A new paper published by conservation experts states that it is safe to consider the Sumatran rhino extinct in the wild in Malaysia.
Sumatran rhinos once thrived across South-East Asia, however the species has been wiped out from 99% of its former range, due to poaching and habitat loss.
The most recent record of a Sumatran rhino in Peninsular Malaysia was in 2007. In Sabah, Malaysia, Tabin Wildlife Reserve was believed to contain up to 20 rhinos in the 1980s but records of fresh rhino footprints have declined since then. Since 2007 there have been no signs of wild rhinos in the reserve, other than those of a female who was captured in 2011. This is despite intensive survey efforts totalling 11,600 trap days at 52 trap stations.
Rhinos were also previously found in Sabah’s Danum Valley, however after camera-trap surveys by WWF-Malaysia totalling 11,235 trap days, only one rhino was photographed which was subsequently caught in March 2014.These two recently captured rhinos have been transferred to captive breeding programmes.
As of June 2015, no further signs of the species have been discovered and scientists now consider the species extinct in the wild in Malaysia. The focus for the future survival of the species lies with Indonesia where wild Sumatran rhinos are found in three small isolated populations. It is estimated that fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos now survive.
The biggest threats facing the Sumatran rhino are poaching and low population densities. Studies in Malaysia have identified a high rate of severe reproductive pathology amongst females. This condition results from a lack of pregnancy and eventually results in infertility. It is likely that this could also be a problem in Indonesia when populations decline so much that breeding is rare.
Scientists have identified four key actions needed to conserve the world’s remaining Sumatran rhinos:
- The need to manage the global population of Sumatran rhinos (both wild and captive) as a single metapopulation across national and international borders, in order to maximise breeding rates
- The continued deployment of Rhino Protection Units, which patrol wild Sumatran rhino habitat to detect and deter illegal activities. Experts agree that this has been achieved in all areas but needs strengthening especially in northern Sumatra
- The creation of Intensive Management Zones with increased protection and monitoring in areas where Sumatran rhinos breed naturally. It has also been proposed that Sumatran rhinos outside of these areas should be moved to these areas to increase breeding potential. This action is still in the planning stages
- Use of captive breeding. The development of advanced reproductive technology is being pursued in Sabah, although it may take many years to develop a reliable technique. In Sumatra, the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary is currently home to five rhinos and breeding efforts resulted in the birth of Andatu in June 2012. Preliminary attempts are being made to inseminate Sumatran rhinos artificially, however there have been no successful results so far
Plans are well under way to send Harapan, the third calf born at Cincinnati Zoo to Emi and Ipuh, from the USA to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park, Indonesia.
Although conceptual plans to save the species are in place, conservation experts emphasise that urgent action is needed now. They urge that the pace of development and implementation of plans needs to be increased before it is too late to save the species. Strong political will, collaboration amongst partners and bold decision making are needed for the future survival of the Sumatran rhino.
Reference : Havmøller, R.G. et al., 2015. Will current conservation responses save the Critically Endangered Sumatran rhinoceros Dicerorhinus sumatrensis?. Oryx 2015
Photo credits: IRF, Cincinnati Zoo, Cyril Ruoso