Conservationist outlines key reasons why Sumatran rhinos went extinct in Malaysia

Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Jafry Ariffin (third left) and other attendees holding the book written by Payne (second left)

KOTA KINABALU: A series of failures in management and poor decision-making are among the key factors that cause the extinction of the Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia in 2019.

Well-known and veteran conservationist Datuk Dr John Payne outlined these and a host of other reasons for the extinction as well as proposed suggestions in his book to prevent the same fate for other megafauna in his book “The Hairy Rhinoceros”.

The book, launched by Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Jafry Ariffin here on Thursday (Sept 22), also mentioned that leaving the animal in the wild was not a good idea in order to have a chance in ensuring the species’ survival.

The end of the Sumatran rhino species, which was widely reported by local and international media, was the first recorded extinction of a mammal species in Malaysia.

Payne said the extinction has little to do with habitat loss or poaching, adding all these factors that affected this species in any significant way had already happened by 1922.

“The real reasons are all to do with the way in which the human mind operates, and the ways in which nature conservation institutions are arranged,” he said in his speech.

He pointed out that big groups involving multiple organisations that were supposed to look after the preservation of the species was not necessarily the best method.

“After the mid 20th century, the institutional framework of nature conservation has made it very difficult for small groups of self-organising people to work on targeted programmes to prevent extinctions.

“Instead, we are boxed into risk-free efforts such as awareness-raising, monitoring, camera-trapping, research projects and protection teams,” he said.

Payne said as the years went on, through bureaucracy and risk avoidance, it became ever less likely that international institutions and international collaboration could serve to prevent extinctions.

“A better bet is to do everything within one nation, and for the authorities to delegate the work to small groups of passionate people.

“But populations of endangered species typically need to be managed, rather than simply conserved,” he said.

Payne said in October 1984, Sabah was part of a meeting in Singapore convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which was a landmark meeting tasked to decide how to prevent the extinction of the Hairy rhino.

Two representatives were present from Indonesia, Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, along with six others from US and UK zoos, three from the Singapore Zoo, and others with various expertise.

“The most open-minded participant was Sabah, which had a few rhinos and no resources, and being in the middle of an era of massive logging as well as opening of forests for cocoa and oil palm plantations, was open to any collaborative solution.

“Tom Foose, representing the AAZPA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), was the most clear-minded of all. He talked of the need for a metapopulation – meaning to collaboratively manage all remaining Hairy rhinos as a single population, wherever they are.

“He recommended applying ongoing advances in assisted reproductive technology to boost birth rate. This is precisely what was needed,” he said.

But Payne said the problem was that the chairmen of the two IUCN specialist groups, the Asian rhino group and the captive breeding group, did not agree.

“The Asian rhino group chairman insisted that Hairy rhinos evolved as part of the forest ecosystem, and should stay in their ecosystem. In the end, the only possible compromise was reached.

“Individual rhinos which could be considered as ‘doomed’ and unable to contribute to breeding would be captured, at US and UK zoo expense.

“This is while all potentially viable clusters of rhinos would be protected in situ, wild and in the forest. What happened after that?

“Cutting a long story short, Sabah pulled out of the international programme following a change in the state government in 1985. And every cluster of wild Hairy rhinos that existed at that time, except one in Aceh, Sumatra, are now functionally or actually extinct.

“And why is that? Not because of poaching or habitat loss. But because, in 1984, there were simply too few fertile rhinos in any one place to be able to reproduce and replace the natural death rate. And because the rhinos were not managed as a single population by the various parties involved,” he said.

Payne added that among the key take-home lessons was to be aware that people in wildlife conservation organisations who are not experienced experts in their field may make the wrong policy decisions.

He also warned of decision-making by consensus, which may just serve to terminate the best decision and set in motion work that wastes decades of time and money.

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