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At The Edge of Extinction: Iman, Malaysia's Last Sumatran Rhino, Dies

Borneo Rhino Alliance

One of the rarest creatures on Earth has died. The last Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, Iman, passed away Saturday at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Sabah, Malaysia, due to complications with inoperable tumors. 

Credit Borneo Rhino Alliance
Dr. Zainal Zahari Zainuddin, Field Manager and Veterinarian at the Borneo Rhino Alliance, feeds Iman.

The Sumatran rhino once inhabited a wide area in southeast Asia, but today is one of the world’s most critically endangered animals, with fewer than 80 thought to still remain in Indonesia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Dr. John Payne of the Borneo Rhino Alliance has studied the animals for decades. The nonprofit was contracted by the Malaysian government to care for their Sumatran rhinos.

As Payne explained in a conversation recorded for Helping Hand last year, historic regional natural disasters and Chinese poaching for rhino horn long ago decimated their population, and more recently, habitat loss due to oil palm plantations have separated the remaining members of the species, preventing them from mating, and pushing the shy forest-dwelling rhinos closer to extinction without the assistance of captive breeding.

Iman’s passing came before an agreement with Indonesia to share resources for captive breeding program could come to fruition, a plan in the works since the 1980s and still not finalized.

Indonesia has seven captive Sumatran rhinos, two born in the United States at the Cincinnati Zoo, where groundbreaking techniques unraveled the complexities in their captive breeding. Without access to those genetic resources, last month a Malaysian in vitro fertilization effort was attempted, and failed, to create an embryo from one of Iman’s eggs and sperm from the last male Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, Tam, who died in May of this year from multiple organ failure.


Read a letter published on November 14, 2019 by the Borneo Rhino Alliance, entitled "Urgent appraisal needed of Sumatran rhino conservation efforts".

In 2018 we spoke with Dr. Payne for a Helping Hand segment. The complete nearly 40-minute interview is included below, and includes many details about the history of the Sumatran rhino, the care of Iman, how a Sumatran rhino IVF project might work, and insight into the long-planned, but still never achieved, collaboration with Indonesia.

Complete 2018 interview with Dr. John Payne of Borneo Rhino Alliance / BORA

Rhino Ringtone:

Hear, or right click to download a ringtone of Iman's vocalizations:

Iman the Sumatran rhino's unique vocalization

Video of Iman filmed this year, courtesy of Dr. John Payne:

Watch the NatGeo documentary, Operation Sumatran Rhino, starring the late Iman and Tam:

Credit Borneo Rhino Alliance

Find more stories and features from Dave Lawrence.

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