LAHAD DATU: A female Borneo Sumatran rhino limps alone daily across the jungle.
She wakes up, searches for food, scratches her back on trees, trumpets her happiness, then dips for hours in her favourite wallow, before going back to her den to end the day.
Puntung, which means ‘stump’ in English, is the name given to this animal, one of the last rhinos of her type alive.
She lost her front left foot when she was an infant and for many years endured a lot of pain, injuries and bruises from passing through complicated areas in the jungle.
Since 2007, she has attracted the interest of Borneo Sumatran rhino rescuers, namely Sabah Wildlife Department, Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora) and their strategic partner, Sime Darby Foundation.
Since Christmas day last year, Puntung has found a new home in Borneo Rhino Sanctuary (BRS), not far from where she used to live.
BRS is a programme by Sabah state government, located in Tabin Wildlife Reserve (TWR), with aims to prevent extinction of the Sumatran rhinoceros, especially by increasing the number of rhino births.
Puntung the survivor
Today, three Borneo Sumatran rhinoceros are protected at BRS, two nons, (female) named Puntung and Gelogob, and a bull (male) named Tam.
All of them have endured tragic histories in the wild.
The species, totally protected by law, is among the most endangered in the world.
Only around 150 of them are left in Sumatra (Indonesia) and less than 40 in Borneo, mostly in Sabah.
“Puntung is our latest member of the sanctuary following her capture from the wild last December after three years of monitoring,” said Bora chairman Dr Abdul Hamid Ahmad.
Although Puntung was actually safe in the wild as she roamed within the TWR area, Bora executive director Dr Junaidi @ John Payne said no other rhino had entered her range since 2007, leaving her alone and therefore unable to breed.
“There’s a desperate need to ensure breeding happens to avoid extinction.
“Once we found Tam to be fertile in 2009, we decided to capture Puntung in early 2010 to become his mate, as Gelogob was found to be unable to breed,” he added.
The capture of Puntung happened in December 2011, 22 months after the decision was taken.
Upon her arrival at BRS, she was immediately cleaned, fed and examined to determine her health condition.
The terminal bone of the stumped leg were found to be missing, a sure sign that it was ripped off by snare trap when she was an infant.
Miraculously, somehow she cheated death, and is now well and healthy.
“Simply said, Puntung is our new hope to avoid the extinction of our natural heritage,” said Dr Payne.
The real threat
It is estimated that at least 60 per cent of the Borneo Sumatran rhino population has been lost in the last two decades.
This species also lost its prime habitat in the lowlands due to human exploration, besides being hunted for its horn, normally used in traditional Chinese medicine. The price of the horn can reach US$30,000 per kilogramme.
Massive hunting has reduced the rhino population from 1,000 to its number (and declining) today. As result, they are now in danger of extinction.
Today, land exploration or hunting do not pose as much threat as before, but a new threat has arisen.
There are not enough fertile rhinos left in the wild today. With a small population scattered across the Borneo jungles, the chance of them meeting and mating is very slim.
“Our effort here (at BRS) is to bring together these rhinos and increase this chance,” said Bora Field manager Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin.
It is estimated that only five or six breeding female rhinos remain in Borneo, specifically in Sabah. TWR was gazetted in 1984 after surveys identified it as the location with the highest population of this species.
The human side
Just like humans, rhinos have emotions, and at times they can be moody. However, an element of trust can be built between trainer and animal.
Team leader at BRS, Alvin Erut, 25, said that one must be able to quickly understand a rhino’s pattern as each of them possesses different personalities.
He took Tam, which has stayed at BRS since 2008, as example.
“Tam is very sensitive about his feeding schedule.
“Every evening when he arrives to the paddock after his outing, he wants his food to be ready.
“If we are late, even for a little bit, he will start eeping (eep is the term used for the sound of a rhino), demanding for his meal,” said Alvin, while feeding Tam chopped bananas.
“When happy, it will make whaling sound (whale is the term used for this sound of the rhino). Tam really loves his tummy being rubbed.”
Alvin stressed that Tam is highly disciplined.
The animal urinates only at its toilet, as well as at specific places where he marks his area, and returns to his paddock at a specified time.
However, there are moments when he can act up if its emotions are disturbed.
All rhinos at BRS are fed with leaves, fruits and horse pallet. Besides scheduled feeding, various types of leaves are left on the paddock’s wall ready to be eaten anytime.
Rhinos also feed themselves during their outings in the wild.
Close cooperation between the government , NGOs and corporate partners is the key to positive progress at BRS today.
Sime Darby Foundation (SDF) chief executive officer Yatela Zainal Abidin said that the foundation has committed
RM5 million for three years since 2009 to help build the conservation programme of Borneo Sumatran rhinos.
“SDF consistently support conservation of endangered species though our Big 9 programmes, covering nine animal species classified as endangered in Malaysia.
“Aside from the rhino programme, we are running programmes on orang utans, Malaysian elephants and proboscis monkeys,” she said.
“To date, SDF’s total commitment towards Big 9 programmes is RM 37.1 million,” she added.
SDF has also ventured on a study with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on the Malaysia Malayan tiger’s presence in and impact on Sime Darby Plantation estate in Sungai Dingin, Kedah.
SDF is still seeking a viable programme for conservation of the sun bear, hornbill, clouded leopard and tempedau, also known as banteng.
They welcome parties with good and sustainable programmes to approach them for collaboration.
Birth of Putam?
Breeding a rhinoceros is not an easy task.
The only successful breeding in captivity of this species came from the late Emi, a fertile rhino of this species that gave birth to three calves in captivity at Cincinnati Zoo in the US.
Apart from her, fertile rhinos can only be found in Sumatra (Indonesia) and Sabah.
In February 2010, news of the first captive rhino pregnancy in Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, Indonesia, was announced. Sadly, it ended in a loss of the pregnancy.
Since Puntung is still new to BRS, there is not much known about her potential to breed.
However, as she is a 12-year old female rhino, there is a possibility to see positive development from her.
Dr Abdul Hamid said Bora will first emphasise natural breeding between her and Tam.
If that does not work, they will embark on artificial efforts.
The Bora team will also start efforts to track other surviving rhinos outside TWR starting in February.
If the breeding works out, maybe the calf should be named Putam to mark the historical journey of its parents? — Bernama