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Hope rises for Iman, International Sumatran Rhino Collaboration

Borneo Rhino Alliance

In the Asia Pacific, there is positive news on a pair of fronts relating to a story we’ve followed on HPR's All Things Considered about one of the rarest and most vulnerable living creatures on Earth. In Malaysian Borneo, Iman the Sumatran rhino continues to improve from a health crisis, while separately, an ongoing effort to save the species through artificial insemination appears to be gaining steam.

Since mid-December Iman, the last female Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, and one of only nine in captivity anywhere, has suffered from a tumor in her uterus that is bleeding, and surgical procedures to fix it have been deemed too risky, so non-invasive efforts are being used instead. And they seem to be working. The Borneo Post reported yesterday that though still bleeding, Iman’s appetite is growing and her condition continues to improve. They also quoted the Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department in charge of her, Augustine Tuuga, who said an agreement signed last fall between Indonesia and Malaysia to share resources may soon bear fruit.

The agreement calls for, among other things, sending semen samples to Malaysia from a Cincinnati-born rhino, Andalas, who has successfully sired two calves since moving to Indonesia in 2007, thanks to efforts by the International Rhino Foundation. The team in Malaysia has been trying to get the samples to participate in an artificial insemination attempt for years, hoping for cooperation from Indonesia, where seven of the rhinos live at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. But last week an Indonesian official told reporters it may happen this year, news source Mongabay reported. And that’s where Iman re-enters the story. If it goes as planned, frozen semen from Andalas, in Sumatra, would be sent and combined with eggs from Iman in Malaysia, as shipping the frozen semen is easier than shipping the eggs.

Credit International Rhino Foundation
Andalas at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia. He has successfully sired two calves, a male Andatu, and female Delilah, since moving to Indonesia in 2007. This week reports emerged that frozen semen samples from Andalas could be sent to Malaysia this year for an artificial insemination project, utilizing eggs from Iman.

The Sumatran rhino is among the rarest animals on Earth. It was once prolific throughout the region, but poaching for their horns and habitat destruction, largely for palm oil plantations, has cut off populations from one another, and left a total global wild estimate of just a few dozen animals, if that, making the breeding possibility a critical development. 

If an embryo is produced, Mongabay noted, it could be implanted in a female living at the Sumatran sanctuary. Indonesia would keep any potential offspring. Mongabay quoted John Payne, Director of nonprofit Borneo Rhino Alliance as saying “I cannot speak on behalf of the government of Malaysia, but I am sure that this is the news that we have all been waiting for,” he said. “It is heartening that the director general of conservation has expressed his commitment to seeing through the necessary procedures to expedite approval to release frozen semen to Malaysia.” Payne added that they hope Iman can produce even more fertile eggs in the future.   

Learn more about the struggle to save the Sumatran rhino:

Find more reports and interviews with Dave Lawrence.

Dave Lawrence is the local host of All Things Considered, Road Stories (formerly Off the Road) and Stargazer.
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