KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian wildlife authorities said they have captured a female Borneo Sumatran rhino who will be paired with a new mate in a breeding program meant to save their species from extinction.
The plan is the cornerstone of efforts to preserve the bristly, snub-nosed animal, whose numbers have fallen to fewer than 40 in the jungles of Borneo island.
Officials have spent more than three years seeking a suitable mate for a middle-aged male rhino named "Tam," who was rescued in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state in 2008 while wandering in an oil palm plantation with an infected leg likely caused by a poacher trap.
The first rhino previously found for Tam was too old to reproduce.
The Sabah Wildlife Department said in a statement late Saturday that rangers this past week captured a young female rhino nicknamed "Puntung" whom they had been monitoring for years.
"This is a fantastic gift for our uphill battle in ensuring the survival of this truly unique species," said the department's director, Laurentius Ambu. "This is now the very last chance to save this species, one of the most ancient forms of mammal."
No other rhino had been observed near Puntung in years, underscoring that there were so few left in the wild that they had few opportunities to meet and reproduce, said Junaidi Payne, executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, a nongovernment group that works with Sabah's government on rhino protection.
The statement did not disclose Puntung's exact age. Tam is known to be more than 20 years old.
The captive breeding program is being conducted in a forest reserve in Sabah.
Borneo Sumatran rhinos are a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino, which are the world's smallest rhino species, standing little more than 4 feet (120 centimeters) at the shoulder.
The Borneo subspecies is found only in Malaysia's corner of Borneo island. Their numbers have dwindled from about 200 a half-century ago as logging, plantations and other development encroached increasingly on their habitat, while poachers also hunt the animals for their horns and other body parts used in traditional medicines.
A similar breeding program for the Sumatran rhino in neighboring Indonesia suffered a setback last year when a pregnant rhino named Ratu miscarried.