KOTA KINABALU: Assisted reproduction and captive breeding methods are not fashionable in wildlife conservation circles either in Sabah or globally, said Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) director Augustine Tuuga.
Tuuga was commenting on two wildlife experts based in Sabah in a recent article of Malay Mail Online published on December 21.
In the article, the experts expressed fears over the status of endangered wildlife species including the Sumatran rhino, banteng, elephant, sun bear, orangutan and pangolin.
“We thank them for their supportive comments and would like to expand on two of the methods that they noted, namely assisted reproduction and captive breeding. These methods are currently not fashionable in wildlife conservation circles either here or globally,” he said in a statement.
“But rare wildlife species will keep on going extinct if we do not grasp the realities and think of new and supportive means to save them.
“One important point is that setting aside protected areas is absolutely necessary, but this is never going to be enough, anywhere in the world, to save every species from eventual extinction.
“The best lands are taken up by the human population, and it is the large animals that are the most at risk.
“Another point is that many wildlife species are actually quite adaptable in terms of their habitat requirements, and we need to make some profound mental adjustments if we are to plan for the future.
“If we had 20 fertile Sumatran rhinos and 20 fertile Bornean banteng available, I would be happy to set up a joint venture with a big oil palm plantation and let the animals live and breed under the oil palms, where they could get most of their food by eating weeds.
“A third and critical point is that when a species gets down to very low numbers, the concern should not only be with reducing deaths but, more importantly, increasing birth rate,” he explained.
He said that in the Sumatran rhino case, poaching had ceased to be the main problem and after the 1960s, the main problem was insufficient births, instead.
Tuuga explained that the Sumatran rhino case also showed that about 80% of more than 20 female rhinos captured in Indonesia and Malaysia since the 1980s had significant reproductive pathology which prevented them from being able to bear a foetus.
“Finally, advances in animal cell and molecular biology are proceeding at a rapid pace. Not many of u know that in the past two years, it has become possible to create sperm and eggs of mammals from the skin cells of the relevant species. If this had been possible 20 years ago, we could be producing Sumatran rhino embryos in vitro and potentially implanting the embryos into surrogate mother rhinos in another country,” he said.
In efforts to fight extinction, Tuuga explained on the ongoing activities and plans carried out by Sabah Wildlife Department to give a glimpse into the future of wildlife conservation in Sabah.
“Under the 11th Malaysia Plan, we are supported by Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and have initiated a programme on the application of advanced reproductive technology to conservation of endangered species in Sabah.
“This programme of national significance started in 2010. We have appointed an NGO, Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), to assist us, and they now have two wildlife veterinarians, a senior laboratory technician and two research students on their payroll, as well as their rhino keepers.
“The genomes of all four of the last Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia are kept in living cell cultures both overseas and locally. Puntung, for example, the female who was euthanized in June 2017, is still ‘alive’ in cell culture in Malaysia.
“We are building up Malaysian expertise in other essential skills such as conducting safe general anaesthesia for large mammals, collection of semen and eggs, and in vitro fertilization.
“Semen of sun bears and macaques was collected and stored in liquid nitrogen in 2017. The same will be done for clouded leopard and proboscis monkey in 2018.
“Amongst our partners in this work are Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Faculty of Sustainable Agriculture in Sandakan, where an advanced reproductive technology laboratory is being developed, along with Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Germany), Agro-biotechnology Institute Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia and the International Islamic University Malaysia in Kuantan.
“Other specialist institutions which are helping us include Morula IVF (Indonesia), Avantea (Italy) and the Zoological Park Association of Thailand.
“We see the Bornean banteng, or tembadau, as the most endangered wildlife species in Sabah after the rhino. This is definitely a species suitable for captive breeding and application of advanced reproductive technology, with a view to re-introduction into plantation landscapes in longer term in the future. We would be interested to partner with one of the big oil palm plantation companies for this work,” he explained.