Malaysia’s last surviving male Sumatran rhino has died. Here’s why that’s important.

Vale, Tam.
Vale, Tam.

Image: WWF-Malaysia / RAYMOND ALFRED

Tam, the last surviving male Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia, has died, making the future of the species look particularly grim. 

According to Reuters, Tam was about 30 years old, and since being captured in 2008, spent his days inhabiting a wildlife reserve in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.

Tam was cared for by an NGO called the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), who have been racing the clock to save the Sumatran rhino from extinction through breeding.

“It is with heavy hearts that we share the tragic news that Tam, Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhino, has passed away. We will share more details in due time, but right now we need some time to mourn his passing,” a statement on BORA’s Facebook page reads.

Sumatran rhinos are the smallest living rhinos in the world, and the only Asian rhino sporting two horns, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They usually live between 35 and 40 years and only exist on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

According to the WWF, the Sumatran rhino “currently competes with the Javan rhino for the unenviable title of most threatened rhino species.” 

The not-for-profit organisation posted a moving tribute for Tam on Facebook on Monday. 

“Our hearts are filled with sadness as we mourn not only the loss of wildlife but the loss of a species,” WWF captioned the photo.

“Let the loss of Tam be the wakeup call that we need to spring into action. Our wildlife needs protection now and like it or not, we are their only hope.”

Though Sumatran rhinos were already declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia in 2015, with poaching and habitat loss identified by a study as the main reasons, Tam’s death is incredibly bad news for the survival of the species — as the last male, he takes with him strong chances of breeding little rhinos.

There’s just one Sumatran rhino left in Malaysia, Reuters notes, a female called Iman, who was captured in 2014. She is now the very last surviving member of the subspecies in the country, after a captive female rhino called Puntung died in 2017.

Malaysia has reportedly been attempting to breed the rhinos using IVF since 2011, but it’s been an unsuccessful journey. 

But all’s not entirely lost — there’s one tiny glimmer of hope. Christina Liew, state minister for tourism, culture and environment, told the news outlet that Tam’s genetic material has been preserved for future breeding attempts. 

Tam’s death comes just weeks after the UN published an exhaustive report on the globe’s increasingly perilous extinction rate — the highest we’ve seen in human history. Scientists annually highlight this, listing the species that after millions of years of existence on this planet, are gone for good. 

Rhinos, pursued and killed by humans for their horns, and subject to the global effects of human-induced habitat loss and climate change, are just one species suffering from this extinction crisis. 

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