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SOS Rhino : In the News : Futile effort

Futile effort

The Star OnLine
2 December 2003

A rhino expert who once led the Malaysian rhino captive breeding programme has now called for it to be stopped. TAN CHENG LI has the story.

AS A wildlife officer at the National Parks and Wildlife Protection Department (Perhilitan) in the 1980s, Dr Tajuddin Abdullah had a hand in capturing wild rhinos and sending them to a captive centre ∆ action which he is not particularly proud of today because indirectly, he had helped send the highly endangered animals to their deaths.

Now that all five rhinos at the Sungai Dusun Rhino Conservation Centre in Selangor have succumbed to bacterial infection, all within a span of less than three weeks, Tajuddin who is now a lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak is calling for a stop to future rhino captive breeding programmes.

With the support of other concerned wildlife conservationists and veterinarians, he is spearheading a campaign called Halt the Rhinos Movement (HaRM). Tajuddin is in a position to speak on rhino conservation since he was instrumental in planning and implementing the country's rhino conservation efforts. He had conducted rhino population surveys 30 years ago, headed Perhilitan's Rhino Management Unit in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as managed the Sungai Dusun centre in the late 1980s.

Now head of the animal science and resource management programme at the university, Tajuddin asserts that captive management can never be a long-term conservation strategy. He says the few attempts to introduce captive bred animals into the wild were mostly unsuccessful. For example, local wildlife experts have bred captive seladang (Bos gaurus) and sambar deer but have not reintroduced any into protected forests to replenish depleting wild stocks.

"Reintroduction is an empty promise in order to sweeten the proposal to get the necessary funding," says Tajuddin, who was director of the Malacca Perhilitan between 1990 and 1992.

Scientists believe the critically endangered Sumantran rhino numbers no more than 300 today, mostly in pockets of forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Peninsular Malaysia is believed to host some 70 rhinos (mostly in Taman Negara) and Sabah, between 30 and 50. Rhinos are believed to be extinct in Sarawak as there have been no recent sightings. The Sungai Dusun breeding programme was started in the 1980s to boost the dwindling population of Sumatran rhinos but has not produced any captive breds so far.

Perhilitan director-general Datuk Musa Nordin has defended captive breeding as the best way to preserve the species since in situ conservation (protecting rhinos in their original habitat) has been tough, what with loss of wild habitat and animal poaching. Following the deaths of the captive rhinos, he has proposed that at least two new breeding facilitise be built for the future.

Tajuddin, however, argues that the success of captive breeding varies between species and between captive facilities for the same species. For instance, while the Cincinnati Zoo in the United States has bred a captive Sumatran rhino, facilities in Sungai Dusun, Sabah and Britain have recorded 100%, 75% and 50% mortalities respectively.

Perhilitan embarked on a trapping project to remove rhinos in threatened habitat from 1984. All in, some 12 animals were captured in the peninsula. One was sold to Indonesia's Rangunan Zoo and another exchanged for another rhino with the same zoo. All of the remaining 10 animals, as well as another one (Minah) born in the Malacca Zoo because the mother was pregnant when captured, have since died.

"We now hold the world's worst record for rhino conservation. If we capture more rhinos from the wild just to continue the breeding programme, we are just sending this rare species to their death cell," says Tajuddin.

He also fears that the captive breeding programme, if continued, would be hampered by a lack of expertise and staff. Right now, the Sungai Dusun centre is manned only by one veterinarian and two labourers and five Perhilitan rangers. There are collaborations with foreign scientists but these are infrequent and only for very short stays.

Full inquiry

Tajuddin also questions the competency of the Malaysian Rhino Foundation and Perhilitan in managing the breeding centre. Results of laboratory tests have not been released to the media but sources revealed that a pathogenic strain of the bacteria E-coli ∆ usually associated with unhygienic environment ∆ has been found in high loads in three of the dead rhinos.

"Is there management negligence that may be charged under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972?" asks Tajuddin.

He urges Science, Technology and Environment Minister Datuk Law Hieng Ding to conduct an enquiry into the rhino deaths and management of the captive breeding programme.

"The investigation must be independent and not by Perhilitan, the Malaysian Rhino Foundation or their foreign collaborators. And the findings must be publicly revealed," says Tajuddin who is also an expert member of the Asian Rhinoceros Specialist Group under the IUCN/SSC (World Conservation Union).

Transparency is paramount as there appears to be cover-up attempts in the whole debacle. The media has not been given the whole picture, judging from a confidential Perhilitan document made available to the media.

The document, written before the deaths of Mas Merah and Minah, stated that Seputih (aged about 25), Ara (15) and Panjang (21), had succumbed to enteritis (inflammation of the intestines) and septicaemia (blood poisoning) caused by bacterial poisoning. It concluded that the bacterial infection originated from food and water.

At that point, the media was still kept in the dark.

The document also revealed that these rhinos were not the first to die of bacterial infection. Sixteen-year-old Shah died of similar causes last January and yet, the press was told that the male rhino died of renal failure.

This implies that bacteria-contaminated food and water were present at the centre at least as early as last year. "Why wasn't action taken immediately after Shah died to isolate the healthy rhinos at the Malacca Zoo which is earmarked as a back-up captive facility?" asks Tajuddin.

Similarly, Rima, 25, was said to have died of natural causes in April but the document listed the cause of death as kidney failure.

Keep them wild

Tajuddin believes that future efforts to preserve the rare species should focus on in situ conservation ∆ that is, by protecting and strengthening wild rhino populations ∆ since captive breeding has failed so far.

He laments that current conservation work has ignored the 1989 Asian Rhinos Action Plan. The action plan has these objectives: to protect and manage the species and its habitats, gather information on the viability of rhino population and habitat requirements, promote scientific research and dissemination of information on captive rhinos, and build up the captive population for reintroduction into the wild.

"Captive breeding is the last objective in the overall conservation strategy. And having failed to breed and introduce them to the wild, we still neglect the first and second most important objectives."

Tajuddin disagrees with views that the country's small rhino population has no fighting chance in the battle against poachers and depleting forests and thus should be captured for the breeding programme. He believes the success of the Indian rhino conservation project at Nepal's Chitwan National Park is proof that in situ conservation works if enough emphasis is placed on it.

Thanks to a strong in situ management programme, control of poaching and habitat destruction as well as strict patrols by the national army, the Indian rhino population rose from a dismal 60 animals in the 1960s to today's 380.

The action plan also recommends that doomed rhinos be translocated to another wildlife sanctuary or protected area to strengthen an existing wild and protected population. And yet, captured rhinos in the past 10 years have not been translocated into Taman Negara but instead, added to the captive population.

The Action Plan stated that a genetically effective population of 50 rhinos are necessary for short-term survival (five to 10 generations) of the species and for the long-term (10 generations), between 100 to 500 rhinos. Since there will be animals which are old, infertile or unhealthy, Tajuddin says this means that twice the number will have to be captured. "Where are these large numbers of rhinos going to be captured from? Have they thought of risk of death during capture?"

He urges for an indepth study on the viability of future captive breeding programmes and says it should include cost-benefit analyses as to whether they would protect rhinos better than in situ conservation.

Meanwhile, the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia calls for a thorough review of the breeding programme before it is renewed. "The rhino deaths underline the problems of trying to save endangered species through captive breeding," says executive director Datuk Dr Mikaail Kavanagh Abdullah.

"WWF questions the emphasis on captive breeding. It may play a role in the future survival of rhinos 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 are a national treasure and every effort must be made to protect them in their natural habitats."

With differing views on a conservation strategy for the Malaysian rhinos, Tajuddin suggests that a meeting or workshop be held as soon as possible. "Wildlife experts can then come together to debate the issue of captive breeding versus in situ conservation. We need to discuss this openly."