Such a drastic attempt to rescue a highly endangered species has precedents. Conservationists have, through heroic efforts, wrestled species such as the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) and the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) back from the brink of extinction by bringing all the remaining animals together, using artificial insemination to spread sperm and maximize genetic diversity, and keeping offspring alive through round-the-clock husbandry.
In the case of the Sumatran rhino, however, some conservationists worry that without a long-term strategy for reversing the environmental pressures that are killing them off, captive breeding alone can never restore the wild population. “It's not a plan unless you've mitigated the threats that wiped them out in the first place,” says Alan Rabinowitz, chief executive of the wild-cat conservation group Panthera in New York city. Others are uncomfortable with throwing so much money and effort at a single species — a single animal, in Puntung's case — when the chances of success are so slim. “One of the biggest challenges facing conservation today is our inability to step back and admit that there are animals that would take a little bit less work and a little bit less money but have the potential to survive for their genetic diversity into the future,” says John Fraser, chief executive of the New Knowledge Organization in New York city, a think tank and advocate of a triage response to species conservation. “They may not be as charismatic, but quite frankly we have to admit that some species are not going to make it and it's really, really sad.”
Puntung got her name, which translates roughly as 'Stumpy', in 2007, when a ranger in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in eastern Sabah came across her distinctive three-footed tracks. It is thought that she must have lost her foot to a poacher's snare as a calf, and that her mother nursed her back to hobbling fitness. “If she had been even two years of age, the wound that she has would not have healed over,” says Zainal Zahari Zainuddin, BORA's field manager, on-site vet and the person closest to Puntung.
In April 2010, the Sabah Wildlife Department and BORA began a joint operation to catch her. It was the first push in an effort to bring as many as possible of Sabah's remaining rhinos into captivity. But it was only after 20 frustrating months that she finally walked into a trap. On Christmas Day 2011, a helicopter airlifted Puntung to her current home in a temporary captive facility within the reserve. Payne estimates that the entire operation, including the cost of hiring the helicopter and constructing her enclosure, set BORA back more than US$250,000.
With Puntung apparently in her reproductive prime, and with a lone male called Tam in residence since 2008, there was hope that the pitter-patter of tiny rhino feet might soon follow. It was something of a setback, then, when ultrasound scans carried out by Hildebrandt and his team in February showed that Puntung's uterus was riddled with cysts that would make any full-term pregnancy near impossible. Her ruptured hymen suggests an explanation. “We think she must have mated in the wild, got pregnant, but with her handicap was unable to sustain the fetus and it died in utero,” says Hildebrandt, who specializes in the assisted reproduction of endangered mammals and has been involved with Sabah's rhinos since 2004. The failed pregnancy led to the cysts. “Such pathology is not uncommon in rhinos,” Hildebrandt says, “but is rarely this bad.
A decade ago, this might have been the moment to give up. But reproductive medicine has advanced at such a pace that there are still options for Puntung, particularly as she seems to be relatively young — with as many as 10 years of reproductive life ahead of her — and her ovulatory cycle seems to be normal.