By Jeremy Hance
Malaysian officials admit the Bornean rhino may only be represented by three surviving captive animals
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. In 2008, conservationists estimated there were around 50 rhinos in the state. Five years later, it dropped that estimate to just ten. 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 U.S. 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. More....