How are we helping the Sumatran rhino suvive?

  • Animals
  • Monday, 05 Oct 2015

Scientists warn that not doing anything now could push Sumatran rhinos towards extinction. Photo: SOS Rhino

With Sumatran rhinos deemed to be extinct in the wild in Malaysia, the only hope for the species rests with the remaining population found in Sumatra. A new study has provided vital information on where on the island these rhinos are distributed, so conservation efforts can zero in on the sites.

The research by University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) surveyed three rhino hotspots in Sumatra, and singled out priority forest patches which must be fully protected in order to prevent extinction of the species.

It found that rhinos only occupy 13% of the three areas – the Leuser Landscape, Way Kambas National Park and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Within these protected areas, the researchers mapped five “Intensive Protection Zones” which are critical to saving the animals.

“With so many unknowns on how to manage Sumatran rhinos in the wild or in captivity, our study shows where we must protect them at source,” says lead author Wulan Pusparini, an environmental conservation doctoral student who also works for WCS.

“Sumatran rhinos can still be saved in the wild, but we must secure these protection zones, which would require significant investments in additional law enforcement personnel,” Pusparini adds.

The researchers recommend a scale-up in enforcement effort to stop poaching, and for new roads planned in two of the protection zones not to be built. They suggest that small and scattered rhino populations be brought together into a single protected population to increase their viability. It is also crucial to determine the percentage of breeding females and each population’s genetic variability.

They urge governments to recognise that the “Sumatran rhino is likely to go extinct if no actions are taken, as happened with the last Javan rhino in Vietnam in 2010.”

Harapan will be sent to a breeding centre in Sumatra so he can have a chance to mate. He is one of three Sumatran rhinos born at Cincinnati Zoo. Photo: Reuters
Lifeline: Harapan will be sent to a breeding centre in Sumatra so he can have a chance to mate. He is one of three Sumatran rhinos born at Cincinnati Zoo. Photo: Reuters

In their report published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, the researchers say the Sumatran rhino once ranged from north-east India to Indonesian Borneo. However, the unyielding demand for rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine has reduced the global population of this species to estimates of between 87 and 179, with sub-populations ranging in size from two to 50 rhinos.

One wild population still exist in Kalimantan, but the only viable wild population is in Sumatra. Sabah has three captive individuals but attempts to breed them have been unsuccessful.

Rhino exchange

In another attempt to throw a lifeline to the critically endangered species, Cincinnati Zoo is giving up its last captive Sumatran rhino. Sometime later this year, eight-year-old male rhino Harapan will be sent to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, a breeding facility in Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra.

This is the second time that the zoo has given up its captive-bred rhinos. In 2007, Andalas (Harapan’s brother) was sent to Way Kambas to breed with the three female rhinos there. Andalas was born in 2001 and is the world’s first captive-bred Sumatran rhino. In Sumatra, he mated with Ratu to produce a calf in 2012, and another one is expected in May next year.

The transfer of Harapan to Sumatra marks “the end of an era” for Cincinnati Zoo’s Sumatran rhino breeding programme, the only zoo that has successfully produced calves for this critically-endangered species.

“Despite the great personal sadness so many of us feel both about Harapan leaving and Cincinnati Zoo’s Sumatran rhino breeding programme coming to an end, we need to focus on all we have accomplished, for there is much to celebrate,” said Dr Terri Roth, director of the zoo’s Centre for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife, in a statement.

“The Cincinnati Zoo has had a profound, historic impact on the effort to save this species.”

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