The last of seven rare Sumatran rhinoceroses at a breeding center in Malaysia died this week, a severe setback in the 16-year effort to save the species.
All seven rhinoceroses at the Sungai Dusun Conservation Center in central Malaysia have died this year, five of them in the last three weeks. The latest death came Tuesday.
Researchers are not sure yet what killed them but suspect a pneumonia-like bacterial infection.
"They became inactive, then they started having difficulty in breathing," said Mohamad Khan Mohmin Khan, chairman of the Malaysian Rhino Foundation. "After that, they slowly lay down, and it became difficult for them to get up. Some of them were with us for 16 years, and we loved them very much."
The Sumatran is the smallest of the world's five species of rhinos, reaching a length of no more than about 9 feet and a weight of 2,000 pounds. They are also among the rarest of the world's large mammals, with only 300 believed to be living in the wild, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is the only Asian rhino that has two horns rather than one. The Sumatran rhinos are being threatened by poachers and loss of habitat.
The center has denied allegations that the animals were kept in unhygienic conditions or that its veterinarians lacked the necessary skills to care for them.
"Random events such as the deaths at Sungai Dusun are always a risk for small populations, whether in the wild or in captivity," said Thomas Foose, director of the International Rhino Foundation.
The Sungai Dusun center will be shut down and the research moved to somewhere that is not infected, foundation officials said.