and even then due to old age," said Wildlife Department Veterinary Officer Dr Senthilvel S.S. Nathan, Wednesday.

He said so far there were three attempts at breeding them at the sanctuary but all ended in failure because Sumatran rhinos, whose numbers are now down to less than 100 in Sabah, do not easily mate. Their numbers had declined drastically in Sabah due to logging, among others.

Presently there is one pair, a 25-year-old male named Gologgob, and its 19-year-old female companion, Tanjung. "Tanjung has not got pregnant yet but we hope luck will be on our side," he said.

It cost the sanctuary RM100 to RM200 daily (or RM10,000 per month) to maintain both animals, including medicine, labour and related needs. The funds come mostly from rhino NGOs based in the US which also provide technical support and expertise.

"Such assistance has enabled us to be more familiar about the sexual behaviour of the rhino." Sen said captive breeding of rhinos is plagued with problems, particularly because the animals are prone to diseases due to being taken away from their natural habitat.

He said the tests at Sepilok have yielded dividends through enhanced knowledge about the biology of the rhino. "We conducted ultra-sound, hormonal assert and collect blood twice a week to know the whole sexual profile of the female rhino. Similar tests are also being conducted on the male rhino."

The sanctuary has also been trying to extract sperm from Gologgob, including manually, but without success. "We haven't seen any sperm but it is common for rhinos that have been manually stimulated to produce sperm like what scientists did in Cincinnati, USA."

To a question, Sen said sending any Sabah Sumatran abroad for experimental captive breeding is not the answer to reversing its declining population.

"If we (in Sabah) are already facing environmental factors that hamper successful captive breeding, what more in a foreign country?" he asked.

He said the biggest challenge in every captive breeding programme is determining the actual "mating" readiness of the rhino.

This is because even during the mating season, the rhinos mate only if the female is ready. "The trick then is to know when is the female is ready. If she is not, both rhinos will end up having a big fight and injuring themselves," he said.

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia described the deaths of the Sumatran rhinos in the Sungai Dusun breeding programme in Selangor as a sad loss.

WWF Malaysia Executive Director, Datuk Dr Mikaail Kavanagh Abdullah, said this underlined the problems of trying to save endangered species through captive breeding and shows us why wild animals need wild places to have a real future.

Dr Kavanagh called for the rhino breeding programme to be carefully reviewed before being renewed.

"WWF questions the emphasis on captive breeding. Rhinos have never been bred in captivity in Malaysia and the only one that was born in captivity was conceived before her mother was captured," he said.

"Captive breeding may play a role in their future, but this must not be at the expense of efforts to protect them in the wild.

"We do not believe that capturing wild Sumatran rhinos for breeding purposes can be justified. The risks of failure are just too high."

Rhinos had special problems because they were prized by poachers, but they were a national treasure and every effort must be made to protect them in their natural habitats, he added.