Tembadau mother and calf in Sabah (BORA)

Can Experts Save Malaysia’s Remaining Endangered Large Animals?

With Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhinoceros taking its final breath in 2019, conservationists are calling for serious intervention to reverse species decline.

MALAYSIA is a biodiversity hotspot but its endangered large animals are being pushed into smaller habitats. In a race against time, conservation scientists are mapping efforts to protect critically endangered species.

Extinction is an immediate threat for large animals in Malaysia.

(Photo: Mother and calf only 300—500 Bornean banteng are left in the wilds of Borneo, the only place in the world they are found. | Pic by BORA)

There are currently fewer than 200 Malayan tigers (Panthera tigris jacksoni) left, a continuous decline in Bornean pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) numbers and an increase in human-wildlife conflict particularly impacting Malayan tapirs (Acrocodia indica) in the last 10 years.

These figures were presented by wildlife conservationist Dr Ahmad Zafir Abdul Wahab at a recent web forum titledEnvisioing the Future of Effective Wildlife Conservation in Malaysia’. (Part 1 | Part 2)

The forum took place on 5 June in conjunction with World Environment Day and was co-organised by the conservation group The Habitat Foundation, the Society for Conservation Biology – Malaysia Chapter, and BORA, formerly known as Borneo Rhino Alliance and now rebranded as Bringing Back Our Rare Animals.

Speaking frankly

The forum provided a rare opportunity for conservation practitioners, biologists and protected area managers to convene and have an honest conversation about the decline of iconic Malaysian species.

Specifically, the loss of the Malaysian Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) two years ago has furnished lessons that could prevent further wildlife species extinctions.

Conservationists presented an array of interventions that could be mixed and matched to conserve Malaysia’s remaining endangered species (The Habitat Foundation and BORA)
Conservationists presented an array of interventions that could be mixed and matched to conserve Malaysia’s remaining endangered species (The Habitat Foundation and BORA)

A focal species in the forum was the Bornean banteng (Bos javanicus lowi), known locally as tembadau. This cattle species is found only in Malaysia in Sabah where large numbers once roamed.

Today, only 300—500 wild Bornean bantengs are left, living in small, scattered populations.

According to Dr John Payne, BORA Executive Director, “Wild Bornean bantengs are breeding at a very low rate, with high calf mortality, and camera trap images show they are often malnourished. There is not enough food to sustain adequate breeding in the wild.

“The best banteng habitats are (also) now no longer in a forest or protected areas – they are mainly now in marginal habitats.”

Nutrient deficiency is a big problem for Bornean banteng, as shown in a slide from the presentation  'Developing Pastures for Tembadau: Why and How' at the forum (Abdul Hamid Ahmad/BORA)
Nutrient deficiency is a big problem for Bornean banteng, as shown in a slide from the presentation ‘Developing Pastures for Tembadau: Why and How’ at the forum (Abdul Hamid Ahmad/BORA)

To conserve the banteng and other remaining endangered large animals, the forum discussed various interventions including: establishing new populations, targeted habitat improvement, captive breeding using advanced (assisted) reproductive technology (ART) and better area-based conservation.

Treating all small populations as one metapopulation

Small populations are more likely to die out because they cannot reproduce well when the groups live too far apart.

Therefore, it is vital for the survival of endangered species to be viewed as a metapopulation, said zoologist Prof Dr Abdul Hamid Ahmad from University Malaysia Sabah.

This means that they should be managed under a single programme across different patches to maximise overall birth rate. 

Shrinking gene pool

This is crucial for the populations which are completely isolated, he said. When animals cannot move between populations, they cannot mate and exchange genetic materials.

Their gene pool would shrink and sap their resilience to new challenges very quickly.

“Habitat improvement and captive breeding would be the only holistic way to move forward,” said Abdul Hamid.

Inbreeding result

In the case of Bornean banteng in Sabah, he pointed to a single herd in the Paitan Forest Reserve in northeast Sabah. This herd had 9 to 13 cows and 6 bulls, and was completely isolated from the other populations. (See map)

Based on camera trap data, less than half the cows reproduced in a year; nor did the cows reproduce annually. But the biggest concern was that the number of cows did not increase during Abdul Hamid’s recent four-year study.

Movement of Bornean banteng animals between populations. The isolated population is in the northeast, indicated by the solid red outer circle (Source: Abdul Hamid Ahmad)
Movement of Bornean banteng animals between populations in Sabah. The isolated population is in the northeast, indicated by the solid red outer circle (Source: Abdul Hamid Ahmad/BORA)

Food and nutrition to build a high-quality habitat

A healthy Bornean banteng needs a variety of food types. But habitat loss and degradation have disrupted year-round supply of these key foods, even in protected areas.

“If we increase the food source, we’ll be able to increase the numbers of wildlife in our habitats,” said field manager Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin from BORA.

This is a lesson from Sabah’s rhino initiative in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve that goes back to 2010. The rhinos needed a constant supply of hundreds of kilograms of figs per year. BORA therefore established the Sabah Ficus Germplasm Centre.

Producing fig seedlings aims to create high-quality habitats (BORA)
Producing fig seedlings aims to create high-quality habitats (BORA)

Now, they are experimenting with various ways of producing fig seedlings to create high-quality habitats for other animals such as the Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus).

Currently, Dr Zainal said that BORA’s efforts are focused on developing pastures for the Bornean banteng.

“Only 50% of female banteng are able to give birth and calves don’t reach maturity,” said Dr Zainal. He singled out nutrition deficiency in the Bornean bantengs’ environment as the main culprit, though old age and inbreeding are likely factors too.

In response, BORA will establish pastures in the Tabin Wildlife reserve with a mix of legumes and food plants for the Bornean bantengs. Additionally, an artificial salt-lick will be created to provide supplementary minerals.

Captive breeding using technology

Scientists are also working on advanced (assisted) reproductive technology (ART) to increase numbers of animals in captive breeding.

For one, using ART could boost birth rates in captivity for endangered species, said Abdul Hamid.

“ART works at the [top-most effective] level with the physical handling of sperm and embryos requiring the use of laboratories, hormones and special apparatus to initiate pregnancies,” said the zoologist.

Harvesting egg cells from Iman, Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino, to perform in vitro fertilization, a typical form of advanced (assisted) reproductive technology. Photo taken on 9 May 2014 with scientists and BORA staff (BORA)
Harvesting egg cells from Iman, Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino, to perform in vitro fertilization, a typical form of advanced (assisted) reproductive technology. Photo taken on 9 May 2014 with scientists and BORA staff. (BORA)

Scientists used ART to try to save the Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia by fertilising an egg and then implanting it into the female. But efforts failed because active interventions came in far too late.

Biobanking could be another piece of the high-tech reproduction puzzle. In countries such as China, Indonesia and Singapore, freezing cells for the future is seen as an insurance policy to save endangered species from extinction.

A biobank that preserves sperm, eggs and other genetic materials would ensure that scientists could resurrect extinct creatures when survival conditions are not good enough.

Different handling

But not every species can be handled in the same way.

“It is important to know how to preserve samples properly, [and how they are] stored and recorded,” said Dr Pierre Comizzoli, a research biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC.

He said that in China, biobanking and artificial insemination have helped in boosting panda populations. Similar interventions could be applied to save Malaysia’s wild species.

Better area-based conservation

“Effective area-based conservation is the single most powerful tool available to conserve biodiversity and deliver SDG 15,” said Dr Antony J Lynam from the Wildlife Conservation Society in Thailand.

SDG 15 goals – ‘Life on Land’ – focus on protecting and using land ecosystems sustainably to conserve biodiversity.

The key to improving management he said, is technology. Technology can help managers collect information in real time, standardise reporting and guide patrol planning.

People factor

However, “frontline staff such as park managers need to be motivated to use better technology to stabilise and recover populations.”

In addition, communities need to be engaged in “out-of-the-box thinking” and be more involved in rewilding and restoration. Successful examples in Thailand have merged conservation with eco-tourism activities.

Take action

As the forum demonstrated, saving Malaysia’s endangered species continues to be affected by many threats. These include poor genetic diversity, low-quality habitats, unhealthy reproductive rates and sluggish innovation.

Conservationists, scientists and protected area managers are working together to tackle these threats, develop research and strengthen wildlife management plans.

Having lost the rhino, there is a need now more than ever to turn the tide on forest and species loss in Malaysia. “Active targeted intervention is needed,” said BORA’s Payne.

[Edited by SL Wong]


NB. The article has been updated to reflect a more accurate estimated number of Bornean banteng in the wild.

Pashmina Binwani (@B_Pash) is a Macaranga Sprouts journalist.

We thank the supporters of the Macaranga Sprouts programme who made this story possible.

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