Scientists have had the first contact in over four decades with a Sumatran rhino in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. For a long time it was thought the animal was extinct in this region, until three years ago camera traps captured images of the rhino clinging on in the remote rainforest. Now conservationists have managed to safely catch one individual.
With only around 100 Sumatran rhinos estimated to survive in the wild, spread out across massive distances, the future of the species balances on a precipitous edge.
“This is an exciting discovery and a major conservation success,” says Dr. Pak Efransjah, the CEO of WWF-Indonesia, who have been running the project. “We now have proof that a species once thought extinct in Kalimantan still roams the forests, and we will now strengthen our efforts to protect this extraordinary species.” The individual is a female, and is thought to be around 4 or 5 years old. The team caught her using a pit trap in Kutai Barat, where it is thought that around 15 of the animals survive in three populations.
Researchers caught the animal in a specially designed pit trap. © Ari Wibowo / WWF-Indonesia
The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), also known as the “hairy rhino” due to its covering of fur (especially on the young), is the smallest species of rhino alive today. Once roaming across much of Southeast Asia, from India and China down to Indonesia, they are now restricted to scattered populations, most of which are found on the island of Sumatra. They face serious threats from poachers, but also through habitat loss as the forests they live in are cut down. The wild population of Sumatran rhino in Malaysian Borneo was declared extinct last year.
She is thought to be around 4 years old, and will move to a newly established Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. © Ari Wibowo / WWF-Indonesia
While a handful of Sumatran rhino are already in captivity on the island of Sumatra, breeding the animals has been notoriously difficult. This is in part because if female Sumatran rhinos go for long periods of time without mating, they develop cysts in their womb, which eventually means they are no longer able to have calves. It is hoped that by bringing young females in from the wild for a breeding program, they will have had more frequent contact with other males and hopefully won’t suffer from this issue.
The overall aim is to translocate at least three of the diminutive rhino from their current habitat to a Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary that will be established about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the capture site, though the exact location of the center has not been revealed due to the threat of it being targeted. This will be the second such sanctuary in Indonesia after the first one was established in Sumatra in 1984, and will hopefully keep the animals safe from poaching and establish a breeding population in Borneo.