Indonesian and German scientists are collaborating on assisted reproductive technologies for critically endangered species, with the main goal of lifting the Sumatran rhino from the brink of extinction.
The Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) in Indonesia and Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) signed the collaboration agreement in May. It calls for the creation of a center for assisted reproductive technologies, or ART, and a biobank, or genetic resource store, at IPB, according to a official statement. He added that the first joint scientific conservation project will be to save the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), a species now found only in Indonesia and with only 30 individuals.
“The Sumatran rhinos are now on the brink of extinction, so we need to act very quickly,” Steven Seet, science communications manager at Leibniz-IZW, told Mongabay in a May 27 online interview. “What we cannot do is trial and error because the material is too precious, and as we are working against time, we must take advantage of it to save the species.
The wild rhino population is scattered in small pockets of fragmented forest on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The species once ranged throughout mainland Southeast Asia, but rampant poaching, deforestation and climate change have decimated its population and reduced its range. Experts too say a low birth rate and reproductive problems among rhinos have added to the challenges of maintaining natural reproduction in the wild.
What we cannot do is grope because the material is too precious, and since we are working against time, we must take advantage of it to save the species.
Steven Seet, Head of Science Communication, Leibniz-IZW
The Indonesian government has prioritized rescuing wild rhinos to put them in sanctuaries for a captive breeding program. Today, Indonesia has nine Sumatran rhinos in two sanctuaries: eight in South Sumatra Kambas Road and one in the Kelian Forest in East Borneo. A third facility is under development at the Leuser ecosystem in northern Sumatra, which is touted by experts as the most promising habitat for wild rhinos.
Although the newly signed agreement is between the IPB and Leibniz-IZW, the initiative also invites government officials, scientists, NGOs and private sector experts from around the world to get involved, said Muhammad Agil, head of the hormone analysis laboratory at the IPB.
“All ART activities will take place in Indonesia,” Agil told Mongabay in the same interview. “Until we come to the end and we can’t do anything because we don’t have the capacity and the ability, then we will need [outside] to help.”
Agil also noted that Indonesia and Germany are signatories to the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which regulates the exchange of specimens of protected species. He said the ART and biobank requests were also in line with Indonesia’s 2018 Sumatran rhino emergency action plan.
“The main focus is how we can successfully produce embryos, produce induced pluripotent stem cells, and then do other long-term advanced research on how we can produce eggs and sperm from cells. strains,” Agil said. “That will be the stepping stone we reach.”
A previous plan to send rhino semen samples from Indonesia to Malaysia failed to take off, after the Indonesian government balked at Malaysian demands for artificial insemination efforts in Malaysia.
In August 2019, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment said the two countries had agreed on a new partnership this would see eggs shipped from Malaysia for in vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts in Indonesia. However, the paperwork needed to finalize the deal was never completed and the Malaysian rhinos died in the wild and in captivity later that year.
Agil said the next step after signing the agreement with Liebniz-IZW will be a two-week workshop between scientists and government officials in Jakarta in August to discuss details of the activity, objectives and a calendar.
“From our point of view, this collaboration will not only last two or five years, but it is for a long period because science and technology will develop very quickly and we have to catch them all in the same bucket,” said- he declared.
Leibniz-IZW’s Seet said the collaboration would also benefit other critically endangered species in Indonesia, with plans to develop more conservation science projects.
“Our institution in Germany is dedicated to wildlife research. Our institution has many specialists in birds, bats and mammals,” he said.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.