From Nature magazine
First, the vet inserts his arm in a shoulder-length plastic glove. Next, he grips an ultrasound probe and slides both arm and probe deep into the rectum of a 500-kilogram rhinoceros. All eyes of those present, including his, are on the ultrasound image on the laptop monitor nearby. As the vet moves the probe over the animal's intestinal wall, her uterus comes into view on the screen. Even to the untrained eye, it is clear that there is something seriously wrong: marble-sized cysts fill the space where there should be a smooth uterine lining. As if in acknowledgement of the fact, the rhino lets out a doleful moan.
This is Puntung, a Sumatran rhinoceros that is missing a foot as well as a working uterus. Yet the future of this species in Malaysian Borneo may rest on the hairy shoulders of this singular beast. If she is ever to reproduce, she will need Thomas Hildebrandt and his veterinary team from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin to rescue her womb — and then push the boundaries of rhino assisted-reproduction to new extremes.
According to the latest best guess, only 200–300 Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) may be left in the wild, split between three territories in southeast Asia: the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo (see 'The remaining rhinos'). This perilous situation is a result of a devastating combination of habitat loss (mainly to create lucrative oil-palm plantations) and poaching (to feed the black market for rhino horn). Conservationists say that the species' small, fragmented population is now the biggest threat to its survival, with animals so sparsely distributed that they are simply unable to meet each other to mate. Because females that haven't mated when they are in oestrus can develop problems with their uterus, the rare encounters that do take place often come to naught. At best, rhino mothers take several years between pregnancies — meaning that the birth rate in the wild is unlikely to keep up with poaching and natural deaths.
This desperate situation has led conservationists in Sabah to a desperate conclusion: that the only way to maintain the rhino population here is to capture as many as possible of the remaining animals — which may number as few as 30 — and subject them to assisted reproductive technology. That includes scrubbing out the uterus of Puntung, and possibly techniques such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and cloning, the likes of which have rarely been wielded in the name of conservation. “Either we give up or we try to make every fertile rhino contribute to the future of this species,” says John Payne, executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. “The best way to do that is to bring them into fenced, managed facilities.”