Malaysia's Last Male Sumatran Rhino, Tam, Passes On

May 27, 2019

Tam, the last male Sumatran Rhino in Malaysia, passed away today.
Credit BORNEO RHINO ALLIANCE

Heartbreaking news for conservationists and animal lovers of all kinds as one of the last animals of it’s species has passed away, an animal whose life we’ve covered at times here on All Things Considered, among the rarest living creatures on earth.

Today in Malaysian Borneo, Tam, the last male Sumatran rhino living in Malaysia, passed away. Tam was thought to be in his 30’s and was suffering from a recent decline in health that followed issues with his kidney and liver. Recently he was reported to have a decline in appetite and alertness, in an article from Friday in Mongabay. A pair of Sumatran rhinos were all that remained in Malaysian custody at the Sabah Wildlife Department at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve: Tam and a female, Iman, who suffered her own health crisis last year. On Helping Hand last year we spoke with Dr. John Payne, the director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, the nonprofit tasked with caring for the two rhinos.

The other living Sumatran rhinos are all believed to be in Indonesia, with eight in captivity and as many as a few dozen hoped to live in isolated pockets of jungle wilderness. The Sumatran rhino is among the rarest living creatures, and was extraordinarily difficult to breed in captivity until breakthroughs at the Cincinnati Zoo unlocked key knowledge about their specific and unusual reproductive process, which has led to a handful of births first there, and later in Indonesia. We've covered those rhinos, too, including the historic journey of Harapan from Cincinnati to Sumatra in 2015.

Tam, shortly after being captured in 2008.
Credit Borneo Rhino Alliance

Tam was captured in 2008 on an oil palm plantation and at risk of being poached or killed by the plantation workers. The plantations have taken habitat from Sumatran rhinos, tigers, orangutans, and other creatures, creating extinction crises for each. Tam lived with two females for a time, Puntung, caught in 2011, and Iman, caught in 2014. Each had health problems of their own, however, and were unable to breed with Tam. Puntung passed in 2017 after battling cancer. Hope was that tissue and materials from these rhinos could be used in conjunction with the Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia to expand the gene pool and diversity, but so far, political realities have kept the cooperation on paper only. Mongabay reported in an article from this past Friday that Dr. John Payne of the Borneo Rhino Alliance was angry at the lack of progress to share resources between Indonesia and Malaysia on behalf of the rhinos. A 2012 letter of intent between stakeholders in the two countries was to furthe their cooperation, but it never took off. A 2018 statement from an Indonesian government official indicating the effort would commence also fizzled. Mongabay quoted Dr. Payne as having said "despite endless attempts from Malaysia, not one of those intentions has been pursued either by Indonesia or its international supporters". Dr. Payne told them "The numerous missed opportunities to conduct actions to save the world's most endangered terrestrial mammal genus from extinction is nothing short of irresponsible."

With Tam’s passing, Iman is the lone Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, and has had serious threats to her health due to uterine tumors. An effort is underway to catch the remaining Sumatran rhinos that are in the wild in Indonesia. The collaborative effort is called the Sumatran Rhino Rescue.

The South China Morning Post quoted State Minister for Tourism, Culture and the Environment Christina Liew, who said "Regrettably, Tam died at mid-day, around noon on Monday. Invariably, everything that could possibly have been done, was done, and executed with great love and dedication. His last weeks involved the most intense palliative care humanly possible, rendered by the Borneo Rhino Alliance team".

See video of Tam from earlier this year below, filmed in January, and learn much more in the 2018 Helping Hand feature with the Borneo Rhino Alliance.

Watch the short documentary, The Future of Tam, about this very special rhino:

Watch the full length "Operation Sumatran Rhino: Mission Critical" from National Geographic:

Tam the Sumatran rhino, who passed away today, with lead veterinarian at Borneo Rhino Alliance Dr. Zainal Zahari Zainuddin, seen in a February 2018 photo. Dr. Zainuddin was reported to be by Tam's side through his passing.
Credit Borneo Rhino Alliance