Scientists in Malaysia look to clone Sumatran rhinoceros

Bangkok, Aug 22 (efe-epa).- The last Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia died last year, but scientists are seeking funding to revive the species’ population through a cloning technique using stem cells in a pioneer project.

“We have confidence in the technology, but we need 5 million ringgit ($1.1 million). We are looking for sponsors,” International Islamic University Malaysia researcher Muhammad Lokman told EFE.

After the total disappearance of the species from Malaysia, there are only 80 Sumatran rhinos (“Dicerorhinus sumatrensis”) left in Indonesia and are deemed to be critically endangered.

Lokman said they have already received close to one million Ringgit from the Malaysian government and have conserved living tissues from different organs such as the kidneys, liver, skin and heart of the last three rhinos that have died in the country.

A team led by Lokman is working to obtain African rhino eggs from Kuala Lumpur Zoo with the intention of fertilizing them with somatic cells from extinct specimens.

“We remove the nucleus of the eggs and we insert the nucleus of the somatic cells so the egg will keep growing to become an embryo. We transfer the embryo into the womb of a surrogate animal, another species of rhino or other mammal, say a horse,” explained Lokman.

The target is to clone at least five or six specimens to ensure the rehabilitation of the species in Malaysia.

This technique was used to clone the sheep Dolly in 1997, but this is the first time it has been applied to revive specimens that have disappeared.

This cloning project began after Imam, the last surviving Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, died in November last year due to cancer at age 25.

The death of Imam, a female, in the Malaysian province of Sabah on the island of Borneo, caused much distress among Malaysians and the community of scientists and conservationists, after the last male had died six months earlier.

The last 80 specimens of this species, the smallest among rhinos and measuring up to a height of some 1.3 meters (4.3 feet), are mostly found on the island of Sumatra and, to a lesser extent, in the Indonesian part of Borneo.

Indonesia is also home to the Javan rhino (“Rhinoceros sondaicus”), probably also the most endangered mammal in the world with only 70 specimens left in the island of Java.

According to the non-profit Save the Rhino International, there are around 3,500 Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) in Asia, and 5,300-5,600 black rhinos and 17,000-18,000 white rhinos in Africa.

The biggest threats to rhinos are poaching, mainly for their horns – much in demand for use in traditional medicine -, as well as loss of habitat. EFE-EPA


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