The rhino dies every day, so why does the world mourn the loss of Tam? Tam was the last male Sumatran rhino in Malaysia and it was thought that he died of old age on the thirty-year-old for a Sumatran rhino.
Tam was brought by nature in 2008 to a shrine in Malaysian Borneo. His health was deteriorating from April 2019 and he finally gave in to May. It is survived by a single female, Iman, who cannot reproduce due to a broken tumor in her uterus.
In comparison, the African white rhino, which attracts many concerns, is thought of number 20,000. But the populations of the Sumatran rhino – the smallest and hairiest rhino in the world – have fallen by 70% in the last two decades, mainly due to poaching and habitat loss, and now they are classified as critically endangered – the highest possible risk of extinction.
Most of the remaining Sumatran rhino is found on Sumatra – the largest island of Indonesia – with a handful probably in the Indonesian Borneo.
For a species so rare with a sparse distribution that lives in dense mountain forests, assessing the size of the population is not easy. Camera capture it is the main tool for counting this relatively tiny and shy rhino, but trust in the estimate of 80 individuals is not high. There may be more, but there will probably be less less than 30.
On Sumatra, populations are thought to be isolated as their habitats fragmented in small pockets due to deforestation. The result is consanguinity and means that genetically these subpopulations have a bleak future.
Sumatran rhinos have been extinct in the wild in Malaysia since 2015. Captive Tam and Iman were already a lost cause at that point. Without any possibility of reproduction, the Malay population of the Sumatran rhino has been functionally extinct for many years.
Small populations, few rhinos live in close contact and the isolation of viable habitats has combined fatal consequences for the Sumatran rhino. If females do not mate regularly, they have a tendency to develop cysts and uterine growths. That was what left Iman barren. This is what conservation biologists refer to an "Allee effect": the lower a population becomes, the less successful individuals reproduce. Ultimately, this leads to a vortex of extinction.
Tam's death may still encourage an ambitious plan to save the Sumatran rhino a concerted effort to capture as many wild rhinos as possible and breed them in captivity.
A young woman named Pahu – whose forest habitat was literally he is removed from under his feet from mining companies – was captured in 2018 and is apparently doing well in captivity. Unfortunately, there is a risk for this strategy. By removing the rhino from their habitat, we further reduce the probability that they reproduce successfully in the wild.
As an ecologist, captive breeding is something I find difficult to celebrate. But it could be the only hope to save a species that, otherwise, seems destined to be slowly reduced to extinction.
That said, the reproductive success of the Sumatran rhino in captivity is not yet secured. There has been some success in US zoos, but only from 45 rhinos captured since 1984 four calves were born. Even geopolitics considers this species a bad hand.
Malaysia holds Iman and its eggs – the single surviving Sumatran rhino on the island of Borneo – and the recently deceased Tam sperm. But the country must now cooperate with Indonesia, which holds seven captive rhinos that have so far he has produced two children.
Back from the dead?
The last roll of the dice may have to involve something similar to the resurrection: the use stored eggs and sperm from the rhino, including Iman and Tam, for artificial insemination or IVF in captive surrogates of the same species.
Sumatran rhinos are truly unique – they are the only member of their kind. Without related rhino species, the only substitute candidate must be another Sumatra rhinoceros. If successful, the offspring could potentially come from genes otherwise lost, as has been suggested for the African white rhino.
While science is developing, "de-extinction"It's still an expensive and unlikely long shot raises its practical and ethical dilemmas. If we were successful, we could end up cultivating an ecologically dead species. I want wild animals to be in the wild by contributing to the ecosystems in which they evolved, not living in zoos forever.
Both modes of rescue – captive breeding and genetic resurrection – are too small, too late, like firemen who act when the damage is already too far away. The longer the company waits to help a declining species, the longer it is delayed in facing the driving forces of endangerment, be it poaching, habitat loss, non-native species or change climate. And the lower the probability of success, the greater the cost of the attempt.
So, Tam was just a rhino. It was not the last of its species, or even the last male of its species, but it is another loss from an already limited population. The smaller the size of the population, the greater the impact of losing another individual. Tam is another alarm bell that warns us of our inability to act fast enough to remove threats to species and ultimately save life on Earth.
Every dead Sumatran rhino is now met with publicity and concern. Rightly, but we must begin to ensure that the conservation action is early enough to allow it to function properly.
This story first appeared on The Conversation. The original report can be accessed Here