Deep set beady eyes peer from folds of thick leather skin. They close slowly in a leisurely, ponderous blink. Nostrils flare with each warm, damp exhalation, causing a slight rise of the stubby nasal horn that rests on those cavernous nostrils. I stare at this primitive, prehistoric creature which seems to have just trundled out of the Jurassic Period. Her skin is leather-thick, her face is topped by a firm horn and her species is over 20 million years old. She seems invincible. Somehow our soft-skinned species has managed to mangle her population down and down until today, when only one Malaysian Sumatran Rhino exists on earth. And there I stand looking into her eyes. She is called Iman. Iman means faith.
Faith is a funny concept when you stand looking at the very last individual of a species and your ears ring with her plaintive cries. Rather than feel faith in humanity, I felt a deep loss, a deep hopelessness. That was only after five minutes of meeting Iman. Yet behind me stood Dr Junaidi Payne and Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin, who have been working on protecting the Sumatran Rhino in Sabah for almost their whole lives. They were there in 2017 when Puntung had to be euthanised. They were there in May this year when Tam, the last male, died. They will, most likely, be there when Iman breathes her last breath. The last breath of a species.
They have front row seats of the sixth mass extinction, directed and produced wholly by humans.
Iman cannot be saved. It is the brutal yet undeniable truth that one day she will be gripped by illness or old age and will leave us. If I choose to have children, their world will be undoubtedly different to ours today. Perhaps they will cry at the abundance of life that has been ravaged by their ancestors. Perhaps they will listen to the story of the time I met Iman. But perhaps I will abstain from telling them of the heart-shattering, breath-snatching moment I gazed into the deep eyes of the last of a species, every sense trembling with anticipation. Rhino and girl. We were two, yet we were alike. Our hearts both pounding as we watched each other, our gazes both narrowed and our breath quickened.
Iman should, and hopefully will live out the rest of her life with the sound of birds ringing in her ears as she slips through dense foliage. She should not have to dedicate her life to science because of the blunders of humanity. Therefore we should shift our gaze away from the inevitable and focus now on the possible. It is possible to save the Sumatran Rhino (albeit not the Malaysian Sumatran Rhino). Here's how.
Indonesia still has a population of Sumatran Rhinos. When talking of this, Dr Zainal said that despite pressure and appeals from the Malaysian Government and BORA 'there is still no response from the Environment and Forestry Ministry there. It is a big slap in the face to Malaysia and seemingly no understanding of the situation and the dire urgency".
Therefore the solution lies with Indonesia, and the rest of us must help to provide a sense of urgency and emphasise the need for a concerted effort to pour everything we have into the protection of this prehistoric genus.
The BORA website provides three actions individuals can take:
There is also a glimmer of hope among the wreckage in the form of NGOs and charities working to conserve this genus.
Saving the Sumatran Rhino, for example, is working on three key projects:
Capacity Building: Establishing two new Sumatran Rhino Sanctuaries in Indonesia, one in Indonesian Borneo and the other in northern Sumatra, and expanding the existing facility in Way Kambas National Park
Search and Rescue: Undertaking search and rescue operations to move isolated Sumatran rhinos to managed conservation breeding facilities
Care and Protection: Incorporating rhinos into a single conservation breeding program that uses state-of-the-art veterinary and husbandry care designed to maximise population growth
You can support them here.
We can't insulate a species. Animals will die, animals will get injured and animals will fail to procreate. The natural world is gloriously capricious and horrifyingly harsh. Yet the greatest threat comes, undoubtedly, from us. When we realise our place in the jigsaw of life, perhaps then we will lose this sense of superiority that governs our every action. It is happening. People are slowly breaking from the stupor of destruction and opening their eyes to the razed and empty landscapes that we have created.
As this happens, each and every one of us must help to awaken the others and do our bit for the natural world. For now though, I will fold the memory of Iman up tightly in my mind and hold onto it, like a warm penny in a fist. It is a memory so golden and bittersweet. Maybe one day the land will once again echo with the calls of this ancient genus. Maybe one day I will have children and they will not have to watch, like I do, as the Sumatran Rhino tumbles down the ranks until it silently slips into oblivion, never to roam again.