Sunday November 23, 2003

Malaysian rhino deaths highlight species' woes

By Patrick Chalmers, Reuters

SUNGAI DUSUN, Malaysia The sudden deaths of five Sumatran rhinos at a Malaysian sanctuary have dealt a heavy blow to efforts to save the fast-dwindling species from extinction. Since Oct. 29, all five animals at peninsular Malaysia's Sungai Dusun rhinoceros center have succumbed to what is believed to be acute blood poisoning following bacterial infection.
The deaths throw a bleak spotlight on the state of the world's most critically endangered rhino species and raise questions about Malaysia's captive breeding effort, yet to bear fruit after two decades. The country now has just two rhinos in captivity, in Sabah state on Borneo.
Habitat loss and the poaching of animals for their horns and skin for use in sex potions of dubious benefit have taken a terrible toll on the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). Only about 300 survive in the wild in Southeast Asia.
Although Javan rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus) are rarer, wildlife experts say their numbers have steadied at about 60 in Indonesia and a few in Vietnam.
"The populations in Java are stable; they have not lost any for quite a while," said Chris Shepherd, who tracks illegal trade in animals and plants with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.
Shepherd said the rhinos' plight is shared by other species in the region. "Things are still in serious decline. They have not solved it yet. I see the rhinos as one of many," he said, adding that the key is policing the areas endangered species still inhabit, such as peninsular Malaysia's Taman Negara national park.
"The highest priority is much stiffer enforcement around the protected areas and stiffer penalties for anyone caught poaching, trading, or using rhino products," Shepherd said.
Southeast Asia is home to two of the world's five remaining rhino species, the other main populations being in India and East and Southern Africa. This is a far cry from the vast numbers and varieties that once roamed more widely, including in North America and Europe.
Sumatran rhinos, small, hairy creatures standing about 4 feet tall at the shoulder, suffer for their love of solitude and dense, jungle habitat.
The larger rhinos in Africa and India generally inhabit open grassland or scrub bush, making them easier to find. While that aids poachers it also helps park wardens and, perhaps as important, tourists.
"In Africa, you pay to go and see rhinos and you see them. That doesn't happen here," said Shepherd.
Ecotourism is increasing in Southeast Asia but has yet to provide the hard-currency lifeline thrown to African countries. That means captive breeding may be critical.
Thomas Foose, a rhino expert with The World Conservation Union, said the recent deaths should not stop breeding efforts. "A captive propagation program is a vital component as basically an ultimate insurance policy for the species. We are certainly not going to abandon the propagation program because, with too many other species, the captive programs have worked," he said, pointing to animals such as the Californian condor and the Arabian oryx.
In Sungai Dusun itself, set in a patch of forest surrounded by oil palm estates 67 miles north of Kuala Lumpur, staff were shocked by the animals' deaths but determined to continue with the breeding program.
"We cannot give up," said Mohd Khan Momin Khan, chairman of the Malaysian Rhino Foundation. "If we don't do anything, the Sumatran rhinos will disappear like the Javan rhinos, which became extinct in Malaysia in 1932. This tragic event should strengthen our resolve."
The deaths sparked questions about the center's husbandry methods, with the daily New Straits Times citing reports of poor hygiene at the facility as a possible cause of infection. It quoted unidentified critics who said rotting food sometimes lay in the stalls to mix with animal dung and urine, a haven for microbes.
Mohd Khan rejected the suggestion, saying that all four of the world's Sumatran rhinoceros breeding programs, including one in the United States, had lost stock.
He said the first of the five animals to die had just come in from a separate paddock, suggesting that the infection might have been brought in from outside the stalls.
Mohd Khan, who was on hand for Malaysia's first capture of a wild Sumatran rhino in 1984, went on: "We know captive breeding is possible from the success of the Cincinnati Zoo."
The U.S. zoo produced the world's first captive-born rhino in 2001, and the female has conceived again.