It’s already considered to be the most endangered species of rhino, but the Sumatran rhinoceros has just taken another blow: It has now been declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia. This means the fate of the species rests on an estimated 100 individuals that survive scattered across a handful of national parks in Indonesia and nine in captivity.
The news comes from a report on the state of the Sumatran rhino and whether current conservation efforts are enough to keep the species alive. They conclude that, despite extensive survey efforts in the Sabah region of Malaysia, there have been no signs of the animal since 2007, not including the two females caught and taken into captivity for breeding in 2011 and 2014. These two individuals, however, were not enough for the scientists to consider that a population remains today. The researchers urge conservation efforts in Indonesia to intensify.
“It is vital for the survival of the species that all remaining Sumatran rhinos are viewed as a metapopulation, meaning that all are managed in a single program across national and international borders in order to maximize overall birth rate. This includes the individuals currently held in captivity,” explains lead author Rasmus Gren Havmøller from the University of Copenhagen.
The rhino used to have an extensive range, from the foothills of the Himalayas in Bhutan, through southern China, to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where the last of the species clings on. The smallest living species of rhino, it is also the hairiest, with young animals sporting a particularly shaggy coat and adults retaining sparse tufts of hair. Despite there being fewer Javan rhino, the Sumatran is considered more endangered simply due to the speed at which the species has been extirpated from its range over the past two decades. It’s estimated that the population has declined by over 50% per decade, as poaching for its horn and habitat destruction takes its toll.
The authors of the study, published in the journal Oryx, stress that the survival of the species depends on politics as much as direct protection. Intensive management zones, treating the entirety of the species as a single population, the continued development of Rhino Protection Units, and captive breeding were all identified as key conservation actions way back in April 2013. Bringing the species back is possible, as was shown when the white rhino in Africa was reduced to a few hundred individuals, it just requires a stronger political will to make it happen.
“The tiger in India was saved from extinction due to the direct intervention of Mrs. Gandhi, the then prime minister, who set up Project Tiger,” says Christy Williams, co-author and coordinator of the WWF Asian and Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy. “A similar high level intervention by President Joko Widodo of Indonesia could help pull the Sumatran rhinos back from the brink.”