Sumatran rhino numbers revised downwards

Critically endangered Sumatran rhinoSumatran rhino numbers are going down. A year ago, numbers were estimated at 275-300. However, there are severe doubts over the survival of Sumatran rhinos in Peninsula Malaysia, and it seems more likely that there are only around 200 left, in Sumatra and in Sabah (Malaysia). Although poaching has traditionally been the biggest threat facing them (their smaller horns are considered more potent in Traditional Chinese Medicine and thus demand higher prices), today the problems come from human population increase and the associated increased need for natural resources. This is reducing the amount of rhino habitat left and, even more worryingly, fragmenting it into non-viable “islands” of forest.            

                                                                                                                   Sumatran Rhino - Credit David Back

Save the Rhino has historically supported African rhino species, particularly black rhinos. In the mid 1990s we supported Philip Wells’ research in Kerinci Seblat NP in Sumatra, where Sumatran rhinos are now considered extinct. In 2003, we funded the purchase of a vehicle for Way Kambas NP. Since then, with the support of funders like the BBC Wildlife Fund, Rufford Maurice Laing Foundation, Silver Jungle and the EAZA Rhino Campaign, we have stepped up our support. We have built a strong partnership with the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and an Indonesian NGO, Yayasan Badak Indonesia (YABI), which run the Rhino Protection Unit (RPU) programme in Sumatra and Java, and our Director and two of our Trustees have visited Indonesia to see work in progress, as reported in previous issues of The Horn.

In October 2008 it was my turn to visit Indonesia. I was travelling with David Back, who, to mark his 50th birthday, is holding a series of events under the umbrella name “Horny@50” to raise funds for rhinos. So far, he has supported black rhinos in Zambia, and Greater one-horned rhinos in Assam. In 2009 he plans to focus on the Sumatran rhino.

On arrival in Jakarta, David and I were met by Inov and Bibhab of the IRF, and together we flew to Sumatra to spend a week with the RPUs. It was immediately apparent why the programme is so successful: the RPUs are incredibly motivated, despite the harsh terrain that they work in and the atmosphere in camp is excellent. (No doubt helped by the fantastic cooking, see recipe!) Amongst serious rhino talk, we had plenty of giggles. These guys love what they do, the jobs are far oversubscribed, and there is a genuine interest in the future of the rhinos, even though only about half of the staff have actually encountered a rhino in the wild. (We quickly worked out that our chances of finding one were virtually zero.)

I was equally impressed with how the project uses sophisticated science-based approaches to rhino monitoring; the GIS mapping and block-count results are particularly helpful for identifying key rhino areas and hotspots for illegal activities. Yet we still don’t know enough about the composition of the rhino populations inhabiting Way Kambas and Bukit Barisan Selation National Parks: their sex and age distribution, breeding performance and health.

Indonesia RPU patrol                           RPU patrol Indonesia -Credit David Back

The RPUs are keen on the idea of eco-tourism, that might generate income for the programme, as well as raise awareness about the species and conservation issues. With the right development, Way Kambas, which contains the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, especially, might be especially suitable for eco-tourists.

When chatting to the IRF and YABI about their priorities for the programme, three key requirements popped up time-after-time:

  • Keeping the on-going protection activities running. In the past 12 months, 124 illegal activities were encountered in the NPs
  • The need to set camera traps in the NPs in order to catch images of the mysterious creatures and build up a picture of the populations. The cameras will also be able to gather information on their feeding and wallowing behaviour, as well as their reproductive behaviours such as mating, rearing and mother-calf separation
  • The need to establish sustainable long-term funding streams, so that the programme will be less donor dependent

David Back, an architect, was as impressed as I was with the hard work of the RPUs, and the visit gave him a clear “shopping list” of things to support with the funds raised for his horny@50 events. If all goes to plan, David’s fundraising efforts will enable:

  • the purchase of a new speed boat for the RPUs in Way Kambas. At the moment the team is using a noisy and very slow boat whilst trying to catch wildlife criminals, whose speedy motorboats make the task somewhat impossible
  • 40 camera traps to collect data about the rhino populations, and YABI will recruit a specialist to analyse the findings. (Perhaps this time next year we’ll be able to publish some of the images caught.)
  • a tourism feasibility study, to see if tourism does have the potential to generate income for the RPU programme

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, Spring 2009. Author: Petra Fleischer, SRI Fundraising Manager)