When someone mentions rhinoceros the first place that usually comes to mind for most people is Africa. Whilst Africa does have the largest populations of extant black (Diceros Bicornis) and white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) species few realise that these magnificent creatures also occur in southern and south-east Asia. The species include the greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) with a population of a few thousand, the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) with a dwindling population of around 100 individuals and the Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) with not many more than 60 members of its species. The reality of these figures paints quite an unfortunate picture for rhinos in the region and highlights the desperate need to conserve the species for future generations. All species are classified on the IUCN Red-List of Threatened Species. 

I might warn you now that the plight of the rhino, in particular the Sumatran rhino is quite desperate. The current picture is not a pretty one but I hope to give you some insight into why this is the case, what the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) is doing for the last captive rhinos in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, and what the future looks like for the species.

One of BORA’s captive rhinos in their purpose built enclosures, the crate at the end is used to feed and treat the rhinos - Photo Credit: BORA

The main decline in population numbers globally is largely driven by the demand for rhino horn within the illegal wildlife industry throughout Asian countries. Whilst habitat destruction has a large role to play, poaching is by far the driving force behind the rapid reduction in numbers. Much of the poached rhino horn is made into traditional Chinese medicine, however there is a growing trend in keeping rhino horn as a symbol of status and wealth. 

The situation of poaching becomes ever more complicated when you consider the fact that rhino horn rarity coupled with an increase in demand is only driving prices higher ever-intensifying the pressure on already declining rhino populations. For people living in abject poverty the chance to change one’s life by killing an animal they have no value for is overwhelming.

Iman decided to wander out of the forest where her keepers later found her and decided to return her back to the facility - Photo Credit: BORA

The Sumatran rhino is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with only five known populations remaining – four in Sumatra and one in Borneo. It is thought that one of the populations in Sumatra may already be extinct. Sumatran rhinos are largely solitary with wide home ranges within their distribution. This means that population’s require vast areas of forest in order to sustain long term viability.

One of the BORA rhinos receiving medical treatment at the facility - Photo Credit: BORA

BORA was established in 2008 to care for the last three remaining Sumatran rhinos in Sabah. A managed facility was built at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve to house the rhinos. Whilst ambitious in their endeavour BORA’s mission is to ‘prevent the extinction of the Sumatran rhinoceros’. The unfortunate reality is that there are maybe less than 10 rhinos in the whole of Borneo making this population functionally extinct as there are too few individuals to save the species in the wild.

Iman, the last wild Malaysian rhino being transported by a helicopter crane to the BORA Project - Photo Credit: BORA

At the time of writing this article there was a third rhino that was residing at the BORA facility but unfortunately she required euthanasia for an ongoing battle with cancer. With or without treatment Puntung was facing a painful existence and would have continued to suffer through the treatment process. It came as a very difficult decision to make for those caring for the rhinos especially considering that the loss of Puntung would be a fatal blow to the species.

Puntong with a terrible abscess on her face from a tooth infection, which later revealed a more sinister issue of cancer which was rapidly progressing in her body - Photo Credit: BORA

It is not all entirely doom and gloom, although the situation in the wild is not looking favourable for the species, science could help provide some solutions. The two remaining resident rhinos Tam (male) & Iman (female) at BORA’s facility cannot breed via natural means however advanced reproductive technology (ART) could produce Sumatran rhino embryos in the lab. The Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife research is currently supporting this endeavor. The hope is that a rhino embryo can be carried by a viable surrogate mother, unfortunately Iman is unable to bear a foetus due to reproductive complications. It has been proven a success with humans and livestock but has never been attempted on the Sumatran rhino before. 

The associated cost of keeping the rhinos captive and in good health is a huge burden for the project as it is. The ART process is also costly and laborious. Without further funding the initiative may not continue. At the end of the day you can’t put a price on the value of a species and to simply lose these animals is a price humanity cannot afford to pay.

Sumatran rhinos require mud wallows to stay cool in the tropical heat - Photo Credit: BORA

Time is running out for Iman and Tam and their health complications continue to persist. Prior to Puntung’s euthanasia she needed an abscess removed from her jaw that wasn’t healing even after intensive treatment. A team of expert vets executed the operation and things had been looking positive until Puntung took a turn for the worst. These small complications really highlight the fragility of the situation and the difficulties BORA faces as an organisation. 

In the face of such helplessness there are people that are dedicating their lives to the conservation of this species. The team working with the BORA rhinos work tirelessly to keep them healthy and happy. An integral part of the team is the executive director Dr John Payne dedicating a good portion of his life to the conservation of Sabah’s rhinos. 

What can you do to help? There are three main ways you can help such a worthy cause, firstly the project is alway in need of financial donations. By donating you can help BORA find a scientific breakthrough along with providing for the needs of the rhinos. You can volunteer, currently BORA is looking for legal advice pertaining to Malaysian and Indonesian law. You can assist in helping BORA secure fund from individuals or organisations especially if you’re good at writing grant proposals. Facilitating collaboration between Malaysia and Indonesia on breeding Sumatran rhinos is probably the best hope available for rhinos in Borneo.

Although rhinos have poor eyesight they have a fantastic sense of smell - Photo Credit: BORA

If you don’t have spare funds in the back pocket nor time to dedicate towards volunteering you can do your bit by writing to the IUCN and wildlife conservation NGOs to ask what they are doing to help the Sumatran rhino and whether those efforts are enough. Spread the plight of the Sumatran rhino through your own networks and social media connections, getting the word out there is all too important. You can also appeal to the Indonesian government to collaborate with BORA so that a solution can be reached in collaboration in a quicker manner than can be done alone. 

For more information about the BORA project or to get in touch regarding volunteering or making donations please follow the link to their website:

John Payne, BORA Executive Director delivering a talk to Sticky Rice Travel clients whilst visiting Tabin Wildlife Reserve

Photography: Charles Ryan & BORA Project 

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