It is not too late to draw lessons from the continuing decline of the Sumatran rhino
Not long after news last month of the extinction of the Javan rhino on mainland Asia last year, the extinction of the western black rhino in Africa was announced on Nov 11.
In that most recent announcement, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) experts noted that the next rhino likely to go extinct is the northern white rhino, a central African subspecies of white rhino.
How is this relevant to Malaysia? The last Javan rhino in Peninsular Malaysia was shot in 1932. Since the 1930s, Malaysia's most endangered wildlife species has been the Sumatran rhino. The Sumatran rhino still survives in Malaysia, but is now close to extinction.
In 1984, an international meeting of Sumatran rhino experts was convened in Singapore under the aegis of IUCN, and an agreement was forged for collaboration between the governments of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, Indonesia and a number of overseas zoos to work to prevent the extinction of this species.
The agreement involved the establishment of protected areas that still contained small wild rhino populations, and a programme of captive breeding, involving rhinos to be taken from areas which at that time were under forest but allocated for conversion to plantations.
In several ways, the plans worked out. In the 1980s, Sabah established the Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Danum Valley conservation area, while Indonesia set up national parks in areas containing Sumatran rhinos.
The New Straits Times editorial of Sept 11, 1985 entitled "A survival kit for the rhino" gave a remarkably pragmatic and balanced opinion of the plan, stating that "in matters of conservation, there is little room for parochial attitudes and meaningless slogans about national heritage. Malaysia holds in trust for the whole world some of the rarest and most interesting wildlife.
Malaysia cannot take the risk of unwittingly allowing it to have the dubious distinction of being known as the last place on earth where the Sumatran rhino roamed".
Unfortunately, that sentiment went unheeded. A number of Malaysian non-governmental organisations slammed the captive breeding component, mainly over the fear that our rhinos might end up in the United States, and the Sabah government withdrew from the agreement. Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia enjoyed some collaboration but in many respects charted their own courses for the rhinos.
A total of 40 Sumatran rhinos were captured between 1984 and 1994 in Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. The upshot, however, was that of 18 rhinos caught in Indonesia, only one pair bred, producing three babies in Cincinnati Zoo, the oldest of which has been returned to Indonesia and is now the only breeding male in the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Lampung province.
Even though nine females and three males were caught in Peninsular Malaysia and eight males and two females in Sabah, there was no transfer of rhinos between the two regions, and none bred.
Of those 20 Malaysian rhinos, only one survives today, a female which is now too old to be able to breed, although she was fertile when captured in 1994. For wild Sumatran rhinos, it is now four years since the last evidence of a birth in Malaysia.
The fact that the Sumatran rhino is not already extinct can be viewed as luck or a miracle.
A last-ditch effort to save the species, the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary programme, is under way in Sabah, a government programme implemented by the Sabah Wildlife Department with support from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (for rhino reproduction), Borneo Rhino Alliance (operational) and Yayasan Sime Darby and World Wildlife Fund (financial).
What lessons may we draw from the tale of the continuing decline of the Sumatran rhino? The first is we are now well beyond the "usual suspects" of habitat loss, poaching and lack of awareness as the main threats. The problem now is that most remaining rhinos are old or infertile, and too few and too scattered to meet and breed.
The second is that once a species declines to such very low numbers, the only way to boost numbers and birth rate above death rate may be to bring some individuals into semi-natural fenced conditions. The idea is to maximise the prospect of every individual rhino to contribute to the species' survival.
Catching rare wild animals to breed them in captive conditions with the involvement of non-governmental organisations tends to be a "politically incorrect" concept nowadays. Yet, that is exactly how and why the African and Indian rhinos did not go extinct in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was also one of the main reasons for the establishment of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961.
Thirdly, the lack of success of the 1984 IUCN-brokered collaboration agreement to save the species went off the rails largely because of a lack of close collaboration between all the parties involved.
So, the third lesson is: the need for open and whole-hearted collaboration, collaboration and collaboration, so that all parties are armed with all the latest information and thinking, so as to be able to choose the best way forward through the maze of opinions, partial information, assumptions, egos and government policies.
This time, a generation after a most sensible public statement was published in the NST on how to save the Sumatran rhino, let's get it right. Otherwise, Malaysia will be able to announce the extinction of the species in just another generation from now.