Photograph by Saving the Survivors
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Puntung, the Sumatran rhino, began feeding within two hours of the surgery that saved her life.

Photograph by Saving the Survivors

How Social Media Saved One of the World’s Last Sumatran Rhinos

The female rhino Puntung was treated for an injury in a daring mission.

Millions of people around the world rely on social media platforms like Twitter to receive minute-to-minute updates on news breaking globally. It isn’t every day though that a single tweet can cause a domino effect that led to the rescue of a severely endangered Sumatran Rhino named Puntung.

A few weeks ago, South Africa-based environmental journalist Adam Welz clicked on a link to an article about one of the last two female Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia, and the facial abscess that threatened to take her life.

The tweet that started it all, which was sent out by Adam Welz shortly after reading about Puntung.

Despite not describing himself as a “bunny hugger,” Welz knew that saving this animal’s life had real conservational significance. “When you’re dealing with a species right on the edge of extinction, every last individual matters,” he says.

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Puntung being prepped for her surgery.

There are less than 100 Sumatran rhinos left in the world, and only three in Malaysia. Welz immediately sprang into action upon reading the article by contacting Johan Marais, CEO of Saving the Survivors, a South African non-profit organization that treats and cares for endangered wildlife that falls victim to poaching or traumatic incidents. Welz connected STS with the Borneo Rhino Alliance, where Puntung resides.

At this point, the Borneo Rhino Alliance had unsuccessfully been treating Puntung for her abscess and had determined that an infected tooth was the cause.

With the help and coordination of Zoe Glyphis of Saving the Survivors, veterinary dentist Tum Chinkangsadam from Thailand flew in to help, along with the Singapore Zoo’s senior veterinarian, Abraham Mathew, who had the skill and knowledge to perform an extremely tricky Sumatran Rhino anesthetization without killing Puntung in the process.

The group of doctors used the messaging application WhatsApp to coordinate their travel logistics.

“This all happened in less than 10 days. The first correspondence was on the 7th of April and we boarded our flight on the morning of the 17th,” says Glyphis. “Puntung is one of three remaining Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia. This species is critically endangered and it is our responsibility to ensure they get the care they need and deserve.”

Urgent Mission

The band of multinational veterinarians trekked to the remote sanctuary in Sabah, Malaysia. First, Mathew put Puntung under general anesthesia. Next the team took radiographs of the teeth. Chinkangsadam removed three of her teeth.

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Three of Puntung's teeth ended up having to be removed as a result of her life-threatening facial abscess.

Within two hours of the procedure, Puntung was starting to feed again and slowly became more vocal, “just like a Sumatran rhino should,” says Glyphis.

It is Welz’s hope that the success of Puntung’s surgery will help draw attention to the Borneo Rhino Alliance and their efforts to save the Sumatran rhino. He explained that the NGO is critically underfunded because attention has been focused on more well-known charismatic megafauna, such as the elephant. “I think the Sumatran rhino has not had good PR,” says Welz.

Puntung Today

See a now happy and healthy Puntung.

Despite the amount of international travel that occurred this week to save Puntung, Welz orchestrated these efforts all from the comfort of his home in Cape Town, South Africa.

“I can sit here halfway around the world and broker veterinary care for a rhino,” says Welz. “I like the fact that I can be sitting at my desk half a world away and just go ‘hmmm…here’s a problem. I think I can help to solve it.’” If you would like to donate to the Borneo Rhino Alliance you can do so by clicking here, and to donate to Saving the Survivors click here.