Puntung, one of the last three Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) known to survive in Malaysia, is critically ill with an abscess deep inside her upper jaw.

Wildlife officials in Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah State fear the rhino, one of the few remaining representatives of a critically endangered species, is on the brink of death.

The infection has not responded to drainage and antibiotic treatment, Sabah Wildlife Department Director Augustine Tuuga said in an April 5 press statement. “We are worried about sepsis, an infection that can spread quickly through the body and rapidly cause death,” he said.

Puntung is receiving 24-hour veterinary care at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah, a fenced-in facility managed by the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) where she lives in captivity along with Malaysia’s two other surviving rhinos.

“All of us here at BORA are very much affected by this and are desperately doing everything we can to treat her. We want to hope for the best, but the situation does not look good,” BORA said on its Facebook page today. “We are working round the clock to save one of the world’s rarest and most lovable animals, and we will not give up.”

The Sumatran rhino was declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia in 2015. Between 50 and 100 are believed to survive in Indonesia, including seven at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park in southern Sumatra.

Puntung, who is believed to be around 25 years old, was captured in 2011 and brought to the sanctuary. Prior to her capture — likely in infancy — Puntung lost her front left foot, probably to a poacher’s snare. Hence the name “Puntung,” which means “stub” in Malay.

According to BORA, Puntung is “perhaps the most endearing” of the rhinos at the sanctuary “due to her disability and her gentle nature.”

Puntung’s arrival at the sanctuary in late 2011 brought hope that she could provide a mate for Tam, the sanctuary’s middle-aged male rhino. With a small, dwindling population separated into isolated pockets, many rhino experts believe a captive breeding program is the only hope for the species’ survival.

However, Puntung was found to have a severe array of uterine cysts, making her unable to bear a pregnancy. A second female rhino, Iman, who was captured and brought to the Tabin facility in 2014, also has reproductive pathologies. Meanwhile, Tam, although still producing some viable sperm, is past his reproductive prime.

Since 2014, BORA turned its focus to assisted reproductive technology, specifically in vitro fertilization (IVF) in order to produce a viable embryo — an effort that has so far been unsuccessful.

“Losing Puntung now would be a tragedy, because she potentially has quite a few years of egg production left,” said BORA Executive Director John Payne in a press statement.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Mongabay, an environmental science and conservation news and information site.

TNL Editor: Edward White