Fading Footsteps

“Our Sumatran Rhinoceros is one step away from total extinction”

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, till it’s gone..”
– Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi”


Another iconic animal from Malaysia’s wilderness fades into obscurity. It seems that the future of wildlife in this country looks bleak, as more and more of our beautiful breathtaking animals in the wild are now slipping through our fingers and slowly ambling away into the void of extinction.

A release by the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in September last year has presumed the Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) to be extinct in the wild in Malaysia. This marks the last of the rhino species found in Malaysia, since the extinction of the Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros Sondaicus) in the 1930s, signalling a huge blow to national conservation efforts.

The last of the Javan species was shot in Ulu Bernam in 1932, ironically by TR Hubback, the then Chief Game Warden, conservationist and author of many books and journals on wildlife (including the rhinoceros), for the British Museum! (“The Rare Large Mammals of Malaysia” – WE Stevens in the Malayan Nature Journal Volume 22 – 1968).  In all fairness, he never realized that the species he shot, for research and exhibit, was the last of its kind.  The unfortunate animal remains an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London to this day.  As the name implies, it occurs on Sumatra too, and its only remaining chance of survival today.

Malaysia is ranked 13th in the world according to the National Biodiversity Index, because of its amazing biodiversity which includes  some of the most rarest and amazing wildlife in the world including the Malayan Tigers, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Elephants, Orang Utans, Seladang (called Gaur in India), Malayan Tapirs and many more iconic animals that once roamed the vast forests  of our beloved country in abundance.  However, these very animals are in danger of being lost forever, some of which have already gone into extinction – having paid the heavy price that goes hand in hand with a growing, developing nation.

Many non-governmental organizations and conservation activists have raised the alarm bells that went largely ignored, of the many warning signs which pointed towards our wildlife’s inevitable descent into extinction, if drastic measures to mitigate conservation issues pervading our country were not carried out immediately. To reinforce this point, our unique Malayan Tigers were declared Critically Endangered by the IUCN some six months ago, taking yet another iconic species closer to extinction.

The rhinoceros which derives its name from the Greek words Rhino (nose) and Ceros (horn) is not exactly an aesthetically pleasing creature to behold.  It possesses neither the powerful beauty of the sleek tiger, nor the appeal of a sun bear or even the unique tapirs, but is an ungainly herbivorous mammal with hooves (also known as ungulate) with a rather large head, broad chest, thick legs, poor eyesight but with excellent hearing and olfactory senses.  Solitary and often thought to be ornery because it’s prone to charging when startled (thanks to its poor eyesight, and not because of its undeserved bad tempered rap!), this animal just begs to be left alone to roam freely in its habitat.The Sumatran Rhinoceros – one of the rarest rhino species in the world- are the smallest of the living rhinoceros and the only Asian rhino with two horns.

Rhinoceros are among the most threatened species in the world, because of their widely sought after horns, falsely believed to contain immense medicinal properties. Their distinctive horns – made out of keratin a protein found in hair, fingernails and animal hooves – have long believed in traditional medicine and folklore to cure a myriad of ailments including snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and even “devil possession”!

The horn is also highly prized in the Middle East, in particular Yemen, as an ornamental dagger handle known as the “Jambiya”.  Sadly, what makes the rhino so unique and special, is also the cause of its decimation at the hand of poachers.Richard Ellis, the author of “Tiger bone and rhino horn” wrote in 2005 “It is not clear that rhino horn serves any medicinal purpose whatsoever, but it is a testimony to the power of tradition that millions of people believe that it does. It is heartbreaking to realize that the world’s rhinos are being eliminated from the face of the earth in the name of medications that probably don’t work.”

“Today, Vietnam is the world’s Number One rhino horn consumer country, followed closely by China, and are deemed to be behind the brutal onslaught on African rhinos – South Africa alone has been losing more than a thousand rhinos every year since 2013 to poaching.  Malaysia’s rhino situation is quite unique though in that we have had consistently low numbers for a long time, and to boot, efforts on the home front have not yielded positive results”, says Kanitha Krishnasamy, Senior Programme Manager for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.

To compound the issue further, Malaysia made several fatal errors in trying to breed these animals in the past.  From 1984 to 1995, 22 rhinos were captured from the wild in Malaysia and 18 in Indonesia, in an effort to breed them.   Except for one which was already pregnant when captured, none bred while in captivity, and all have since died.   Lack of proper research on rhino reproductive biology was mainly to blame.  “An analysis of the fate of these animals revealed several kinds of failures which should not have been allowed to occur with such a precious, critically-endangered species” (Journal of Indonesian Natural History, Volumes 1 & 2 – December 2013).

Dr. Junaidi Payne, Executive Director – Borneo Rhino Alliance

Dr. Junaidi Payne, Executive Director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance says : “By 1930s, hunting had already reduced the once vast distribution of Sumatran rhino to a few remnants. By 1960s, it should have been obvious that bringing the few, scattered wild rhinos into a fenced, managed meta-population was a necessary step to boost birth rate and overcome risk of inbreeding. Remarkably, this was agreed in 1984 by Indonesia and Malaysia, but the programme was run with too big an element of egos and incompetence.  Now, with a total Sumatran rhino population of fewer than 100, advanced reproductive technology is needed to prevent extinction, by bringing reproductively compromised animals into the gene pool and boosting birth rate though artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. Until and unless this approach is adopted by Indonesia, the species will go extinct.”

Loss and fragmentation of forests in Malaysia have long since been the catalyst that threatens to send many of our precious wildlife down the dreaded road of extinction.  According to the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, 686 plants and 225 animals in Malaysia are already at risk of extinction.

Habitat fragmentation where contiguous rainforest tract which was formerly the landscape covering both Malaysia and Borneo have now been reduced to patches of isolated forest with little or no “wildlife corridors” due to logging, and conversion into plantations.  This results in these small fragments of forest being unable to sustainably support the biodiversity of flora and fauna, that Malaysia is blessed with.

“It is a shame that our forests are not being viewed from a unique perspective, instead of what it’s worth in terms of timber and plantations,” says Andrew Sebastian, CEO of Ecotourism & Conservation Society (ECOMY). He adds that wildlife watching and ecotourism is worth billions of dollar worldwide as a sustainable industry.   “Many countries with rich natural resources have jumped at this chance to attract the nature based tourism market.  Africa’s wildlife watching industry is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions annually.  Sadly, Malaysia which has such amazing natural assets has yet to capitalize fully on its position as a mega-diverse country, choosing short term gains and unsustainable avenues which have now resulted in the degradation and loss of our forest covers, loss of our identity and ultimately, our wildlife!”

After fighting the good fight of development, poaching and habitat loss, the Sumatran rhino has now finally conceded defeat and joined its cousin, the Javan rhinoceros, leading to a gaping loss which can never be replaced.   Have we really progressed as a nation, when the high cost of sacrificing our natural heritage seems imminent, in view that all the policies, laws and acts passed have not really made a difference, while the profits gained from plantation expansions and logging seem to outweigh the priceless treasures we have in our forests?

Closer to home, singer Zainal Abidin, perhaps in his most famous and celebrated song ever – “Hijau”, sings a familiar tune, “My fading world, Who sees you? By the time we realize, it might be too late.”

“The Sumatran Rhino has lost its chance for survival here and unfortunately only remain in stories and sketch books. But all is not lost for a host of other precious species. Whether or not we will do right by our tigers, elephants, pangolins, sun bears and all the others remains to be seen”, concludes Krishnasamy.

It is time we begin to fully understand the enormity of this loss, and fight to keep our precious wildlife that remains –  for our children’s sake, who should never have to shoulder the burden of dealing with a lost heritage.

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