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  • Writer's pictureKaisa Siren

Iman, the last rhinoceros of Malaysia

Text and Photos: Kaisa Sirén

Rhinoceros Iman died on November 23rd, 2019. She was no ordinary rhino but a Sumatran rhinoceros, the last rhino individual in Malaysia. Now that Iman is dead, there are approximately only eighty individuals of Sumatran rhinos left, all in Indonesia..

Doctor Zainal, who led the care team of Iman, tells that estimates of the numbers of rhinos are too optimistic. When Iman was found in the jungle of Borneo, Malaysia in 2014, estimates put fifteen other individuals in the woods. But after years of extensive searches, no other individuals could be found. Now the Sumatran rhinoceros is extinct in Malaysia.

I met Iman on October 30th, 2019 only three weeks before she died. Iman lived in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the care of a team of nine people of the Borneo Rhino Alliance. Iman had five separate corrals, five hectares each, where she freely moved around from one to another. That is where she appeared in front of my camera in the pouring tropical rain.

I had received the permit to photograph only a couple of hours earlier and wondered why the schedule was so tight. I had to be by the corral at exactly 4 pm. But soon I learned about Iman´s simple but strict daily routine. It had breakfast at 6 am: 25 kilograms of lettuce, fruit and grains. All food was organic and specifically grown for Iman. She came on her own to the shed where she was fed and weighed. On the morning of the day we met, she had weighed 534 kilograms. She was hand fed for two hours. Her weight was monitored carefully because she had tumours in her womb, and they could cause internal bleeding if she weighed too much.

Iman's weight was carefully monitored

After breakfast Iman left to bath and rest in a large mud hole. During the day, she would also munch on wood plants in the corrals. At three in the afternoon she got supper, which she ate on her own but under monitoring. By four, she had finished supper and was heading to take an evening bath in her mud hole, right where I was waiting for her on a platform for photographers.

Iman's mud hole

First I meet Iman at a distance, while she watches the five of us on the platform. She walks around us towards the mud hole. When the rain eases off and finally ends, Iman gets up and comes right next to the platform. She yawns and chirps in hopes to get fruit. The care taker, Doctor Zainal talks to her in their common language, and Iman nods. She continues chirp and is in no hurry to go into the woods or bathing. I am surprised that an animal that has spent only five years with people has created such a trust with Doctor Zainal. He tells me that when they take an ultrasound of her womb once a week, she is calm and tame like a house cat, but if a person goes into her corral when she is bathing, she will drive everyone off immediately.

Doctor Zainal

The ultrasound tests have shown that Iman has given birth at some point in her life. However, getting pregnant at the age of 25 is no longer a possibility because of the tumours. Iman is still producing eggs, which are saved in case of artificial inseminations in the future. Doctor Zainal tells that because the reproduction the rhinos has been very limited, 70 percent of the existing Sumatran rhinos have tumours.

Why are these rhinoceros in such a difficult situation? Hunting for the horn is at the bottom of everything. It has continued for hundreds of years and driven the rhinos to the brink of extinction. The last constraint is the loss of habitat. Where the rhinos once inhabited the entire South East Asia, today they have suitable habitats only on the Islands of Borneo and Sumatra. On both of those islands cutting down forests has increased during the last thirty years, and palms for oil have been planted instead of jungle. Natural tropical forests have been split up into occasional islands of forest, which is why a hermit-like rhinoceros can not find a mate.

Two weeks after my return home, I read in the newspaper that Iman has died. I have difficulty believing what I read, because I feel like it was just the other day we watched each other eye to eye. I can hear Doctor Zainal say: ”There are not many individuals left on the island of Borneo on the Indonesian side either, maybe four or five. The rest of them are on the Island of Sumatra. None is living under protection. Mating in natural conditions happens only every eight years, and now that the remaining individuals live far from each other, mating is no longer taking place”.

Doctor Zainal says that we have only a few months left to save this species. Indonesia is responsible of this, but in addition to the rhinoceros, it has many other environmental challenges. Does it have enough resources to save the rhinos? I would like to be an optimist but it is difficult, and I do not think they will succeed. Rest in peace, Iman.

Sumatran rhinoceros is related to woolly rhinoceros



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