What was thought to be indications of a pregnancy turned out to be ill health for the female Sumatran rhino successfully rescued from Danum Valley recently.
The rhino, named Iman, which was captured on March 21 and transferred to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, had caused much excitement among the people involved in the rescue operation.
"The signs included feisty behaviour, a torn ear, perhaps the result of a past tussle with a male, a mass with blood vessels inside the uterus and minor bleeding from her private parts," said Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) in a joint statement.
"However, a detailed ultrasound examination under anaesthesia by specialists from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research Berlin (IZW) in conjunction with local counterparts earlier this week revealed that what had been suspected to be a foetus, was, in fact, a collection of tumours in the uterus."
IZW reproductive specialist Dr Thomas Hildebrand said a detailed examination showed that some of the tumours were as big as a football.
He said it indicated that she had not been sexually active for a long time and has probably been without a male partner for between five and 10 years.
Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun said with the serious blow dealt to the Global Sumatran Rhino Breeding programme with the death of Suci, another rhino in captivity in United States' Cincinnati Zoo last Sunday, the revelation of Iman's very poor reproductive capability due to her uterine tumours was sad news to all.
"But we shall not give up.
"As we are working with one of the world's best large mammal reproductive specialists from Germany (IZW), with their assistance and technological know-how, we will make the best out of this scenario," said Masidi.
SWD director, Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu, said it was clear now that they had to embark on a biotechnology approach to save the species.
"This is how we need to proceed; with a focus on techniques such as in vitro fertilisation.
"With the death of Suci, it dashed our hopes of sending Tam (a male rhino in captivity at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve) to breed with her. We are now focusing all our efforts on Iman.
"We hope she can successfully breed with Tam," said Ambu.
Hildebrand said the best thing to do for Sabah was to go all out with all the resources it has available to rescue the remaining rhinos in the wild, as he feared the only way for them to breed successfully was through assisted breeding techniques.
BORA veterinarian Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin, who is based at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, said they have known since the 1990s that female Sumatran rhinos were very susceptible to growth of cysts and tumours in their reproductive tract, a syndrome associated with long periods without breeding.
"If we want to save the entire species, we need to bring these rhinos into managed conditions and use advanced reproductive technologies," he said.
SWD assistant director Dr Sen Nathan also said the grim news about Iman seemed to confirm their suspicions that rhinos might not be breeding in the wild.
"The reproductive tract pathology in Iman seems very similar to the lesions found not only in Puntung, the other female Sumatran rhino rescued in 2011, but also in the poached female rhino in Kalabakan in 2001.
"The poached female rhino was a young and healthy female, but her entire reproductive tract was unviable and was found to be full of large tumours as well.
"We might be seeing the last generation of Sumatran rhinos born in the wild.
"Once these few grow old and die, that's it.
"There will be no more rhinos in Sabah," he said.
With Suci's death, there are only nine Sumatran rhinos in captivity.
There are three in captivity in Sabah, five in Sumatra, and one at the Cincinnati Zoo. Scientists believe their population in the wild to be less than 100.