There are no Sumatran rhinos left in the wild in the Malaysian state of Sabah, confirmed Masidi Manjun, the Tourism, Culture, and Environment minister, over the weekend of April 25–26. In 2008, conservationists estimated there were around 50 rhinos in the state. Five years later, it dropped that estimate to just 10. Now, it’s admitted the awful truth: the wild rhino is very likely gone.
“We are facing the prospect of our Sumatran rhinos going extinct in our lifetime,” Manjun noted at an environment seminar.
Sabah’s rhino is a distinct subspecies of Sumatran rhino, known as the Bornean rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), and it looks increasingly possible that the Bornean rhino may only be represented by three surviving individuals, all of which are held in fenced, natural conditions at the Borneo Rhinoceros Sanctuary (BRS) in Sabah. These include one male, Tam, and two females, Iman and Puntung.
“If numbers of baby Sumatran rhinos can quickly be boosted in the coming few years, there is still hope to save the species from extinction,” said John Payne, the executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) and one of the world’s top experts on the species. “The only way now to achieve that is to use in vitro fertilization to produce the embryos and to have a few fertile females in well-managed fenced facilities, under excellent care, as the surrogate mothers.”
Conservationists had hoped that Tam would be able to mate naturally with one of the females, however Iman is suffering from tumors in her uterus while Puntung has cysts, making natural reproduction next to impossible despite years of trying. Now, the team is turning to technology for hope. Payne said if in vitro fertilization works, “each mother could then bear and raise a baby every three years.”
He added, however, that obstruction remains strong to this path.
“As long as prevailing resistance remains from the relevant governments, IUCN, and the big NGOs, then the species will go extinct, and those institutions, not poachers or oil palm producers, will have to shoulder most of the ensuing blame.”
There may be a few more surviving Bornean rhinos, but these would be in Kalimantan or Indonesian Borneo. Two years ago, camera traps revealed at least one wild rhino in the state—after no records for decades. But it may only be that: just one.
Across the Java Sea, the Sumatran rhino is holding on by a thread. Conservationists estimate that less than a hundred rhinos survive on the Indonesia island of Sumatra today, split into fragmented populations spanning three national parks. Five of these rhinos, which belong to the subspecies Dicerorhinus sumatrensis sumatrensis, are also held in semi-captive conditions at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, including a baby rhino born three years ago.
How Did It Come to This?
Once covered almost wholly in tropical rainforest, today much of Borneo’s rainforest is either gone or heavily degraded. Beginning in the 1960s, large-scale logging cleared forests for consumption abroad, largely for export to Japan and the United States. A study in 2013 found that 80 percent of Malaysian Borneo’s forests, which includes Sabah and Sarawak, are heavily impacted by logging.
“The extent of logging in Sabah and Sarawak documented in our work is breathtaking,” said the study’s co-author Phil Shearman at the time of its release. “The logging industry has penetrated right into the heart of Borneo.”
And then came palm oil. Beginning in the 1990s, this incredibly productive seed oil became a massive industry in Borneo—and a major driver of both deforestation and biodiversity loss. Between 1990 and 2000, scientists say that a stunning 86 percent of deforestation in Malaysia was due to oil palm plantations. Biodiversity has undeniably suffered. While logged forests could still maintain populations of many species, including rhinos, elephants, and orangutans, oil palm plantations are a biological desert in comparison. A study in 2008 found that palm oil plantations hemorrhaged 83 percent of lowland rainforest species after conversion, and more of big mammals and birds.
But John Payne said that deforestation played “no role at all” in the Bornean rhino’s demise.
“The species was already doomed to extinction by the 1930s, during the last big wave of hunting by natives to supply the 1,000-plus year trade with China of rhino horn, whereby Chinaware was supplied to natives in return for horns,” he said. “Rhinos wallow and doze through the middle part of the daylight hours, and would have been the easiest large animals to kill with spears before the advent of hunting dogs, metal and guns.”
Payne also said that “closed canopy rainforest” was likely not the primary habitat for the Sumatran rhino in the past.
“What is surprising is that the species survived for so long after the end of the Pleistocene in the subsequent warmer, wetter conditions as closed canopy evergreen forest spread to cover Sumatra, Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia,” he noted.
However, two other experts in Sabah, said that deforestation may have played a role in the extinction of the rhino, albeit a very secondary one.
Benoit Goossens, the director of the Danau Girang Field Center, said that outside of poaching “habitat destruction is the other reason we lost the Sumatran rhinoceros, leading mainly to habitat fragmentation of rhinoceros habitat…isolating individuals.”
Marc Ancrenaz, the head of local NGO Hutan, added that deforestation and forest fragmentation allowed easier access for poachers into once remote forests.
“Habitat destruction means more contact between forest and non-forest habitats, more people close to the forest, more roads and easy ways to get access to remote places, more hunting,” he said.
Still, Goossens and Ancrenaz agreed with Payne that poaching, and not deforestation, was the primary player in the demise of the Bornean rhinos.
“Rhinos are very secretive animals and it has never been easy to know exactly how many individuals and where the last remaining animals were taking refuge in the forests of Sabah…It seems that the last individuals have been wiped out by poachers without conservationists or state agencies noticing it,” said Ancrenaz.
The story of the Bornean rhino’s extinction probably goes something like this: a few hundred years ago rhinos still survived in sustainable, but small populations, given their large size, slow breeding, and habitat requirements—and feasibly, as Payne argues, they were already forced to survive in imperfect habitats.
Once large-scale hunting began, however, these populations were increasingly whittled down and, worse still, fragmented. Forest loss and fragmentation may have exacerbated this, as Goossens and Ancrenaz argue, making it harder for rhinos to find each other and allowing poachers access. But really it may be impossible to know.
At some unknown date, however, the Bornean rhino population hit a terrible tipping point: remaining males met fewer remaining females. Pregnancies became rarer and rarer, and one-by-one populations winked out.
Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, conservationists caught 40 Sumatran rhinos across their range—including ten rhinos in Sabah—for captive breeding, but the result was a spectacular failure with only one pair breeding successfully in the U.S. and the rest dying out without descendants. Instead, of being kept in semi-wild conditions, rhinos were split up and sent to various zoos across the U.S. and Southeast Asia.
By the new millennium, the Bornean rhino of Sabah was left with just a few long-wandering, lonely individuals until even those passed away or were butchered by poachers.
Payne said that decades of missteps has led conservationists to this point.
“What should have happened many decades ago was a realization that wild rhinos were just the last few scattered individuals, and not breeding populations,” he noted, arguing that the focus than should have been on bringing rhinos together to breed, instead of putting so much energy into setting aside protected areas and setting up rhino protection units with almost no rhinos to protect.
“There is no point in preventing poaching if the remaining rhinos are still breeding at a rate less than the natural death rate,” he said. “Yet this is what has been happening.
But Payne said that even today, this knowledge still hadn’t penetrated conservation’s most powerful players.
“The IUCN Species Survival Commission and the big mainstream conservation NGOs have been in a state of denial…and instead repeat the mantra of protected areas and rhino protection units.”
Indeed, Payne argued that mismanagement by large conservation NGOs and governments have made it difficult to do what was needed to successfully save the Bornean rhino.
“African rhinos and bison…were saved from extinction not by protected areas and human protection teams, nor from any government intervention, but by private individuals catching wild individuals and making them breed on private farms,” he said “After the advent of nation states since the early twentieth century, the necessary role of private enterprise in saving critically endangered large mammals has been stifled and ultimately made impossible. ”
Unfortunately for the rhino, conservationists can’t turn back the clock, but have to work with what they have: just three individuals—and two with reproductive problems. This leaves the hope of modern technology. Payne’s organization, BORA, is working with the Malaysian government, the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, and Avantea Laboratories to have “the first embryo produced by end of 2015. ” But Payne admitted “this is tough.”
For one thing: in vitro fertilization with rhinos isn’t cheap. The endeavor has largely depended on one of the world’s biggest palm oil producers, Sime Darby, for financing.
“Only [the] Sime Darby Foundation has provided consistent and very major [financial] support since 2009, with supplementary interest from WWF-Germany and WWF-Malaysia,” said Payne. “It is time for other institutions to demonstrate similar realization and support.”
Another idea that has been approved by conservationists, but not yet implemented, is mixing the Bornean subspecies with the Sumatran one. There are currently six Sumatran rhinos in captivity (five in Sumatra and one in the U.S.) and some argue that the best way to save not just the Bornean genetic line, but the species as a whole, would be to combine efforts—in effect put all our eggs in one basket.
“The three rhinos left in captive conditions in Sabah should definitely be sent to the captive facilities located in Indonesia to increase the numbers of possible breeders left in the world,” said Ancrenaz.
If all the world’s captive Sumatran rhinos were brought together that could mean nine individuals in one place. Species have been saved from extinction with less. In 2013, stakeholders at a rhino summit decided to treat all the captive rhinos as one population, and not distinct subspecies or national property. Yet, so far that pledge has not resulted in action.
Goossens said the fault for the ongoing delay lies not with Sabah, but across the sea.
“Indonesia is holding back! Sabah has tried almost everything in order to breed our three rhinos with Indonesian rhinos [but] Indonesia has been reluctant to do so,” Goossens, who authored a paper on this issue in 2013, noted.
Indonesia, however, has had success in producing baby rhinos where Sabah has not. In 2012 the Sumatran sanctuary produced its first calf, the offspring of a once-wild female, Ratu, and a captive-born male, Andalas. The offspring, named Andatu, is now almost full grown.
But Goossens said “[Indonesia] will pay the price …If they think that they will be able to keep their 100 rhinos in the wild, they are wrong. The same thing will happen to them within the next 20-30 years!”
The rhino populations on Sumatra are fragmented with at least three distinct populations, unable to reach each other across vast human-dominated landscapes. In 2008, conservationists estimated that Sumatra was home to between 170 and 230 individuals. But that estimate plunged a couple years ago to less than a hundred.
Like Borneo, Sumatra has suffered from vast deforestation and forest fragmentation—some of the highest rates in the world—pushing not just its rhinos, but its elephants, orangutans, and tigers to the brink of extinction. It’s anyone’s guess how long these big animals can hang if habitat continues shrinking and populations remain unconnected. And wild rhinos will probably be the first to go.
Lessons for Sabah
Clearly the extinction (or very near extinction) of the Bornean rhino in the wild has numerous lessons for Indonesia if it intends to keep its wild rhinos from the same fate. But Ancrenaz said the story of the rhino also contains invaluable lessons for the government of Sabah. Long a safe haven from the poaching crisis that was taking place in other parts of Southeast Asia, wildlife poaching and trafficking has begun spiking in Sabah over the last few years.
“The government of Sabah needs to take [poaching] very seriously in order to save our species from extinction. The rhinoceros is one of the first species to go extinct because of the traditional medicinal market,” said Ancrenaz. “Unfortunately, many other species are also at risk, such as the pangolin, the geckos, marine turtles, etc. Sabah needs to step up and to reinforce its enforcement and prosecution efforts against poachers and criminal syndicates that are behind wildlife trade.”
Goossens also said that the loss of rhino in Sabah should push people to work harder to save the species left.
“We need to learn from the experience with the rhino and try to protect the last large mammals of Borneo such as the orangutan, elephant, banteng, sun bear, and clouded leopard,” he noted.
Even as Borneo has lost much of its great forests and its wildlife abundance, Sabah is arguably a bright spot, at least when compared to current conditions in Sarawak and Kalimantan. Currently, the state has 21 percent of its landmass under some form of protection—already much higher than the global average—and is pushing for a total of 30 percent protection.
“If there is a hope for wildlife…I think it is in Sabah,” said Goossens, though he added, “obviously not for the rhino, it is almost too late.”
Almost, but not quite. There are still a few options: in vitro fertilization, bringing more rhinos together, and aggressive action to save Sumatra’s still-wild rhinos. But every year, the options seem to grow smaller.