Mother and calf Sumatran rhinos touch horns

A Sumatran rhino stands alongside her calf. Image: International Rhino Foundation via Wikimedia Commons.

How Malaysia lost its rhinos

The last male rhino in Malaysia has died in a wildlife reserve, dashing conservationists' last hopes that his species could be saved in the country.

Tam was 30 years old, and lived in the Malaysian-controlled part of the island of Borneo. He was a Sumatran rhino, a member of the subspecies Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni. Found wandering in a palm oil plantation, he was taken to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in 2008.

Keepers hoped that Tam would have calves with Iman, the last female of his species in the country, but the pair were unsuccessful.

The Bornean Rhino Alliance confirmed Tam’s death on 27 May, stating 'It is with heavy hearts that we share the tragic news that Tam, Malaysia's last male Sumatran rhino, has passed away.'

  

Richard Sabin, a mammal expert at the Museum, says, ‘This sad news highlights once again the continuing pressures faced by large mammal species in the wild.’

Iman is now the last remaining Sumatran rhino in Malaysia. However, she is not the last on the island of Borneo, and there is a glimmer of hope for the wider survival of the species.

Sumatran rhinos

Tam was a Sumatran rhino, a small and shy rhino species that lives in tropical rainforest. Not many of them are left, although the rhinos once roamed southeast Asia through Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Vietnam. Now they are confined to Indonesia.

The animals that do still wander among Asia’s rainforests rely on saltlicks for survival - areas of ground where salt and minerals like calcium and iron are deposited.

Generally, Sumatran rhinos live alone, and usually survive for up to 40 years.  

   

The situation in Borneo

The island of Borneo is governed by three countries: Malaysia in the north and Indonesia in the south, plus the small sovereign state of Brunei on the north coast.

Borneo is home to swathes of ancient rainforest, which a century ago held healthy numbers of a range of mammal species, including rhinos, leopards, elephants, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, sun bears and pangolins.

But years of deforestation, conflict and trade have taken their toll on Borneo's animals.

The reasons for the declines in Sumatran rhino populations are complex.

It isn't easy to estimate historic numbers of rhinos in Borneo. A 2016 paper examined their decline, and reported that the plummeting of their numbers probably began at the start of the twentieth century, and was triggered by the pacification of indigenous people on the island by governments.

Trade began between people living in the island's forests and those living on the coasts. Chinese traders shipped rhino horn abroad to be sold as an aphrodisiac and for medicinal use.

At about the same time, deforestation started on a large scale.  Forests were slashed to make way for rice, rubber, palm oil and coconuts. Commercial logging began in the 1950s, and kept accelerating, which separated and scattered rhino populations.

By 1930, weapons had become cheaper and easier to find, which triggered a mass slaughter of rhinos by the indigenous people.

Unrestrained hunting between 1930 and 1950 drastically reduced the rhino population in the Malaysian state of Sabah.  By 1956, there were hardly any left in Malaysia. Hunting continued in Sabah until recent times, but at a much lower rate.

Added to this, females don’t give birth very regularly, and have long gestation periods. 

Habitat loss and rhino populations

On top of all that, there is not enough data available to properly track Sumatran rhino populations, and this problem has persisted for decades. Such a dearth of evidence hampers conservation efforts.

A team of researchers did manage to study the rhinos that live within Tabin Wildlife Reserve in 2016 and found that the animals chose to spend time in habitat away from human disturbance, that also had good food availability, safe areas and other ecological resources like mud holes for wallowing.

This type of habitat is quickly decreasing on the island. In Sabah less than 51% of the land area is covered with forest, and 32% of these forests have been logged several times leaving extensive areas in a highly damaged condition. Only 1% of undisturbed lowland forest remains. A similar situation exists in Kalimantan.

Richard Sabin adds, 'Degradation and loss of habitat through human activity fragments large mammal populations, isolates individuals and destroys home ranges. 

'International research groups have been studying the genetic structure and diversity of the critically-endangered Sumatran rhino using historical museum specimens and samples from living animals, to help develop conservation strategies.

'While scientific investigation provides valuable data and can inform wildlife management activities, action needs to be taken on the ground at a local level to prevent poaching, and internationally to halt the illegal trade in endangered species materials.'

Tam's story

Tam was taken to Tabin Wildlife Reserve, a fenced facility run by the Borneo Rhino Association, in 2008. He lived alongside Iman, a female rhino who was captured in 2014 for a captive breeding programme. Despite conservationists’ best efforts she never conceived, and is now unwell too - a ruptured tumour was found in her uterus in December 2017.

A second female, Puntung, was also part of the breeding programme. She was euthanized in 2017 after suffering from cancer, and also never had calves.

A handful of Sumatran rhinos still live in small groups in the Indonesian part of Borneo.

Now the population in Indonesian Borneo is so small that mating partners have difficulty finding each other, and experts believe the biggest threat to the survival of the species is now isolation.

Some think that the only way to save the species is to capture remaining wild rhinos, and move them into protected areas where they can more easily be monitored - and also find each other for mating.

A captive breeding programme is still underway, although it has not been a runaway success. It caught 40 rhinos from 1984 to 1995. To date, the program has produced five calves. However, it may provide the best hope yet for the future of the species.

An anti-poaching team guard a rhino in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, home to both black rhinos and four of the world's remaining northen white rhinos. Last of a kind © Brent Stirton.

 

A global situation

The situation in southeast Asia is mirrored among other species across the globe.

A rhino called Sudan was the last male northern white rhino. He died in 2018 in a wildlife conservancy in Kenya. It leaves his subspecies with little hope of escaping extinction.

Habitat loss and illegal hunting were big culprits behind that loss too, and it is a pattern repeated the world over.

Richard Sabin, speaking last year, said, 'Being a large mammal in the wild can be a problem. Unless they live in remote places, far from human activity, they struggle when they encounter expanding human populations.

'There are things we can all do to help protect animals in the wild. We can be aware of how we are affecting the environment, especially when we go on holiday. We can think about our carbon footprint and the impact we have on other resources.

'Ethical, green tourism is so important. For example, always go on safari with an approved, accredited company, in a way that won't put unnecessary stress on animal populations. Don't unwittingly fuel the trade in endangered species by purchasing souvenirs which may be made from material taken from illegally hunted animals.

'You can also get involved wherever you are in the world. Be vocal, express your views, petition governments to do more, and support internationally recognised conservation organisations.'

More information

Protecting our planet

We're working towards a future where both people and the planet thrive.

Hear from scientists studying human impact and change in the natural world.

Make a donation

£5 could help us digitise a specimen for climate research

£10 could help us freeze a bee for our collections

£20 could help us do a Red List assessment for a threatened species

£50 could help us fund a field trip to understand biodiversity loss

Or choose another amount

£