Asia: Governments, NGOs Kick Start Sumatran Rhinos on the Edge

WWF Malaysia 7 May 13;

The Sumatran rhinoceros may be on its last lap. This hefty 600 kilogramme, two-horned mammal has a 20 million year ancestry, surviving volatile periods in Earth’s history and yet within this decade or the next, the Sumatran rhino could be wiped off the planet if the sharp drop in numbers is not plugged and reversed today.

At the recent Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit (SRCS) in Singapore, minds clashed, emotions were on a high and at certain points it felt like there would be no breakthrough. Held together perhaps only by the common faith that giving up on the species was not an option, a lifeline was extended to the Sumatran rhino now numbering at probably less than a hundred.

In the wild, the mammal now survives in a handful of locations in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, East Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia, and its continued presence in Peninsular Malaysia is in doubt. At one time, the Sumatran rhino was also found in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and China.

Against the harsh reality of dwindling numbers, poaching of Sumatran rhino horn for traditional and bogus medicine on the black market, poor reproductive health in more than half the remaining rhinos, habitat loss, unwillingness to make bold decisions and insufficient funds are tough issues that scientific, conservation and government bodies deal with.

Arguably, the most significant outcome of the Summit, and which could positively influence the “tough issues” in a good way is the nod by representatives of the Malaysian and Indonesian governments to work hand in hand to ensure no further loss of the species in the wild, and to increase numbers through captive breeding and use of advanced reproductive technologies.

Through strong political will and a common vision, both governments are expected to carry out a functioning bilateral cooperation and will work with scientific bodies and non-governmental organisations to come up with a two-year emergency strategy.

Dr Novianto Bambang Wawandono, Director for Biodiversity Conservation in the Directorate-General for Forest Protection and Nature Conservation of Indonesia said that the key challenge for Indonesia and the world is to find ways to increase the population of the Sumatran rhino.

“Indonesia will collaborate with Malaysia to achieve this goal,” he said, adding that there is a need to establish a Sumatran Rhino Crisis Centre and to conduct an intensive survey for Sumatran Rhino in East Kalimantan following the recent WWF-Indonesia report of rhino foot prints there.

Citing his own experience in rhino field surveys in the 1980s and 1990s, Sabah Wildlife Department director Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu said he would do his best in contributing towards the emerging global effort to prevent extinction of the species.

"I will bring to my government for approval whatever I and other Sumatran rhino experts feel are the best recommendations for specific actions. If that involves a recommendation to loan rhinos between nations, so be it. This is our very last chance to save the species, and we must get it right this time.

“While doing that, we are at the same time maximising our efforts via parallel initiatives by collaborating with overseas reproductive experts on different options available to us since time is not with us,” he said.

Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) executive director Datuk Dr John Payne described the Summit as a landmark in preventing the extinction of the Sumatran rhino.

“With a species so close to the edge, extinction is guaranteed without two essential elements of human effort. One is to have full and open collaboration between the relevant governments, so that decisions are made on the basis of best scientific advice rather than on nationalism or pride. I think such an intent was achieved at the Summit.

“The other is that all possible advanced reproductive technologies are used to boost rhino births, and that we do not just rely on natural breeding, which will be too slow to halt the trajectory towards zero rhinos,” he said.

Payne said while there was some scepticism at the Summit on such technologies, there was strong interest from the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and from some participants who work at zoos.

“If we can get to the stage of, say, Sumatran rhino embryos implanted into surrogate mother rhinos of other species in zoos, these establishments will then have an important new role in wildlife conservation,” he said, optimistic about what technology could achieve.

WWF-Malaysia Executive Director/CEO Dato’ Dr Dionysius Sharma stressed that it is now critically important for the international community concerned with the status of the Sumatran rhino to rapidly concentrate resources and expertise towards implementing identified decisions and actions.

“The scientific expertise for advanced reproductive technologies, financial resources and Sumatran rhinos do not necessarily all occur in the same place unfortunately, and global coordination is vital in ensuring that we focus our efforts towards one common goal,” he said.

Another positive of the Summit was the strong commitment in encouraging cross-border movement of captive rhinos, encouraged by the birth of four calves in captivity in recent years that proves assisted breeding works.

BORA Chairman Dr Abdul Hamid Ahmad said in the past, material transfer was hampered by red tape and there were too many assumptions that prevented this as an option that could work for the Sumatran rhino.

“Here we have a species creeping into extinction before our eyes. Commitments were made this time that we cannot leave this magnificent animal to exhaust its struggle for existence at the behest of time. We need speedy action, and we want to see this happening now,” Abdul Hamid said.

Encouraged by the use of Open Space Technology (OST) and facilitators, the 110 participants in the Crisis Summit were free to air their thoughts and make their case at the five day Summit that culminated on April 4.

Some 72 issues were brought up leading to the creation of 23 discussion groups, and subsequently five themes covering a common vision, adaptive or co-management and integrated funding, management of wild populations, convergence for collaboration and coordination, captive breeding and material transfer.

Groups that spearheaded, conceptualised and organised the Summit include Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA, Malaysia), Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), WWF-Indonesia, WWF-Malaysia and WWF-International, Rhino Foundation of Indonesia (YABI), International Rhino Foundation (IRF), Fauna and Flora International (FFI Indonesia), Leuser International Foundation (LIF, Indonesia), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS Indonesia), Taman Safari Indonesia (TSI), and SOS Rhino USA. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SCC) convened the Summit.

The event was hosted by Wildlife Reserves Singapore at Jurong Bird Park and Singapore Zoo, while Sime Darby Foundation, WWF, BORA, LEAP, IUCN, IRF and TSI provided funds and resources.


Note to Editor:

The Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit (SRCS) was held from 31 March to 4 April, 2013 in Singapore to review the Sumatran rhino situation and existing conservation strategies; identify key issues that require action; and rally all stakeholders behind a new global conservation plan to prevent the species from becoming extinct. In addition to governmental and NGO representatives from Indonesia and Malaysia and individuals with experience in rhino protection, reproduction and veterinary care, representatives from zoos and other institutions with expertise in Sumatran rhinos as well as people from the Americas, Africa, Europe and Australia with experience in saving previously critically endangered species attended the summit.