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Rhino die every day, so why is the worldmourning the loss of Tam? Tam was the last male Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysiaand was thought to have died of old age in his thirties – elderly for aSumatran rhino. He was taken from the wild in 2008 to a sanctuary in MalaysianBorneo. His health had been deteriorating since April 2019 and he finallysuccumbed in May. He is survived by a single female, Iman, who cannot reproducedue to a ruptured tumour in her uterus.


The news isn’t good, but an estimated 80individuals survive in the wilds of Indonesia – not a great number, butmarginally better than the Javan rhino which may be as few as 58. Bycomparison, the African white rhino, which draws a great deal of concern, isthought to number 20,000. But populations of the Sumatran rhino – the world’ssmallest and hairiest rhino – have declined 70% in the past two decades, mainlydue to poaching and habitat loss, and are now classed as critically endangered– the highest possible risk of extinction.


The majority of the remaining Sumatranrhino are reckoned to be on Sumatra – the largest island of Indonesia – with ahandful likely in the wild in Indonesian Borneo. For such a rare species with ascattered distribution that lives in dense mountain forests, uating thepopulation size isn’t easy. Camera trapping is the main tool for counting thisrelatively diminutive and shy rhino, but even confidence in the estimate of 80individuals isn’t high. There may be more but there are likely to be less –possibly as few as 30.


Sumatran rhino once roamed across Asia,from south-east India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand to the islands ofSumatra and Borneo. It’s believed the wild Malaysian populations are nowextinct. There may be a small population in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Eric Dinerstein/Wikipedia


A young female called Pahu – whose foresthabitat was literally being removed from under her feet by mining companies –was captured in 2018 and is apparently doing well in captivity. Sadly, there isa risk to this strategy. By removing rhino from their habitat, we furtherreduce the probability of them breeding successfully in the wild.


Mother, Ratu, with four-month-old Andatu atthe Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park, Indonesia. International Rhino Foundation/Wikipedia, CCBY


As an ecologist, captive breeding issomething that I find hard to celebrate. But it may be the only hope to save aspecies that, otherwise, appears doomed to slowly dwindle into extinction.



While the science is developing,“de-extinction” is still an expensive and unlikely long shot that raises itsown practical and ethical dilemmas. If successful, we could end up farming anecologically dead species. I want wild animals to be in the wild contributingto the ecosystems within which they evolved – not living in zoos forever.


An adolescent male Sumatran Rhino, killedby a stake when it fell into a trap in 1900. Now resident at the NationalMuseum of Scotland. Jason Gilchrist,Author provided (No reuse)


Both modes of rescue – captive breeding andgenetic resurrection – are too little, too late, like firefighters takingaction when the damage is already too far gone. The longer that society waitsto help a declining species, the greater the delay in addressing the drivingforces of endangerment, be they poaching, habitat loss, non-native species, orclimate change. And the lower the probability of success, and the greater thecost of the attempt.


So, Tam was just one rhino. He was not thelast of his species, or even the last male of his species, but he is one moreloss from an already limited population. The lower the population size, thegreater the impact of losing another individual. Tam is another alarm bellalxing us to our inability to act quickly enough to remove the threats tospecies, and ultimately to save life on Earth. Every dead Sumatran rhino is nowmet with publicity and concern. Rightly so, but we need to start getting theconservation action right early enough for it to work.

(本文作者Jason Gilchrist为来自爱丁堡龙比亚大学的生态学家)