Malaysia’s last surviving male Sumatran rhino died Monday following a few short weeks of illness.
The death of the rhino, known lovingly as Tam, leaves behind one surviving female in Malaysia. With between 30 to 80 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild, Tam’s death has propelled the critically-endangered animals one step further toward extinction.
"Today, we bid farewell to Tam, our last surviving male Sumatran rhino,” the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia said in a Facebook statement. “Our hearts are filled with sadness as we mourn not only the loss of wildlife but the loss of a species. With Tam gone, we now only have Iman left, our last female rhino.”
Tam, who was thought to be 35 years old, lived at Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah state within the island of Borneo. He was initially brought to the reserve after he was found lost in an oil palm plantation in 2008. In the months leading up to his death, Tam had been experiencing kidney and liver issues, Channel News Asia reported.
Malaysia has long attempted, with little success, to save the nation’s dying species by using in-vitro fertilization.
Director of Sabah Wildlife Department Augustine Tuuga said he and his colleagues would now attempt to breed Iman with a male Sumatran rhino from Indonesia. Due to health issues, Iman is unable to become pregnant but is still able to produce eggs.
"We just have to look after the last remaining rhino. That's all we can do, and try if possible to work with Indonesia," Tuuga stated, according to SBS. "The embryo that can be produced from this process can then be implanted to a surrogate Indonesian female mother rhino.”
The Sumatran rhino once lived extensively throughout South and Southeast Asia. Now, what is left of the species is confined to small areas of forest in Borneo and the large west-Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Their forced isolation has been linked to significant habitat loss, with forests across the region cut down to make room for roads, houses, and agricultural plantations. Cleared trees are also used to build furniture or as fuel.
Poaching, which stems from the dispelled belief that rhino horns contain medicinal properties, has also been blamed.
In an attempt to save the species, top conservation organizations from across the globe — including the WWF and National Geographic — launched a collaboration in 2018 that works to capture and unite wild rhinos for captive breeding. Margaret Kinnaird, wildlife leader for WWF, says the collaboration will work alongside Indonesia and Malaysia to establish reproduction facilities.
“Tam's death underscores how critically important the collaborative efforts are,” she told National Geographic. “We need to continue to be laser-focused on saving the remaining 80 Sumatran rhinos, using a combination of intensive protection and captive breeding, and working with local people to instill pride that the rhino is part of their biological heritage.”
"This is a battle we cannot afford to lose," Kinnaird added.