By Erik Meijaard
WWF issued a response to this editorial on April 8, 2013
WWF-Indonesia recently caught the attention of the global media with their announcement that the Sumatran rhinoceros still exists in Indonesian Borneo, some 40 years after being declared extinct there.
This sounds like great news for biodiversity conservation. But is it really?
Sumatran rhinos were once wide-spread in South-East Asia, but poaching for their horn decimated populations. In Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, there had been no reliable records of the species since the 1970s, although there were rumors of their continued existence at least until the mid-1990s (Meijaard, 1996).
Tracks recently discovered in an undisclosed part of Kalimantan by a WWF field team provide the first evidence that the species is not yet extinct in Kalimantan. Commenting on the findings, WWF-Indonesia’s conservation director said, “WWF-Indonesia together with all stakeholders will conduct a follow-up and more comprehensive survey to map rhinos' habitat preference and their population in West Kutai.”
I am seriously wondering what benefit WWF’s press announcement has for the only known rhino in Kalimantan. Certainly, the risks for the animal have now gone up significantly. From a situation in which no one was aware of its existence, millions of people now know that it exists. Yes, that means fame to this rhino, but might lead to an untimely death.
From the context of the news release and accompanying video it is possible to work out approximately where it occurs. For anyone with an interest in rhino horn and some cash, it wouldn’t be too much of an effort to work out where the survey team had recently worked—such things do not go unnoticed. In a country riddled with bribery and corruption, the next easy step might be to try to buy information about the rhino’s latest whereabouts. Does WWF have effective confidentiality systems in place to prevent this? I doubt it.
In addition, nothing so far indicates that there are effective measures in place to prevent the animal from being poached. That would require well-trained rhino patrols, control of access to the area, and effective collaboration with local communities and law enforcement agencies. Experiences from Sumatra, another area where a few rhinos remain, indicate that it takes years to develop such effective anti-poaching measures. More....