The rhinoceros stands on three legs. Her fourth – the front left – is shorter than the rest by an unlucky 13 cm and ends in a constricted knot of skin and bone. In a perfectly executed maneuver that incongruously brings a ballerina to mind, she shuffles her three good feet, as if on tip-toe, to a single point beneath her hefty frame. Her damaged limb begins to oscillate, looking more like a trunk as it swings backwards then forwards. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, she throws it upwards and her front limbs are cycling in the air. For a slow-motion instant, before her good foot hits the ground again, I see a rhino standing on two legs.

This is Puntung, a diminutive Sumatran rhinoceros who has come to embody the plight of her species. Like other animal ambassadors, she has plenty of charisma, but it’s her physical handicap, not to mention her severely damaged uterus, that make her such a potent symbol of how desperate things have now become. As she moves with awkward grace around her barred enclosure, a team of veterinary specialists draped in medical green is setting up a stall of anesthetics, probes, endoscopes and laptops on a series of rickety tables. If Puntung is to reproduce she will certainly need their help.

At the end of March, I flew out to Malaysian Borneo to report for Nature on the extraordinary efforts being made to get Puntung into reproductive condition. Officially, there are just 35-37 rhinos left in this part of the species’ range. There are probably more animals still surviving on Sumatra, but the species is still heading fast towards extinction.

Conservationists often talk about imminent extinction. Indeed, we are so used to it, I wonder if we have started to ignore these warnings. Puntung’s story – and the significant financial and emotional investment in her future – is a tragic illustration of what happens when we do so. It was a huge privilege to meet all those involved in this effort and to meet Puntung herself. If somehow they do manage to get her to reproduce, I will want to go back to see her again and to meet her calf. I suspect, however, this is unlikely to happen.Look out for my feature, which will go online on the Nature News site this evening and appear in the print edition tomorrow. I also made a video of my trip, which you’ll find embedded into the online version and on the NatureVideoChannel.

The dance of the three-footed rhino
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