At the end of March, Hildebrandt and two of his IZW colleagues flew back to Sabah on a uterine-rescue mission, accompanied by huge suitcases filled with veterinary paraphernalia: green scrubs, anaesthetics, antibiotics, drips, probes, a carbon-fibre catheter patented by Hildebrandt and his colleagues for the insemination of rhinos, and a gun case containing a 2-metre-long video endoscope tailor-made to fit Puntung's reproductive tract.
Once in the Tabin reserve, the IZW vets, BORA staff, including Payne and Zahari, and the Sabah Wildlife Department's chief field vet assemble in a hut beneath the glare of fluorescent strip lighting to be briefed on the impending procedure. If all goes to plan, explains Hildebrandt, he will insert the endoscope into Puntung's uterus and attempt to lance some of the cysts, particularly ones that are preventing sperm from entering the oviducts. That might smooth the way for insemination — either artificially or by Tam — followed quickly by the collection of fertilized embryos before they implant. By repeating the procedure every month for the rest of her reproductive life, it might be possible to harvest as many as 100 embryos, freezing them in liquid nitrogen to be implanted into surrogate females in years to come.
With everyone's questions answered, Hildebrandt and his team wheel their equipment out into the rain. The croak of thousands of invisible amphibians falls suddenly silent as the vets pass by on the way to Puntung's enclosure.
Past efforts to breed Sumatran rhinos in captivity have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Between 1984 and 1993, at least 35 wild rhinos were taken into captivity across the region without the birth of a single calf. Zoologists knew little about the reproductive rhythms of rhinos, breeding facilities rarely housed a good mix of males and females, and disagreements over whether the Sabah rhino was a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino meant that there was little cooperation between Indonesia and Malaysia and even between Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. The fruitless attempts frustrated some conservationists, including Rabinowitz. In a frank essaypublished in 1995, he accused the conservation community of “helping a species go extinct” by placing too much emphasis on captive breeding of the Sumatran rhino at the expense of “the more difficult job of protection and management in the field”.
The case for captive breeding may be stronger now. “In Peninsular Malaysia, the species is either extinct or about to go extinct,” Payne says. And in Sabah “the numbers are so low, that no method exists to find out how many are now left”. In the 1980s, when he was working in what is now the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, he recalls coming across rhino footprints within a matter of days in the field. “At best we can now find old rhino footprints perhaps once or twice per year,” he says.
Meanwhile, captive breeding has scored some successes. In 2001, Cincinnati Zoo announcedthe first Sumatran rhino to be born in captivity since 1889. The same star breeding pair, on loan from Indonesia, went on to produce two more calves. “We had to learn how to feed this species, we had to learn about its reproductive physiology, and thank goodness we started as early as we did because now it looks like [captive breeding] is a serious need for the species,” says Terri Roth, director of the zoo's Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife, which works closely with Indonesia's Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park.
There are also signs of greater cooperation between captive facilities. At a March meeting of the Sumatran Rhinoceros Global Management and Propagation Board in Jakarta, all parties put their signature to a “Letter of Intent for Collaboration”. This puts aside past taxonomic differences, and acknowledges that all captive animals should be part of a single, globally managed breeding programme and that captive facilities will share sperm and embryos “based on availability and need”. Testifying to this new entente cordiale, the Sabah Wildlife Department has agreed to send semen collected from Tam to Cincinnati Zoo to attempt artificial insemination of a young female when she reaches sexual maturity. But with just ten animals in captivity worldwide — three at Cincinnati Zoo, four at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary and three in the Tabin reserve — more animals will need to be caught in Sumatra to establish a viable captive population, says Roth. “We need to pull them in and manage them intensively and make sure as many of them breed as possible,” she says.