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Capture of Sumatran Rhinoceros sparks hopes of saving species from extinction

By SUSAN ROBINSON

KUALA LUMPUR -- Scientists' lone hope for saving one of the world's rarest and shyest animals from extinction lies wallowing in the mud at the Malacca Zoo.

Jeram, two-horned, barrel-round and blind in one eye from an old battle wound, is the only Sumatran rhinoceros in captivity anywhere in the world.

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'The giant panda of China is nothing compared to our Sumatran rhinoceros, it's so rare,' said Mohamad Khan, Malaysian Wildlife Department director.

The Wildlife Department, which had waited years for such a miracle, is now searching for a male mate to start a breeding program to save this endangered species.

The 1,320-pound squat rhinoceros fell into the hands of the Wildlife Department through an incredible stroke of luck.

Early on the morning of April 30, Jeram wandered out of the Sungai Dusun jungle reserve 80 miles north of Kuala Lumpur and stumbled across a group of Indian oil palm plantation workers.

The laborers chased the frightened rhinoceros into a ditch, tied her down with stout ropes and called for help.

'I couldn't believe it was really a Sumatran rhinoceros,' said Khan.

'I was worried the animal might die of fright and more worried it might be chopped up and exported before we got there,' he said.

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Chinese happily pay thousands of dollars for the highly prized rhinoceros horns, which they believe have medicinal properties and improve virility.

'We found her, head bent and tethered to an oil palm with a crowd of about 200 excited people surrounding her,' Khan said.

'Every 15 minutes or so she struggled to escape. She was bleeding profusely from a wound on her nostril but she had a good appetite and ate jackfruit leaves and squatted in the mud to make herself a wallow,' the director said. Jackfruit is a fruit-bearing East Indian tree.

The wildlife rangers wasted little time in ordering a huge iron and wooden rhinoceros crate to transport Jeram to the sanctuary of Malacca Zoo, about two hours drive from Kuala Lumpur.

The gray female is now comfortably settled in a new man-made enclosure, safely out of the public eye and seemingly oblivious to the excitement she has caused in wildlife groups around the world.

News of her capture spread like wildfire and the Malaysian authorities have been approached by rich zoos in the United States and Europe that want to buy the rare animal.

'Their interest is sincere and they have the expertise, but we would like to do captive propogation in our country. It would seem to make sense because we can provide the normal habitat, climate and food for the species,' Khan said.

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'Once we have baby rhinos it might be possible to give a few pairs to overseas zoos for breeding purposes. These rhinos could be sold for very high prices,' he said.

Khan said a pair of the rare rhinos could fetch up to $1 million.

Rangers now are concentrating on finding Jeram a suitable male and Khan said chances were good.

The department's rhinoceros units are on alert throughout the country, monitoring the movements of the shy loners that once wandered the freshwater swamp forests and jungle-clad hills of Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Sumatra, Indochina and southern Bangladesh.

Though once plentiful, official Malaysian figures put the total world population of Sumatran rhinos today at between only 128 and 345 animals -- 56 to 100 in Malaysia, six to 15 in Thailand, 68 to 130 in the West Indonesian island of Sumatra and four in Burma.

As agriculture, logging, industry and housing development eat away at the Sumatran rhinoceros' natural habitat, conservation and successful breeding in captivity have become crucial.

The first Sumatran rhinoceros was captured in 1872 and put on display at the London Zoo. It died soon after.

The last Sumatran rhinoceros bred in captivity died in 1972 in the Copenhagen Zoo.

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American zoologist Dylan Ripley spent 45 years looking for the rare rhinoceros. He eventually found his Sumatran, Jeram, blind in one eye and calmly munching fig tree leaves at the Malacca Zoo.

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