KOTA KINABALU: Malaysia’s last surviving male Sumatran rhinoceros died on Monday (May 27) following a bout of ill health, leaving behind only one female in the country and pushing the critically endangered species closer to extinction.
“It is with heavy hearts that we share the tragic news that Tam, Malaysia's last male Sumatran rhino, has passed away. We will share more details in due time, but right now we need some time to mourn his passing,” the Borneo Rhino Alliance said in a Facebook statement.
Sabah’s Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Christina Liew said Tam died at about 12pm, and that "everything that could possibly have been done, was done, and executed with great love and dedication".
Ms Liew said that Tam's last weeks involved the "most intensive palliative care humanly possible".
She added that Tam's death was certainly related to old age and involved multiple organ failure, and that the exact cause of death will be clearer after an autopsy.
Tam’s health had been deteriorating and he was on medication due to the poor functioning of some of his internal organs.
Ms Liew said the one bright spot is that Tam's living genome is preserved in cell culture.
"We hope that with emerging technologies at cell and molecular level, he may yet contribute his genes to the survival of the species."
Tam was captured by a wildlife team in August 2008 at an oil palm plantation in the town of Tawau.
To gain his trust, the team from the Sabah Wildlife Department, SOS Rhino and WWF-Malaysia fed and befriended Tam for a week, before coaxing him into a crate, the New Straits Times reported earlier.
Tam was thought to be in his mid-20s when he was taken to Tabin Wildlife Forest Reserve, Ms Liew said.
Tam was 35 years old at the time of his death, which is considered quite old for a rhinoceros.
Tam’s death now leaves Iman as the last surviving female Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia, WWF-Malaysia said in a statement on Facebook.
“Let the loss of Tam be the wakeup call that we need to spring into action. Our wildlife needs protection now and like it or not, we are their only hope."
Tam's death puts pressure on an ongoing effort for conservationists hoping to use in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques to create offspring from Iman, and an Indonesian male.
Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said there were problems with Iman's uterus and that she was incapable of becoming pregnant, but was 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," he said.
"The embryo that can be produced from this process can then be implanted to a surrogate Indonesian female mother rhino," Ms Liew said.
She added that the offspring would be under shared ownership with Indonesia and that the rhinoceros will remain at the Way Kambas Rhino Sanctuary, Lampung in Sumatera.
"This, of course, can only happen if the Indonesian government agrees officially," she said, adding that Sabah plans to resume discussions with Indonesia.
Once found as far away as eastern India and throughout Malaysia, the Sumatran rhino has been almost wiped out, with fewer than 80 left, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Only a handful of the creatures remain in the wilds of Indonesia.