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Threatened birds and mammals have irreplaceable roles in the natural world

By Conservation No Comments
University of Southampton / Phys.Org | February 24, 2020

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A new study led from the University of Southampton has shown that threatened birds and mammals are often ecologically distinct and irreplaceable in their environment.

Mammals such as the Asian elephant and the Sumatran rhinoceros, and birds such as the great Indian bustard, Amsterdam albatross and the Somali ostrich are both highly threatened and ecologically distinct. the extinction of these species could therefore lead to the loss of unique ecological roles. The findings also highlight that the most distinct species are often charismatic, such as emperor penguins, wolves, sea-eagles and leopards.

Original photo as published by Phys.org.

The research was led by Dr. Robert Cooke, visiting researcher at the University of Southampton and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Gothenburg. He said: “The most ecologically distinct species often have unique roles in their environment but they are not directly prioritized in current conservation plans. This blind spot means that ecologically important species may be lost.”

The roles that ecologically distinct species have in the ecosystems they inhabit are wide ranging. Herbivores such as elephants and hippopotamus can impact vegetation structure and nutrient cycling, while predators, such as white-tailed sea-eagle, leopard, grey wolf and puma can prevent overgrazing, enhance productivity and limit the spread of disease.

The researchers calculated the ecological distinctiveness of all living birds and mammals based on six traits—body mass, litter size, length of time between generations, breadth of habitat, diet type and diet diversity. This enabled them to identify the most distinct species and combine this with data from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They also compared the list against previous research identifying animals which have inherent value to humans based on public perceptions of charisma.

The study concludes that the connection between the unique characteristics of certain birds and mammals, their threatened status, and their public popularity creates a new conservation opportunity. “The use of charismatic species to attract funding is controversial, as it can divert people’s attention to species that are potentially not the most threatened or ecologically important,” added Dr. Cooke. “However, here we show that charismatic species may be deserving of their elevated attention, due to their often-distinct ecological strategies and therefore potentially vital ecological roles.”

The findings have been published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

More information: Robert S.C. Cooke et al. Ecological distinctiveness of birds and mammals at the global scale, Global Ecology and Conservation (2020).

DOI: 10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e00970

 

Indonesia softens stance on WWF termination as programs fall into limbo

By Conservation No Comments
Hans Nicholas Jong, Mongabay | February 7, 2020

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JAKARTA: Indonesia’s environment ministry says it’s willing to revive a partnership with WWF after abruptly terminating its long-running cooperation with the conservation NGO over a perceived social media slight.

But a top ministry official conditioned such a move on WWF’s local office addressing the ministry’s concerns about its work, improving communications, and not trying to score social media points.

“If [WWF Indonesia wants] new MOU, then go ahead,” Wiratno, the environment ministry’s director-general of conservation, told reporters in Jakarta. “[The opportunity] is still open. But I suggest WWF to do self-evaluation on what they’ve done that have raised the ministry’s concerns.”

Original photo as published by Mongabay.

Wiratno’s statement came after the ministry formally published its decision last month to end its partnership with WWF Indonesia on forest conservation, signed in 1998 and due to expire in 2023. It cited violations by WWF Indonesia of the terms of the agreement, including the NGO’s work on issues beyond those defined in the memorandum of understanding.

Wiratno cited the case of Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in western Sumatra, where WWF Indonesia had since 2015 been responsible for a forest restoration project. The project site was one of several areas burned by forest fires in 2015 and again in 2019. The ministry sealed off the concession after the latest burning last September, in what Wiratno called evidence that WWF Indonesia had failed to carry out its task of conserving the area.

“If [they] have an ecosystem restoration area to manage, then they shouldn’t have let it burn,” he said. “Working on the ground [to prevent fires] is very important.”

Wiratno also addressed the aftermath of the burning, which appeared to be the catalyst for the termination of the partnership. He criticized social media posts by two popular actresses who had served as ambassadors for WWF Indonesia and who had notably omitted mentioning the ministry when crediting WWF Indonesia and others for working hard to fight the fires. The ministry had condemned the posts for painting it in a bad light, and Wiratno said WWF Indonesia should focus more on educating the public rather than using celebrities to score points on social media.

“Some of our personnel died [fighting the fires],” he said. “There’s no need to use artists. We’ve gone all out on the ground [to extinguish the fires]. Us working in the field is cooler than just talking on social media.”

Narrow Scope of Work

Wiratno said WWF Indonesia also needed to improve its communication with the ministry, after failing to report its activities on a routine basis.

“There should be a yearly evaluation [of WWF Indonesia’s operations],” Wiratno said. “[Meetings] should be held together, including with partners. [The communication is] not intensive enough.”

Another reason cited for the termination of the partnership was that WWF Indonesia had been working on initiatives outside the scope of the original MOU, which focused on forest conservation. Wiratno acknowledged that this scope of work was too restricted, given the number and variety of conservation challenges that have arisen since that original agreement was signed more than 20 years ago.

A new MOU, drafted once WWF Indonesia can address the ministry’s concerns, should allow a wider scope that could potentially include climate change and waste management, Wiratno said.

WWF Indonesia’s acting CEO, Lukas Adhyakso, welcomed the opportunity to restore the partnership with the ministry under a broader brief. He also said it was regrettable that the original MOU was terminated instead of simply revised, given the impact on the various projects that WWF Indonesia administers throughout the country.

“We’re still calculating the impact, but what’s serious is the fact that we have expertise that we contribute [to forest conservation],” he said. “Now we have to stop our conservation [work] in areas that fall under the authority of the environment ministry.”

WWF Indonesia has five decades of experience in forest and wildlife conservation in the country, run through 24 field offices across the archipelago. It’s been involved in describing 400 new species of plants and animals in Borneo; one of its most prominent recent roles has been the capture, for the first time ever, of a wild Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in Borneo for a planned captive-breeding program.

But that program, one of 30 that WWF Indonesia has been forced to withdraw from as a result of the partnership termination, is now in limbo: while WWF Indonesia is prohibited from being involved, the rhino sanctuary continues to depend on its veterinarians and keepers to care for the rhino.

“Some [outside conservationists] have expressed [their concerns] and lamented [the ministry’s decision],” Lukas said. “We have the expertise that they need and we actually also need them. So it goes both ways.”

Programs in Limbo

Another program that’s at risk is a peatland restoration initiative in Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan province, home to critically endangered Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). Prior to being designated a national park in 2004, the area was a logging concession. The companies that operated it dug a network of canals to drain the peat soil, drying out the thick ground layer of semi-decomposed vegetation and rendering it highly prone to burning.

WWF Indonesia was tasked with blocking the canals and rewetting the land. Now, however, without the group’s involvement, that project could be compromised “in the blink of an eye,” Lukas said.

“Maybe the [canal blockers] will get stolen, and if the water table is lowered there’ll be great fire risks,” he said. “We’re not saying we’re the only ones [protecting the peat forest], but what we’re contributing is huge.”

WWF Indonesia’s partners on the ground have also raised concerns about how to pay to continue these projects, given the significant amount of funding that the organization has historically contributed. WWF Indonesia spends about 350 billion rupiah ($25.6 million) each year on its conservation activities.

Some of that money goes toward monitoring and protecting critically endangered Javan rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus) at Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, where the NGO began its conservation work in Indonesia in 1962.

Anggodo, the head of the national park agency, said the park might face financial constraints without funding from WWF Indonesia, which last year paid for 10 months’ worth of ranger patrols in the area.

“There’s a likelihood that [our] operational budget will only be enough for the next two months,” he said as quoted by Tempo magazine. “We’ll have to cover the rest with other partners because WWF [Indonesia] is not here anymore.”

At Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, WWF Indonesia has had to lay off 20 rangers tasked with protecting critically endangered Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus) from being killed in conflicts with humans.

“I’m sad that I can’t enter the national park anymore because there’s a ban,” said Rusmani, a member of the team.

The termination of the partnership puts greater onus on the Indonesian government to fund and administer the various conservation programs that WWF Indonesia has had to withdraw from.

“Maybe it’s already time for a transition, [for these programs] to be returned to the government,” said Alexander Rusli, chair of the WWF Indonesia board. “Maybe our role is not much needed anymore like at the beginning.”

 

Indonesia-WWF split puts rhino breeding project in Borneo in limbo

By Conservation No Comments
Basten Gokkon, Mongabay | February 3, 2020

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JAKARTA: The acrimonious end to a partnership between WWF and Indonesia’s environment ministry threatens to derail a crucial program to breed Sumatran rhinos in captivity, widely seen as the only viable way to save the species from extinction, in eastern Borneo.

Conservationists had been scheduled to capture a wild Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) from East Kalimantan, a province in Indonesian Borneo, last November and deliver it to a sanctuary staffed by experts from WWF Indonesia. But that plan was scrapped after the environment ministry effectively cut ties with the conservation NGO in October. The split was formally announced in January this year.

WWF Indonesia had been involved in the capture of two wild rhinos in 2016 and 2018 in the province. The first one, a female named Najaq, died from injuries sustained during her capture. The second rhino, Pahu, also a female, was successfully relocated to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in the Kelian protected forest in East Kalimantan. WWF Indonesia staff have been heavily involved in attending to Pahu since her rescue.

Original photo as published by Mongabay.

Suhandri, a director at the wildlife group, told Mongabay that WWF Indonesia decided to delay carrying out the plan after receiving letters from the environment ministry on Oct. 7 announcing the ministry’s unilateral termination of their memorandum of understanding.

“We knew the routes [the rhino] would frequently pass,” Suhandri said in Jakarta on Jan. 28. “We had picked the locations for the pit traps.”

The partnership had been scheduled to end in 2023, but the ministry cited alleged violations of the agreement by WWF Indonesia as justification for the early termination.

The ministry’s decision affects 30 out of 130 projects that WWF Indonesia administers across the country, one of them being the rhino conservation program in East Kalimantan.

Conservation groups and government officials agree that bringing isolated, wild rhinos into captivity is critical for ensuring the survival of this critically endangered species. Most of the remaining wild Sumatran rhinos live in fragmented groups too small to reproduce naturally at sustainable rates, leading to fears the species will decline into extinction without human intervention.

Capturing a rhino in Indonesian Borneo is seen as particularly critical to the conservation cause. The Sumatran and Bornean populations of the species have been separated for thousands of years and have grown genetically distinct during that time. Breeding between the two populations will therefore give a much-needed genetic diversity boost to the captive-breeding program, which has so far relied only on rhinos from the Sumatran population.

While Malaysian Borneo no longer has any rhinos in the wild or in captivity, there is at least one, Pahu, on the Indonesian part of the island, and likely a second that WWF Indonesia had targeted for capture last year. (Indonesia’s other SRS, at Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra, has seven rhinos, two of which were born there under the captive-breeding program.)

Suhandri said he couldn’t confirm the sex of the wild rhino targeted for capture, but a male rhino would mean a potential mate for Pahu.

In 2013, WWF Indonesia confirmed a wild population of the Sumatran rhinos in East Kalimantan that was thought to have vanished. Since then, it has worked with the government and other conservation groups — Aliansi Lestari Rimba Terpadu (ALeRT) and Komunitas Pecinta Alam Damai (KOMPAD) — on conserving the species there.

WWF Indonesia has been involved in field surveys to track wild rhinos, beefing up protection of their habitats, setting up the high-security sanctuary at Kelian for the captive-breeding program, and locating and capturing rhinos from the wild. Suhandri said WWF Indonesia had spent more than $1 million on the collaborative rhino conservation program in East Kalimantan.

Indra Eksploitasia, the director of biodiversity conservation director at the environment ministry, told Mongabay that her office would take over the program.

Sunandar Trigunajasa Nurochmadi, the head of the East Kalimantan government’s conservation agency, declined to comment to Mongabay on WWF Indonesia’s exit from the rhino program. However, he said his office was committed to finding rhinos in the wild there and trapping them for the breeding program. He added that they had spotted three wild rhinos in the province.

Suhandri said his team would meet with the provincial conservation agency and other groups to find ways in which WWF Indonesia’s rhino experts could continue to be involved in the program.

“To this day our keepers and vets are still taking care of Pahu. This is such a specific task, you can’t just swap it out,” he said.

News of the end of the partnership between WWF Indonesia and the environment ministry came as a surprise to other conservation groups, according to Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the head of WWF Indonesia’s steering committee.

“Everyone was asking us ‘What’s going on?’” Kuntoro said. “We’re shattered because we are a reputable organization.”

WWF is a co-founder of the Sumatran Rhino Rescue global initiative established in September 2018 by the Indonesian government, the National Geographic Society, Global Wildlife Conservation, the International Rhino Foundation, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“WWF-Indonesia has played a critical role in supporting on-the-ground work to save the Sumatran rhino,” Jon Paul Rodriguez, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, wrote in an email to Mongabay.

Rodriguez said the Sumatran Rhino Rescue program would continue to support efforts to save the species and allocate resources accordingly in light of the new development. He said some of the initiative’s key objectives this year include conducting search-and-rescue operations to capture isolated rhinos from the wild, building new facilities to bolster capacity to care for and breed rhinos, and coordinating with other partners across Indonesia to collaborate on a single, countrywide breeding program.

“We defer to the Government of Indonesia and WWF-Indonesia to determine the next steps for their relationship,” Rodriguez added.

Following the death of Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino last November, Indonesia is now the last refuge for the global population of the species. There are fewer than 80 individuals believed to be left in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo. Habitat loss and poaching had depleted the population that once roamed as far as mainland Southeast Asia, but experts now say the low birthrate is the main threat to the species. Breeding efforts in captivity have been hailed as the priority for ensuring the rhinos’ survival.

Lukas Adhyakso, WWF Indonesia’s acting CEO, said that while the organization respects the ministry’s decision to cut ties, the focus of all parties should be on ensuring the continued protection and care of the rhinos, whether inside or outside the sanctuary in East Kalimantan.

“We must not let this animal perish,” he said. “We have the expertise. Others may have it, too, but we’re the ones that have been involved [in the rhino program] for so long.

“If the government wants us, we’re ready to support them,” Lukas added.

 

Indonesian officials wield sharia law in defense of Sumatran rhinos

By Antipoaching, Law & legislation No Comments
Junaidi Hanafiah & Rahmadi Rahmad, Mongabay | January 10, 2020

See link for photos & map.

EAST LAMPUNG, INDONESIA: The government of the Indonesian province of Aceh, notorious for public canings carried out under sharia law, plans to put that same strict Islamic jurisprudence to work protecting what’s thought to be the last viable population of wild Sumatran rhinos on Earth.

Authorities have submitted to the provincial legislature a draft Islamic bylaw, known as a Qanun Jinayat, that prescribes penalties — in addition to those provided for in national law — for anyone convicted of hunting, killing or trading in protected species, including the critically endangered Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). According to Aceh government officials, the qanun also carries penalties for anyone convicted of damage wildlife habitats in the province.

Original photo as published by Mongabay.com.

Violators would face not just jail terms of up to five years and fines of up to Rp 100 million ($7,300), as prescribed under national laws, but also up to 100 lashes of the cane if the qanun is implemented.

The draft bylaw is expected to boost protections for rhinos in Aceh’s Leuser Ecosystem, one of the last great intact swaths of tropical rainforest left in Sumatra, and home to the largest population of the near-extinct Sumatran rhinos. It’s also the last place on Earth where critically endangered rhinos, tigers, orangutans and elephants still co-exist.

Conservationists estimate the total population of Sumatran rhinos at between 30 and 80. At least 12 individual rhinos have been identified in the Leuser Ecosystem through recent camera-trap surveys, and official estimates put the area’s total rhino population as high as 50, split up into six subpopulations.

However, the mountainous region has a chronic wildlife poaching problem and remains poorly surveyed by conservationists.

“We’re also having deliberations on another draft qanun that will become a guide for environmental management based on the ecosystem’s carrying capacity for the next 30 years,” Malik Mahmud Al-Haytar, Aceh’s customary leader, told Mongabay Indonesia in a recent interview.

Aceh authorities also plan to establish six zones outside protected forests that will serve as sanctuaries for protected species. “The main purpose is to reduce conflicts between wildlife and humans,” said Muhammad Daud, the head of conservation at Aceh’s environmental department.

The bylaws are being considered just as Aceh prepares to host the national government’s third Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, aimed at the captive breeding of wild-caught rhinos.

“There must be an SRS built in Aceh. The province still has a large forest area and is suitable for action to rescue the Sumatran rhino from extinction,” Malik said. “This is very important because the Sumatran rhino population is so small.”

An environment ministry official said the new facility, in East Aceh district, will span about 100 hectares (250 acres), the same size as the country’s first SRS at Way Kambas National Park in southern Sumatra when it opened in 1996. That facility, which was greatly expanded last year, is home to seven rhinos, two of which were conceived and born there; a second SRS, in Indonesian Borneo, is home to a solitary wild-caught female rhino.

Conservationists plan to similarly capture wild rhinos from small population pockets in Aceh and relocate them to the semi-wild habitat of the planned new SRS inside the Leuser landscape. The main threat to the species is the fragmentation of the wild population, which means less opportunity for individual rhinos to encounter each other and mate. That’s led to the natural birth rate dropping well below the replacement level to sustain the species. With the network of SRS facilities, conservationists hope to address this problem through captive breeding.

Dedi Yansyah, coordinator for wildlife protection at the NGO Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL), said each of the small subpopulations in Aceh — comprising five 5 to 10 individuals — was isolated. “In some of the subpopulations in Leuser, there’s been no indication of a rhino calf,” he said.

“Besides protecting them, rescuing the individuals in these small pockets must be done to prevent the species from going extinct,” he said.

Aceh, a semi-autonomous province in Indonesia that’s the only one allowed to implement sharia law in the otherwise secular republic, has drawn criticism for its qanuns regulating private conduct. Hundreds of people have been caned in public for victimless crimes such as gambling and intermingling with a non-related member of the opposite sex. In 2017, authorities for the first time caned two men convicted of having same-sex relations. Homosexuality is not illegal under Indonesian law, but Aceh’s special autonomy allows it to implement qanuns that may conflict with national laws.

 

Armed unit to tackle poaching (Malaysia)

By Antipoaching, Illegal trade, Law & legislation No Comments
Sherell Jeffrey, The Daily Express | December 27, 2019

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It was a sad year for Sabah’s wildlife which saw the death of its last known male and female Sumatran rhinos as well as continued killings of pygmy elephants.

Iman, a 25-year-old female rhino in captivity at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Lahad Datu, died of natural causes on Nov 23.

Her death came before a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the proposed Malaysia-Indonesia collaboration to obtain some new egg cells from her was signed. A male, Tam, also succumbed in May.

The State Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment remained adamant in pursuing the MoU as both Iman and Tam still live on as cell cultures in Malaysia.

Tam’s preserved remains are now on exhibit at the State Museum until Dec 31, 2019. His taxidermy skinning process led to the discovery of seven bullets with lead pellets found on fragments of his hind leg and lower part of his tail. Earlier, members of the public contacted the Daily Express to call for its preservation.

Original photo as published by Daily Express: Iman before her demise.

Malaysian police para-military unit, Tiger Platoon, has also been called in to assist the Wildlife Department to stop the senseless killing of the elephants.

In November, the Tiger Platoon from the General Operations Force was assigned to assist relevant authorities in protecting the wildlife in the State.

The special platoon is to be mobilised to conduct patrols, track down suspects and carry out joint raids with enforcement officials, including from the Wildlife Department and the Sabah Forestry Department.

Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador was quoted as declaring open war against those responsible. In Sabah, all the five PGA battalions have been tasked with combating illegal hunting activities and the plundering of forest treasures.

It also came as a shock that a syndicate had been active in Sabah smuggling pangolins worth RM8 million in February and that the State Wildlife Department or authorities knew nothing about its operations for seven years.

The 30-tonne pangolin haul was also picked up by the world’s press, calling it a record. The seizure from one single raid that went unnoticed by the authorities confirmed there was massive poaching going on in Sabah.

Seven pygmy elephant deaths were reported since September, in which elephant tusks were also reported missing, with some smuggled into Indonesian Kalimantan.

Two tusks involving the case in Dumpas Kalabakan were recovered. The elephant that owned the tusks was found dead with 70 shots. Its two tusks were found buried at the Kebun Koperasi Felda Umas area. A plantation manager has since been charged in court for refusing to hand over the tusks. Three others accused were also brought to court.

Just a week after Sabah hosted the 10th Asian Elephant Specialist Group meeting in December, another elephant was found dead in Kinabatangan.

The human-elephant conflict in Sabah attracted the attention of non-governmental organisations and its population was estimated to be down to 2,000 in the State. The pygmy elephants in Sabah are a different species compared to their Asian and African cousins.

Deputy Chief Minister cum Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew noted that more than 140 elephants ended up killed in less than 10 years.

A very high number occurred in conflict areas with more than half either shot or due to suspected poisoning, while the rest due to natural causes.

But all hope is not lost for the Borneo pygmy elephant. A subspecies of the Asian elephant inhabits north-eastern Borneo, Indonesia and Malaysia. Its exact origin remains the subject of debate.

In October, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment completed its Elephant Conservation Action Plan 2020-2030 which they hope will provide more insight into engaging better collaboration with plantation owners in efforts to create food corridors and better conservation for the mammals.

That same month, the conservation of iconic wildlife in Kinabatangan received a major boost with the handing over of 230 acres (93 hectares) by Japan’s Saraya Co Ltd and Borneo Conservation Trust (BCT) Japan to the State Government.

The Ministry expressed preparedness to amend and further tighten the penalties for wildlife-related crimes under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997.

Borneo’s pygmy elephants are a fully protected species as stated in Division 1, Schedule 11 of the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997.

On September, the 2nd International Symposium on Sun Bear Conservation and Management hosted in the State Capital affirmed that sun bears along with Bornean orang-utans and Sunda pangolins in Sabah are a totally protected species under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997.

The enactment forbids hunting, possession and trade of wildlife species under Schedule 1 and those found guilty could face up to RM250,000 fine and up to five years’ jail.

The Bornean Sun Bear, also known as honey bear, is the smallest bear in the world. Honey, fruits and termites are their favourite food. They are expert climbers and make nests on trees.

Each individual has its own unique chest mark that gives the precious creature its name, the sun bear. Found throughout Southeast Asia, it is estimated that the global population has declined by at least 30 per cent over the past 30 years and is continuing to decline at this rate.

A Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan) analysis estimates that there are only 300 to 500 sun bears left in Malaysia as of 2018. Its population in Sabah and Sarawak is unknown.

Sabah Wildlife Director Augustine Tuuga, during the Sun Bear Conservation Symposium, noted that poaching is currently the biggest threat to sun bears, particularly to feed the ongoing demand for their body parts, including gallbladders, paws, claws and canines.

Apart from poaching, there are also incidents of sun bear cubs being taken from the wild for pet trade in many places across Sabah.

The Department has prosecuted two cases involving sun bears in the State over the past years. One was convicted by court and sentenced to RM50,000 fine and two years’ jail, while the other is still appealing the sentence.

Security forces were also kept on their toes in eradicating smuggling activities which also includes turtle smuggling.

In February, the Malaysian Armed Forces Joint Task Force 2 (ATB 2) soldiers detained three foreigners for catching and killing turtles in the waters off Pulau Ligitan, Semporna.

During the operation, six turtle shells were recovered from the men, aged between 25 and 45-years-old.

 

Love triangle complicates efforts to breed Sumatran rhinos (Indonesia)

By Conservation No Comments
Basten Gokkon, Mongabay | December 27, 2019

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EAST LAMPUNG, INDONESIA: Efforts to breed the critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in captivity have faced numerous challenges. Breeding programs have been plagued by mysterious deaths, reproductive health problems and bureaucratic hurdles. Now, a sanctuary in Indonesia that has previously witnessed the birth of two healthy calves is facing a new, unexpected obstacle: relationship drama.

Since the 1970s, Indonesian biologist Widodo Ramono has devoted his work to the conservation of wildlife in the country, especially the iconic Sumatran rhinos. While experts like Widodo have learned plenty about the species, much remains mysterious. They are always learning more about what makes the animal tick.

Original photo as published by Mongabay: Ratu and Andatu in 2012. (Photo by Susie Ellis, courtesy of IRF.)

The latest surprising development has been a complicated love triangle among three rhinos at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Indonesia’s Way Kambas National Park, Widodo told Mongabay during a recent visit to the facility. The three animals involved are Andalas, Ratu, and Rosa — likely the most reproductively viable captive rhinos.

Conservation work on the Sumatran rhinoceros is largely focused on efforts to produce as many calves as possible from captive animals. The wild population of the species is believed to number no more than 80 individuals, scattered across several habitats in Sumatra and Borneo. These remaining populations are so small and fragmented that experts fear they cannot support a birth rate that exceeds the natural death rate. Without a robust captive breeding program, the population could simply dwindle to extinction.

Over the years, captive breeding attempts have yielded both successes and failures. Beginning in the 1980s, 40 wild rhinos were captured and brought to zoos and breeding facilities in Indonesia, Malaysia, the U.K. and the U.S. Almost all died without offspring; the first successful captive birth came in 2001, at the Cincinnati Zoo in the U.S.

That calf, named Andalas, was later transferred to the Way Kambas sanctuary where he has successfully fathered two calves with a female named Ratu who was born in the wild near Way Kambas. The pair’s first calf, Andatu, was born in 2012. His sister, Delilah, followed in 2016.

In 2016, hoping to have more females producing calves, Widodo and his team decided to try mating Andalas with a second female held at the SRS. The female, Rosa, is possibly the last rhino from Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, a once-thriving rhino habitat that stretches the western coast of Lampung province.

Sumatran rhinos can get rough when they mate: they ram and bite each other, and males sometimes even lift up the females. It can be life-threatening for the animals. According to Widodo, though, Andalas was “kind” to Rosa during the mating process.

“He liked her. We were excited that he mated with Rosa and she didn’t get severely injured,” Widodo said.

Although the pair successfully mated, Andalas and Rosa did not produce any calves. Rosa would get pregnant, but the embryos were not viable. According to Widodo, Rosa lost seven pregnancies due to blighted ova.

In 2018, Widodo’s team tried to mate Andalas with his previous mate Ratu, hoping for another successful birth. “But, she refused. We don’t know why,” Widodo said. His assumption is that Ratu refused to mate with Andalas because she could smell a trace of Rosa on his body.

“Right now, her [Ratu’s] keepers are putting in a lot of effort so that she wants to mate with Andalas again,” Widodo said. In the process, they are learning about how to persuade a rhino to mate. “This is difficult. Being a matchmaker for rhinos isn’t easy.”

Incidents like the affair between Andalas, Ratu and Rosa have prompted Widodo to call on wildlife experts to learn more about the psychology of the species.

Widodo says this knowledge could be key in producing more baby rhinos. “That’s the strategic way to save this species —in fact this genus — of the Sumatran rhino,” he said.

 

Javan Rhino Makes Steady Strides While Sumatran Rhino Population Remains Obscure

By Conservation No Comments
Oishimaya Sen Nag, World Atlas | December 7, 2019

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On November 23, Iman, the last Sumatran rhino of Malaysia, died, making international headlines. But while the country is mourning, hope pours in from neighboring Indonesia where the population of Javan rhinos has risen to 72 individuals.

Sumatran Rhino Population Shrouded in Mystery

The Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) are both critically endangered species. Habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, and poaching have severely decimated the populations of both these rhino species. Once widespread through most of Asia, these rhinos are today confined primarily to the eponymous Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java.

Iman was a female Sumatran rhino, about 25 years old, who was captured in 2014 and placed under extreme protection and care at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary at Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Malaysia’s Sabah state. She died of natural causes.

The number of remaining Sumatran rhinos in the wild is largely unknown as the population is severely fragmented. It is estimated that there are fewer than 100 individuals of this species remaining in the wild, mostly in Indonesia, and around 8 in captivity. Some estimates even put the number as low as 30. The lack of knowledge makes it nearly impossible to monitor the trends in population of this rhino species.

In February, Indonesian authorities arranged an exercise for Sumatran rhino researchers to conduct an official count of the species in the country. Results are believed to arrive in three years’ time. Hopefully, the program will give a more accurate picture of the Sumatran rhinos to allow conservation groups to save them in time.

Javan rhinoceros. (Source: Wikipedia)

Javan Rhino Making Steady Strides

The population of Javan rhinos is, however, under strict monitoring as they survive only in the Ujung Kulon National Park (UKNP) on the island of Java, Indonesia.

On Friday, Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry declared in an announcement that the population of Javan rhinos in UKNP had increased to 72 individuals.

The present count obtained through surveys conducted through the end of September exhibits an increase from 68 individuals reported in the last survey. Four new rhino calves were reported in this count! A decade ago, the population of Javan rhinos in UKNP was only 50 but has grown gradually since then. At least one new calf has been counted every year since 2012.

The population in the park appears to have stabilized. Over 20 years have passed without any poaching being reported at the park. The role of the Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) in guarding the world’s last Javan rhinos in UKNP is thus highly commendable.

In 2011, the UKNP authorities launched the Arenga palm removal program that also had positive effects on the resident rhino population. Although the plant occurs naturally in UKNP, it is fast-growing and chokes out other native plants including the favorite food plants of the rhinos. The program was successful in allowing a more secure food resource for the park’s rhinos.

According to the International Rhino Foundation: “The Government of Indonesia and Ujung Kulon National Park have remained steadfast in their commitment to saving the Javan Rhino from extinction. Thanks to these efforts, we have hope for Javan rhinos.”

 

Indonesia to capture 3 wild Sumatran rhinos to add to breeding population

By Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
Rahmadi Rahmad / Translated by Basten Gokkon, Mongabay | December 10, 2019

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EAST LAMPUNG, INDONESIA: Officials in Indonesia say they hope to capture three Sumatran rhinos from the wild for a recently expanded sanctuary where experts are carrying out breeding attempts to save the species from extinction.

The Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Way Kambas National Park, in Lampung province at the southern end of Sumatra Island, now spans 250 hectares (620 acres), following an expansion announced on Oct. 30.

“We are working to capture three wild rhinos in Way Kambas National Park,” Ade Kurnia Rauf, a senior adviser to Indonesia Rhino Foundation (YABI), told Mongabay. He added this was in line with Indonesia’s Emergency Action Plan on Sumatran Rhinoceros, issued on Dec. 6 last year.

Original photo as published by Mongabay.

While waiting for new rhinos to occupy the extension sometime next year, officials at the SRS have already moved one of the seven existing Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) at the facility into the new paddocks; Harapan, a 12-year-old male, is himself the product of an earlier successful captive-breeding program carried out at Cincinnati Zoo in the U.S.

The SRS at Way Kambas was opened in 1996, covering 100 ha (247 acres) and envisioned as a way to provide a heavily protected semi-wild habitat in which captive rhinos could breed naturally. Experts at the sanctuary are also tasked with carrying out research and programs to maintain a viable captive population that should be able to be released back into the wild eventually.

“Way Kambas National Park, where some of Sumatra’s last lowland tropical forest exists, is the last frontier for nearly extinct wildlife, such as the Sumatran rhino, [so] that we must protect its sustainability,” said Indra Exploitasia, the director of biodiversity conservation at Indonesia’s environment ministry.

Indonesia has launched a program to track and tally up Sumatran rhinos in the wild, including in Way Kambas National Park outside the SRS. Ade said five teams had been deployed to look for wild rhinos in Way Kambas and, by February, to start setting up pit traps to safely capture them alive.

The park agency estimates the rhino population in Way Kambas, which spans some 130,000 ha (321,200 acres), at some 33 individuals; some analyses give a much lower figure of around a dozen. The sanctuary itself is home to seven captive rhinos: three males and four females. Two of the rhinos were conceived and born at the sanctuary.

“We need new males and females to be relocated into the SRS. The reason is clear: to avoid inbreeding,” said Subakir, the head of Way Kambas National Park Agency.

In tandem with efforts to breed the species in captivity, conservationists are calling on the government to protect the last remaining wild habitats of the critically endangered animal so that there’s somewhere to release them back into when the situation allows.

The government of Lampung province has promised to increase protection for its forests from human pressure, especially within national parks, saying it wants the province to be the stronghold for the species.

“We must protect the Sumatran rhino, Indonesia’s treasure, from extinction,” said Arinal Djunaidi, the governor of Lampung, at a ceremony to mark the opening of the SRS extension on Oct. 30. He said he would seek an agreement with the environment ministry to boost law enforcement for national parks across Lampung.

Unlike with other rhino species, poaching isn’t the biggest threat to Sumatran rhinos. It’s the lack of natural breeding in the wild — a result of their habitats being carved up and destroyed, isolating individual rhinos and making it less likely that they’ll encounter one another to breed — that poses the greatest danger to the species.

“We’re fighting against extinction,” said Zulfi Arsan, a veterinarian at the SRS. “The population decline rate is [higher] than the birth rate.”

Despite its name, the species used to roam other parts of Asia, including India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. But the combination of habitat loss and poaching has left Indonesia as the final refuge for these rhinos; Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino, a female held in captivity, died of ill health on Nov. 23.

Widodo Ramono, the executive director of YABI,said his foundation had partnered with an international group, the Sumatran Rhino Survival Alliance — which consists of Indonesia’s environment ministry, the IUCN, the International Rhino Foundation, Global Wildlife Conservation, National Geographic and WWF — to protect the species.

“The expansion of the SRS can be used to its best to increase the rhino population while paying attention to sustainability, heritability, and good management of habitat,” he said.

Experts at SRS will still prioritize natural breeding, but are also open to using advanced reproductive technology, including in vitro fertilization.

“We must be very careful in carrying out anything,” Zulfi said. “Obviously, to produce a healthy rhino needs healthy parents who don’t have any reproductive problems.”

Fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos are believed to live in small populations scattered in the dwindling forests of Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo. In Sumatra, experts believe the rhinos survive in Gunung Leuser National Park, Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Way Kambas National Park. In Borneo, no more than 10 individuals are estimated to roam the forests of East Kalimantan province. Last year, a female rhino was captured from the wild there and relocated to a second SRS facility there. In 2016, another female rhino had been caught, but died a few weeks after her capture.

“We must act quickly against time to save this species that has lived on Earth since 20 million years ago,” Widodo said. “The most important effort now is to produce as many rhinos as possible at SRS in the safest setting there is.”

 

Time is running out for Southeast Asia

By Conservation, Land conservation, News No Comments
Jeremy Hance,  Mongabay | December 9, 2019

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On Nov. 23, the last Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in Malaysia died. Named Iman, she’d lived in captivity in the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo for just over five years. Iman was not only the last rhino in Malaysia, but one of the last of the Bornean subspecies of the Sumatran rhino (D. s. harrissoni).

But Iman’s passing isn’t just another tragedy, and lost opportunity, for her species. It’s also another signal for something bigger: that the heart of our mass extinction crisis lies in Southeast Asia.

The region is undergoing a wildlife decline that’s really unparalleled anywhere else of comparable size. Recently, scientists have declared that tigers are extinct in Laos, after already vanishing from Vietnam and Cambodia. The Indochinese and Malayan populations of the tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) and the Sumatran subspecies (P. t. sondaica), are all on their last stand. The same is true of the Indochinese leopard (Panthera pardus delacouri).

Meanwhile, the last photograph of a saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), or Asian unicorn, on camera trap was taken six years ago. There is now a project hoping to catch and breed them in captivity. But whether conservationists will find any alive anywhere is an open question — officially a couple of hundred are believed to survive — and whether they will find enough to form a captive-breeding population is an even bigger question.

The list goes on: all the big four of Sumatra – elephants, tigers, orangutans, and rhinos – are Critically Endangered. The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), discovered only in 2017, is existentially imperiled by the Batang Toru dam project in the only home it has. Of the 16 gibbon species evaluated by the IUCN, 15 are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. At best, fewer than 200 Philippine crocodiles (Crocodylus mindorensis) survive while the Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) is down to only three known individuals, all of them in separate locations.

Tigers, elephants, rhinos, orangutans, leopards, tapir, banteng, dholes — all of the species within these groups are either classified as endangered or critically endangered in the region. In the last 100 years, we’ve already lost the Bali and Javan tigers, and the mainland subspecies of the Sumatran rhino (D. s. lasiotis) as well as the Vietnamese Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus). The kouprey (Bos sauveli), a giant wild ox, has not been seen since 1988 and is probably extinct. Southeast Asia’s megafauna are undergoing a decline likely not seen since the Pleistocene some 15,000 years ago.

But perhaps even more worrisome is that it’s not just the big animals: increasingly it seems like every living animal in the region is imperiled. Innumerable turtle species are being wiped out for food and traditional medicine. Birds are being hunted out of existence to be eaten or traded as illegal pets, even as they lose their forests and wetlands. Meanwhile, many smaller animals, from the slow loris to the pangolin, are being decimated by the illegal wildlife trade.

If you look at data from the IUCN Red List, Southeast Asia also stands out for its sheer numbers of identified threatened species (most remain unidentified at this point). The three nations with the most globally identified threatened species are Madagascar, Ecuador and the U.S. — not surprising, given the first is full of megadiverse and endemic biodiversity, the second contains perhaps the most biodiverse region on Earth, and the third is among the most well-studied and largest nations. But fourth and fifth on that list are Indonesia and Malaysia, respectively. Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines each have more than 600 identified threatened species, putting them on the very high side worldwide. Laos and Myanmar have considerably less, but that’s probably largely due to less research into their species.

Original photo as published by Mongabay: Deforestation in Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler

Let’s not forget that Southeast Asia is the region for which the term “empty forest” was coined, denoting a landscape so stripped of animals, so exploited, that while trees and plants may still grow, nothing moves larger than a mouse or a praying mantis. There is little to no bird song, no monkeys crossing the canopy, few mammals in the undergrowth. It’s more a park than a wilderness, and those plant species that are dependent on animals will soon vanish.

The reasons that Southeast Asia is facing an extinction crisis are varied, complicated and, in some cases, unique to each country. But themes emerge. Number one: deforestation. Nowhere else in the world have humans destroyed so much forest so rapidly — all to provide commodities like palm oil, lumber, rubber, paper, tropical wood — in a global economic system whose foundations are waste and consumerism.

For another, there is the truly malignant illegal wildlife trade for Chinese traditional medicine, bushmeat, pets and trinkets. This market has increasingly turned from using guns and bullets to deploying millions of snares, killing indiscriminately across the region’s national parks and last intact wildernesses.

Finally, the human population of Southeast Asia stands at around 655 million. This is more than 8 percent of the world’s population across eleven countries covering only around 4.5 million square kilometers (1.7 million square miles). That’s a region half the size of the U.S. with double the number of people. Southeast Asia’s population, however, is within a generation or two of peaking in places; both Malaysia and Vietnam, for example, now have fertility rates at or below replacement levels. Laos has the highest in the region (2.7 children per woman), Singapore the lowest (1.16). This is a glimmer of light for the region’s natural resources and beleaguered wildlife, if only it can hang on.

But it may not be enough time for many. No species, no matter how resilient, can stand up indefinitely to the relentless harrying and industrialized destruction. The number of victims grows greater every year, many as yet unidentified.

So, the citizens of Southeast Asia have to make a decision: Are they OK with losing their iconic species to plantation companies, unscrupulous poachers, sham medicine, and tacky status symbols? Are they OK with nature conservation remaining at the bottom of their governments’ priorities amid such a scale of loss? Are they OK with this generation squandering their children’s natural inheritance, just as recent generations have gambled away our climate stability?

There is no doubt the region faces economic and development challenges — and tough decisions. But let’s not pretend this mass death is about smart development or poverty reduction. Singapore is one the wealthiest countries in the world, while Malaysia has less extreme poverty than the U.S. Poverty rates in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar are still high, but have plunged in recent years.

Nor does the vast destruction of forests and wildlife do much, if anything, for public wealth and well-being. Most of the money from slaughtered wildlife goes not to the local people doing the hunting, but to a black market and regional mafia that’s also involved in trafficking humans and drugs.

Meanwhile, the destruction of the region’s remaining forests, including intentional burning, is often fueled by foreign companies and corruption, and increasingly goes against local wishes (the only time palm oil is really economically beneficial to the public is via smallholders).

In an age of rapid climate catastrophe, surely no economy can survive on the burning of peatlands and destruction of its few remaining rainforests? We can no longer develop just for the sake of “development.” Smart development and conservation of natural resources must be the future, not just in Southeast Asia, but everywhere.

What needs to be done in the region? A lot. And I don’t begin to pretend to have all the answers. But a good place to start would be the region’s governments taking this extinction crisis (and the climate one) seriously and spending more resources on law enforcement and protecting standing forests. At the same time, gains must continue to be made on changing public views on the wiping out of wildlife for sham medicine.

The region’s national parks and wildernesses require better management and more boots on the ground. It may be time for a regional equivalent of something like African Parks to be established in Southeast Asia, an idea recently raised to me by the conservationist Niall McCann.

Conservation groups in the area, especially the small, on-the-ground organizations, desperately need only more funding and resources. Ambitious ideas and bold commitments are needed now more than ever from the international community. And we must also consider more extreme options more quickly. We should not wait decades to install captive-breeding operations, for example, but should begin building insurance populations for many of the near-extinct species as possible. Let’s use the Sumatran rhino and the saola as examples; for both species, conservationists probably delayed much longer than they should have.

Let’s not kid ourselves. None of this will be easy and all of it will require public support. We get the leaders we vote for. The public in this region need to decide if it’s worth saving their orangutans and tigers, their elephants and rhinos, their pangolins and dholes. There is still time today. But there may be none tomorrow.

Iman’s death closes another door for Sumatran rhino conservation, leaving only a single known Bornean individual of the Sumatran rhino left on Earth, and one less female for a species that at best numbers only around 80 animals.

If aggressive change isn’t made, one day soon Indonesians and Vietnamese, Filipinos and Malaysians, will wake up and find there is nothing much left of their forests — their whole region will be truly empty. It will no longer just be empty forests, but empty landscapes from the Mekong Delta to Sumatra, and the Cardamom Mountains to the Cordillera Central.

What will be the fate of Asian rhinos?

By Conservation No Comments
Zhao Ying, CGTN | December 4, 2019

See link for photos & graphic.

The gigantic size and armor-like skin make rhinoceros seem to come from the distant dinosaur age. Rhinos once roamed across Asia because they favor the warm and humid climate here. Among five rhino species in the world, three are distributed in Asia. The wild ones are now mainly found in just four countries – India, Nepal, Bhutan and Indonesia.

In November, the death of last Sumatran rhino in Malaysia declared the extinction of the species in the country, arousing people’s attention on the fate of Sumatran rhino and its two cousins in Asia.

How are Asian rhinos now?

In Asia, there are three rhino species, Sumatran rhino, Javan rhino and Indian rhino. You can easily distinguish them by the horn and body size. The Sumatran rhino is the smallest and the only one in Asia that have two horns. The Javan rhino and the Indian rhino both have only one horn, but the Indian rhino is larger.

The Sumatran rhino has been on Earth longer than any living mammals. It is one of the most primitive group, the Dicerorhinini, which came into being about 20 million years ago. The rhino still retains the shaggy hairs on body and ears, resembling its extinct woolly ancestors.

Original photo as published by CGTN.

After the last captive male and female Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia died this year, there are fewer than 80 of them left on the planet, all in Indonesia, according to the International Rhino Foundation. The rhino species is listed as critically endangered by IUCN. Apart from eight captive ones, there are four isolated wild groups in Indonesia. One group of around 15 is in Borneo, and the other three groups all live in national parks on Sumatra Island.

Similar to the dire situation of the Sumatran rhino, the Javan rhino is even more critically endangered, with an estimated population of 68. They can now only be found in Ujung Kulon National Park on the western tip of the island of Java in Indonesia. The good news is that its number is quite stable for the time being.

For the Indian rhino, things are getting better. Back in 1900, there were fewer than 200 left. Years of conservation efforts in India and Nepal have brought its population back to over 3,550 now. The species is listed as vulnerable by IUCN. The Indian rhinos especially love to immerse themselves in water like hippos. The humid tropical rainforest is their favorite habitat.

What’s pushing Asian rhinos to the brink of extinction?

As the world’s second largest land animal, rhinos barely have any predators except human beings. Over the years, they have suffered from poaching and habitat loss. Their horns are the main target.

In traditional medicines, the powdered horns are believed to have heat-clearing and detoxifying effects. However, the horns are just composed matted hair and fibrous keratin, the same substance found in fingernails. Once a rhino loses it horn, it won’t be dead, but the horn grows back at a slow rate, about 7.6 centimeters long per year.

Apart from that, horns and other parts of rhinos are made into luxurious decorations, and regarded as a symbol of wealth and social status in Asia. In an auction, one rhino horn libation cup from the Qing Dynasty was sold at 18.5 million yuan, indicating their popularity in the market.

Asian rhinos are also threatened by shrinking habitat due to human activities. The development of logging and agriculture industries has pushed them to live in small and scattered areas, which is hard for them to breed. Besides, it takes 16 months for a female rhino to give birth to new calves. The slow breeding rate in contrast of its decreasing population makes the conservation efforts urgent.

Is there any hope for Asian rhinos?

In 2017, Indonesia launched a breeding program for captive Sumatran rhinos at Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra. For Javan rhinos, Indonesian government planed to enlarge the current sole habitat at the Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, or to find a second refugee for them as a tsunami hit the park in 2018.

In Nepal, the protection of Indian rhinos is quite a success in the last decade. From 2014 to 2017, the rangers in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park has kept a zero poaching record for 1,071 days. Besides, India and Nepal signed an agreement to cooperate on biodiversity conservation earlier this year, including the transboundary protection of species like the Indian rhino.

As long as conservation efforts are ongoing, the Asian rhinos still stand a chance to come back.