Saving the hairy, singing rhino of Borneo and Sumatra

By July 12, 2020July 14th, 2020Editorial

The rhino agenda here in Africa, especially in the southern parts of the continent, is so dominated by issues related to combating poaching and the heated debate around a trade in horn, that little thought is given to the plight of species elsewhere. The story of the Sumatran Rhino is a prime example.

A century or so ago, a person moving through the hot, steamy forests of Asia from eastern India, down through Myanmar and the Malaysian Peninsula to the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo might have been familiar with a strange cry wafting eerily through the dense jungle foliage. But it is unlikely that our traveler would have been alarmed by the rising and falling cadences of this otherworldly sound. For he or she would have recognized it as the call, not of a forest demon, but of a badak or kyaan, indigenous words for the shy, twin-horned creature we now know as the Sumatran Rhino.

Fully grown this, the smallest of the living rhinos, only stands a little over 3ft 3in (about a meter) at the shoulder and weighs no more than a ton (about 900 kilograms). By contrast, the largest member of the family, Africa’s White Rhino, can stand 6ft 7in (two meters) at the shoulder, and tip the scales at as much as 3.85 tons (about 3,500 kilograms). But it is far more than size alone that distinguishes the diminutive Sumatran Rhino from its cousins, for it is an oddity in so many ways.

As already suggested, it is the “singing” rhino—by far the most vocal of the five species. (It is easy to see how this talent would serve it well in communicating with its fellows in their densely vegetated habitat.) Then, unlike its Asian cousins, the Indian and Javan Rhinos, it has two horns, a feature in common with its more distant relatives in Africa. Also, the other rhinos are all but hairless, whereas the Sumatran Rhino is relatively hirsute, to the extent that it is sometimes dubbed the “hairy rhino.”

It is this hairiness that gives an outward clue to its genetic origins. The Sumatran Rhino (the only representative of the genus, Dicerorhinus) is thought to be closely related to the ancient Woolly Rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) that slid into extinction about 10,000 years ago.

The Sumatran Rhino is the only member of that line to have survived to the present. But only just, for today, a mere handful survive and only in a few isolated parts of Sumatra and Borneo. Although poaching and habitat changes have exacerbated the species’ plight in recent times, it has been in trouble for a very long time. Fossil evidence suggests that its numbers peaked around 900,000 years ago, but by about 12,000 years ago climate changes had pushed it towards the brink. Ocean levels had risen dramatically, submerging the land bridges connecting the islands of Borneo, Java, and Sumatra to the Malay Peninsula and mainland Asia. The rhino’s habitat would have shrunk and fragmented dramatically. Their population bottomed out and has not been able to bounce back, and today fewer than 80 survive.

Unlike our erstwhile traveler, the chances of hearing the call of a Sumatran Rhino today, let alone seeing one, would be virtually non-existent. Tenuously clinging to survival in ten fragmented subpopulations on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, this rhino is now so rare that it is almost never seen in the wild. In fact, individuals hardly even encounter each other, adding yet another layer to the challenges they face, as many breeding age Sumatran rhinos face infertility as a result of extended isolation.

It all sounds rather desperate, and it is. But there is hope. A coalition of NGOs, and other organizations, together with the Indonesian Government, have pooled their commitment, resources, and scientific expertise gained over decades. And together, they have embarked on a bold drive to ensure the survival of this unique rhino.

The Sumatran Rhino Rescue Alliance’s strategy includes finding as many rhinos as possible living in small, isolated populations and relocating them to managed conservation breeding facilities. Part of the plan consists of building two new sanctuaries and expanding the existing facility in Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra. Overall, the efforts will form part of a single conservation breeding program that uses state-of-the-art veterinary and husbandry care to maximize population growth.

While the Alliance is confident, it is also aware that success will only come with perseverance on the part of the scientists, conservationists, government, and of course, the continued generosity of donors. And, as with so many endeavors, the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped. For example, the search for a potential mate for a captive female Sumatran Rhino in Borneo has been put on hold for the year, one of many activities frozen by events surrounding the disease. Such delays compound the severe challenges to the survival of the Sumatran Rhino. The situation is particularly urgent—the breeding females are already elderly, so opportunities for successful pregnancies become ever fewer with the marching of time.

The Alliance needs our collective support. And with their efforts, hopefully one day soon, the whale-like song of the Sumatran Rhino will again drift through the forest canopies of Asia.

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