International scientists and zoo experts started together with Malaysian governmental and conservation organisations an extensive programme to protect the Sabah rhino.
A unique species is on the brink of extinction: the Sabah rhino population (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrisoni), a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino, is now represented by less than 50 individuals. In an attempt to save the species, scientists from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, Germany, in collaboration with Zoo Leipzig from Leipzig, Germany and Malaysian governmental and conservation organisations, represented by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) have started an extensive conservation programme to protect and breed these impressive mammals. The species is in need of urgent protection. “The Sabah rhino is our local heritage, we need all the expertise we can get to safeguard the Sabah rhinos from extinction” said Datuk Masidi Manjun, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment from Sabah who met the German scientists from the IZW and Zoo Leipzig last week. The rhino is an indicator-species for an intact ecosystem - the “lowland rain forest”. If this “umbrella species” goes extinct, scores of other species living under the “ecological protection” of the Sabah rhino will disappear as well.
“The IZW scientists will help us with their knowledge of the reproductive biology of rhinos to assess the health and fertility of captive animals” said Dr. Laurentius Ambu, director of the Sabah Wildlife Department after a technical meeting held in Kota Kinabalu with the specialists and local NGOs on Friday last week. He said “they will then give us recommendations on how to breed them most successfully”.
The Sabah rhino is the smallest rhino in the world with a shoulder height of only one meter and thirty centimetres. It lives primarily in the lowland rain forests of the Malaysian Federal State of Sabah on the island of Borneo. However, large areas of its habitat have disappeared for palm oil production which has fragmented the landscape, making reproductive contact between individuals difficult. The Malaysian government, in cooperation with the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), has therefore begun building a breeding station where individual rhinos from the wild can be brought together in a kind of breeding sanctuary. „The next step is to determine whether the animals are fertile“, says Dr Petra Kretzschmar from the IZW. ”We have evidence from reproductive assessments in Sabah rhinos that they have reduced fertility”.
Acting swiftly is necessary for the success of the Sabah rhino breeding programme. Therefore, researchers plan to combine natural breeding with artificial insemination using advanced assisted reproductive techniques. Reproductive assistance will involve the IZW veterinarian specialist team lead by Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt, whose expertise has already delivered outstanding results in breeding captive rhinos. Zoo Leipzig will contribute their skills in animal husbandry and training local staff in handling the animals.
Project partners have also agreed that protection of the remaining free ranging rhinos and their lowland rain forest habitat, are a crucial part of this project. To meet this task, a local and international awareness programme will be developed to help educate the public and provide funding for sustained management.
In 2011, Zoo Leipzig opens its tropical world of experience „Gondwanaland“. It will contain rain forest as well as animals native to the region that will act as ambassadors for the need to preserve endangered tropical forests. The “Sabah Rhino Conservation Project (SRCP)” will be presented within Gondwanaland to more than a million viewers from the public. It is believed that this approach, including cutting edge scientific know-how from the IZW, training and preparation from a prominent zoo and a public awareness campaign, is unique and necessary for the rescue of one of the most endangered species on earth.