Indonesia Hints Rhino Sperm Transfer To M’sia May Finally Happen

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Andalas, right, and Bina meet at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. – Photo credit by Dedi Candra

By BASTEN GOKKON
JAKARTA: Indonesia has signalled it may finally send a sample of Sumatran rhino semen to a breeding program in Malaysia, amid a growing urgency to keep the species alive.

Conservationists in Sabah, where only two Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) remain, have since 2015 sought a frozen sample of sperm taken from a rhino in Indonesia’s own captive-breeding program in Sumatra to kick-start an artificial insemination attempt — but to no avail, as the Indonesian government repeatedly ignored its requests.

Now, though, a senior official says the sperm being stored at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) may be sent to Malaysia sometime this year.

“We have discussed all of the aspects of the request, and submitted our analysis to the [environment] minister,” Wiratno, the head of conservation at Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, told reporters in Jakarta last week.

Iman, Sabah’s last living female Sumatran rhinoceros is suffering from a serious illness, with bleeding from her uterine leiomyoma tumours. Her eggs though, could create new life. – Photo credit Borneo Rhino Alliance

“It will be a valuable lesson for both countries, as we are also dealing with rhinos which are losing their habitats,” he added.

If approved, the plan would be to combine the sperm from Andalas, a captive-bred rhino at the SRS, with viable eggs from Iman, the last remaining female Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, to produce an embryo that could then be implanted into one of the females back at the Indonesian sanctuary.

The fertilization would preferably happen in Malaysia because frozen semen travels better than eggs. Malaysia has agreed to let Indonesia keep any resultant offspring.

If everything goes as planned, the program would boost the genetic diversity of the species, given that Iman comes from a population on Borneo that has been disconnected from the populations on Sumatra for thousands of years.

Sumatran rhinos are solitary animals and the females give birth to one calf at a time every 3-4 years. – Photo credit by Tiffany Roufs/Mongabay.

John Payne, the head of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), which is deeply involved in the plan on the Malaysian side, welcomed Wiratno’s statement.

“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 of Sumatran rhino to Malaysia.”

He said 2018 was the “make-or-break year” for collaborative efforts between Indonesia and Malaysia to conserve the species, which began in 1985.

“We need to recognize that speed is of the essence,” Payne said. “Whether or not Indonesia decides to work with Malaysia, the species is very close to extinction. The need to immediately boost Sumatran rhino births far outweighs the need to prevent rhino deaths.”

Andalas with her baby.

There is an increased urgency to step up the captive-breeding program for the critically endangered species, compelled by the death in June last year of Puntung, Malaysia’s only other female Sumatran rhino at the time; and, in December, a serious deterioration in the health of Iman.

Iman has since made a slow recovery, with Payne and his team hoping she can once again produce fertile eggs for fertilization attempts.

Experts believe that no more than 100 Sumatran rhinos, and perhaps as few as 30, are left in the wild, scattered in tiny populations across Sumatra, Borneo and perhaps peninsular Malaysia.

With such a small population to draw from, the risk of genetic defects being passed on through captive breeding are high — which makes the need for the Indonesia-Malaysia collaboration all the more important.

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Indonesia hints rhino sperm transfer to Malaysia may finally happen this year