Commentary: Is the Sumatran Rhino Too Secretive to Be Saved?


FEBRUARY 17, 2015

In a last-ditch effort to save Indonesia’s Sumatran rhino, world experts in rhinoceros conservation will gather in the West Java city of Bogor this week.

The Sumatran rhino is one of Indonesia’s two rhino species, the other one being the Javan rhino, now represented by only one small population in the far western tip of Java, and on the brink of extinction. In comparison to its cousin on Java, the Sumatran rhino is relatively fortunate, in that it is still found in the wild in three national parks: Gunung Leuser (Aceh), Way Kambas (Lampung), and Bukit Barisan Selatan ( Lampung, Bengkulu and South Sumatra), with a small population hanging by a thread in Kalimantan. Nevertheless, the Sumatran rhino is one of the most critically endangered species in the world.

The objective of the workshop Bogor is to use a technique called Population Viability Analysis to model how the remaining rhino population might respond under different habitat and conservation scenarios. The idea is that using these models will enable those responsible for protecting rhinos to focus on protecting key areas of rhino habitat, and designing specific conservation responses to counter the most urgent threats to the remaining populations. With many critically endangered species, this kind of model is a supremely valuable tool for conservationists.

With the Sumatran rhino however, there is a worrying lack of data on remaining population numbers, their mortality rate and their genetic variability. Shocking as it may be, we simply don’t know enough about these elusive and secretive animals to use the kinds of models designed to save them. As scientists who have dedicated their careers to the protection of this species, we believe the lack of answers to these basic questions should be an urgent call to action for conservationists everywhere. For if we cannot the answers, the species will certainly soon be extinct.

We began seriously looking at the state of the Sumatran rhino in 2005. By then the experts estimated the number of this shy species to be around 200 individuals, including the only remaining population in Sabah, Malaysia’s part of Borneo. Merely ten years later, experts made an educated guess that shockingly cut the 2005 number in half, to only around 100 individuals, almost all in Sumatra. A combination of habitat disturbances and demographic factors might be responsible for their rapid decline. By demographic we mean that the population becomes so low that reproduction process is becoming increasingly difficult.

One of the results of the research in 2005 was that when we overlaid rhino distribution patterns with a map of potential threats, a key area called Sukaraja was highlighted. Most of the rhino distribution in Sukaraja, one of the densest populations in the whole park, is found adjacent to the road (the Sanggi-Bengkunat road) which crosses the park from its eastern to its western boundary.

In 2007 this road was upgraded and paved. In 2008 we returned to the park for a follow-up survey, and saw first-hand signs of an already declining population. The results on completion of the survey in 2010 were devastating — almost all the rhinos previously distributed in the Sukaraja area were gone. Also gone was the rhino population on a peninsula in the southern part of the park.

What was driving this population decrease? Did the improved access increase poaching activity, although there were few signs of rhino poaching between 2005-10? Or did the sensitive nature of the rhino force them to move away from the busy road? And, if so, where had they gone? So far, all unanswered questions. What is known is that whatever now remains of the Bukit Barisan Selatan Sumatran rhino population is confined to the central corridor of the park, in an area of around 1,000 square kilometers, and flanked by the roads of Sanggi-Bengkunat in the south and Krui-Liwa in the north.

Now, new demands to increase the width of both of the roads from eight to 15 meters will surely be the final nails in the coffin of one of the only three populations of Sumatran rhinos in the world. This situation is hardly unique. Threats from roads, poaching and habitat destruction in the historical ranges of the other two remaining populations of rhinos in the Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser national parks, even within the boundaries of a protected area, have isolated them in ever smaller and more remote parts of the forest.

So what should we do, and what is the silver lining, if any? Well, while we all recognize that protection of species in the wild is a very hard thing to do, we know it is not impossible. But it does require strong government commitment, and well-resourced law enforcement efforts.

For example, Nepal reported this week that it has succeeded in achieving their zero poaching goal — 365 days without any rhinos, tigers or elephants poached. Unlike the orangutan or Asian elephants whose habitats often come into direct conflict with other land uses — such as palm oil — the rhino populations in Sumatra are almost entirely distributed within the borders of three protected areas, which already have the infrastructure and resources to begin tackling the problem.

A number of NGOs, WCS included, are now working with the government to design what we call the Intensive Protection Zone for rhinos. This is a special zone within the protected area which has a significant population of rhinos where the protection efforts of park authorities and NGOs are focused and scaled up. In addition, we continue to focus on the research which will answer some of the remaining questions about rhino populations, which will allow us to plan our conservation efforts more effectively.

However, the reality is all the NGO support in the world cannot save the Sumatran rhinoceros. This burden can only ever fall on the government of Indonesia, which can ensure that national parks are free from the kinds of infrastructure development that research has shown is in direct conflict with the survival of the species, and which can show leadership in prioritizing their protection.

As a developing country, Indonesia faces a difficult challenge in balancing its economic growth with protection of its ‘natural capital’, but surely, as Indonesian citizens, we do not want to see another iconic species become extinct in in our own lifetimes, following the fate of the Javan and Bali tigers? All eyes are now on our president, Joko Widodo, and his new minister for environment and forestry, Siti Nurbaya, to demonstrate their leadership on conservation and sustainable development, and to save the Sumatran rhino from extinction.

Wulan Pusparini is a species conservation specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and a PhD Candidate in Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States. Noviar Andayani is country director at the Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia Program. 

Key points of this article were presented at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, on Feb. 20.