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Sumatran Rhinos Are Now Extinct in Malaysia

Iman, a 25-year-old female and the last Sumatran rhino in the country, died on Saturday

Iman died of cancer on November 23 at a sanctuary in Borneo. (Courtesy of BORA)
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An ailing Sumatran rhino named Iman has died, marking the extinction of the critically endangered species in Malaysia.

The Associated Press reports that Iman, believed to be 25 years old, died of natural causes on Saturday “due to shock in her system.” She had been taken into captivity and transported to the Borneo Rhino Alliance in 2014, and experts soon discovered that she was suffering from uterine tumors. Augustine Tuuga, director of the Wildlife Department in eastern Sabah state on Borneo, said in a statement that the growing tumors had started to put pressure on Iman’s bladder, causing her pain. Still, Tuuga noted, the rhino’s death had come earlier than expected.

“You were ... the sweetest soul, who brought so much joy and hope to all of us,” the Borneo Rhino Alliance wrote in a Facebook post. “We are in so much pain right now, but we are thankful that you are no longer in pain.”

Iman was the last Sumatran rhino in Malaysia. The only male Sumatran rhino in the country, Tam, died in May.

Sumatran rhinos are the smallest of all rhino species—and the hairiest, “with fringed ears and reddish-brown skin,” notes the International Rhino Foundation. The species once existed across Asia, but its populations have been decimated by poaching and habitat loss. “The species is likely now the most endangered large mammal on Earth, with declines of more than 70 percent in the past 20 years,” according to the International Rhino Foundation. Less than 80 Sumatran rhinos are alive today, clustered into three isolated populations on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, along with a few individuals in Indonesian Borneo.

Because Sumatran rhino are so small and so fragmented, breeding among them is infrequent, according to IUCN. Females are prone to developing tumors and cysts on their reproductive organs if they age without producing offspring, which can make it difficult for breeding programs to propagate the species. Conservationists had hoped that Tam and Iman would mate naturally, but his sperm quality was poor and her uterine tumors prevented conception.

Genetic material from both rhinos has been preserved, and experts hope that the rhinos' cells will one day be converted into viable embryos and implanted in surrogate mothers. In recent years, reproductive technologies have offered new avenues for the conservation of other rare rhino species. In April, for instance, Zoo Miami welcomed a baby greater one-horned rhino that had been conceived through induced ovulation and artificial insemination. In September, scientists announced that they had used IVF procedures to create two embryos of the northern white rhino, another critically endangered species.

Whether similar methods can be successfully used for Sumatran rhinos remains to be seen. A recent attempt to produce an embryo using Tam’s sperm and Iman’s egg cell failed.

“There is limited knowledge about Sumatran rhino reproductive physiology and converting cells in a laboratory into viable embryos is complex,” notes Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation. “Still, there is hope for the survival of Sumatran rhinos.”

Rhino experts from around the world, in conjunction with the government of Indonesia, are also working to relocate Sumatran rhinos from the wild to managed breeding facilities. At the moment, conservationists say, this is the only way to ensure that the species does not disappear completely. “Our goal is to quickly and safely increase rhino numbers,” explains the International Rhino Foundation, “creating a source population from which animals can someday be reintroduced into the wild.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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