Wildlife Matters - Too late for tears

A GROUP of scientists recently published their sombre conclusion in the international journal Oryx, their finding that the Sumatran rhino is extinct in the wild in Malaysia. This includes both for Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah where the species used to roam.

The Sumatran rhino that used to be found in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah are considered to be different sub-species; in scientific terms the Sumatran rhino of Peninsular is known as Dicerorhinus sumatrensis and the one found in Sabah is known as the Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni.

The last known Sumatran rhino sighting in Peninsular Malaysia dates back to 2007 with no known sightings after that. In Sabah, a rhino was captured in 2014 for a captive breeding programme but no other recordings in the wild have been noted since then. Scientists are saying that it is safe to assume that the species is indeed extinct in the wild. There is no official governmental position on this finding since the report was published but I am inclined to go with the experts.

I can’t say that I am surprised by the declaration. In the case of Malaysia’s only surviving rhinoceros species (till now that is), it has been a scenario that has been in the making for decades. Malaysia’s other species of rhinoceros; the Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) has been extinct for nearly 83 years. In 1932, the Wildlife Commission Report of Malaya was released. In it, Theodore Hubback who was the wildlife commissioner for Malaya at the time, stated the following: “the Rhinoceros Sondaicus is so nearly extinct that any method possible to save a few specimens should be undertaken as a national duty towards the general policy of preservation of our Malay Peninsular Fauna”. In a tragic twist of fate, that same year, the last known Javan rhino was shot and killed in Teluk Anson (now Teluk Intan) in Perak.

Perhaps it’s a wonder and a battle against many odds that the Sumatran rhino held out for as long as it did. Poached relentlessly by hunters for decades, fragmentation of its habitat by man, its poor breeding patterns and other biological circumstances compounded by lack of commitment to rhino conservation had steadily and surely swung it towards the extinction path.

In fact, W. E. Stevens, who was the former chief warden of Malaya, had stated in a journal published in 1968 that he felt that the Sumatran is bound to disappear before its larger cousin the Javan.

Oliver Milton, the British researcher who arrived in Malaya after the end of the Malayan Emergency (1947-1960), spent a year in Malaya studying large and rare wildlife. His report entitled “Field Notes on Wildlife Conservation in Malaya: A Report” published in 1963, highlighted particular concern for the Sumatran rhino, where he recorded its sorry state of affairs. He observed too that there were no specific reserves for this species and that trade in rhino parts was unbridled. Through efforts he initiated, the first Sumatran rhino reserve was established in 1964 in Sungai Dusun, Hulu Selangor, as a few rhinos were known to be present there.

The Sungai Dusun Reserve was later re-established as the Sungai Dusun Rhino Conservation Centre where captive rhino breeding programmes were to be initiated to boost severely dwindling populations. Sadly in 2003, all six Sumatran rhinos housed at Sungai Dusun for the breeding programme died within weeks of each other. It now serves largely as a tapir conservation centre. The only Sumatran rhinos in captivity are now found in Sabah and total three individuals.

We were duly warned that the Sumatran rhino had a poor prognosis for long-term survival unless interventions were made. We have had this information for almost as long as we have been an independent nation. The fundamental question appears to be whether as a nation we did enough to prevent this extinction? Where did we go wrong and what could we have done differently? Was it a case of too little too late? I am hoping someone provides an objective historical and scientific analysis. We simply cannot let a species die out in vain without at least attempting to learn from our mistakes and avoid making them again.

I often quote Sir David Attenborough and his words once again ring so true in the present context. He said: “The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lies upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.”

Without accepting responsibility and accountability, sadly, more species that are already critically endangered in Malaysia will share the same tragic fate as the rhino.

I can’t help but feel like this article is a eulogy of sorts. But eulogies are meant for those whom you knew and loved I tell myself. But strange as this may seem for some, I feel a profound sense of loss and an impulse to say goodbye.

So here is farewell. Farewell to your shy, gentle and solitary nature. Goodbye to the smallest rhino of them all and your distinctive two horned self. So long to the hours you spent wallowing in mud pits that didn’t show off your hairy skin, goodbye to the most vocal of all rhinos that will not be heard in the jungles of Malaysia again. You were indeed unique and you will be missed.

Preetha is an advocate and solicitor. She has spent many years in the environmental conservation arena. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com