April 20, 2014

Meeting Tam in Borneo: our last chance to save Asia’s two horned rhino

Meeting Tam in Borneo: our last chance to save Asia’s two horned rhino

Face-to-face with what may be the last of the world’s smallest rhino, the Bornean rhinoceros.

Nothing can really prepare a person for coming face-to-face with what may be the last of a species.

I had known for a week that I would be fortunate enough to meet Tam. I’d heard stories of his gentle demeanor, discussed his current situation with experts, and read everything I could find about this surprising individual. But still, walking up to the pen where Tam stood contentedly pulling leaves from the hands of a local ranger, hearing him snort and whistle, watching as he rattled the bars with his blunted horn, I felt like I was walking into a place I wasn’t meant to be. As though I was treading on his, Tam’s space: entering into a cool deep forest where mud wallows and shadows still linger. This was Tam’s world, or at least it should be.

A living—still surviving—Bornean rhinoceros, Tam is only one of an estimated forty left in the world, maybe less. At 620 kilograms (1430 pounds), Tam is a full grown male rhino. Researchers have estimated his age to be about twenty with at least another decade before him. Surprisingly pinkish in color, he is sparsely covered by large black hairs, while both of his two horns—unlike other Asian rhinos who only sport one—have been rubbed dull against the walls of his pen.

Eye to eye with Tam, Photo by Jeremy Hance

Tam is a survivor—that is certain. He survived his forest habitat being whittled into smaller and smaller pockets. He survived his right foot being caught in a poacher’s snare leaving an inch-wide white scar circling his ankle. And he had survived when he wandered directly into an oil palm plantation in early August of last year, probably propelled by his injury. He had beaten the odds, this one.

Everything has changed for Tam now. Cynthia Ong, Director of Land Empowerment Animals and People (LEAP) which has worked on raising funds to save the Bornean rhino, said that since wandering into a plantation over a year ago Tam had become “very manja”. Not being Malaysian I didn’t know the word, but she assured me every Malaysian mother’s daughter knew it, and it meant something like ‘lovingly spoiled’.

It’s true that Tam has entered a kind of retirement. Instead of being butchered for his horn—a fate suffered by a female Bornean rhino in 2001—Tam was immediately seen as a symbol of a dying, but not yet dead, species. His surprising arrival on an oil palm plantation brought the government and conservation community of Sabah into action. He now has a 2.5 hectare pen to his own, complete with forest cover and two mud wallows; he is fed a selection of greens gathered every morning and afternoon by rangers with the Sabah Wildlife Department; and he is protected 24-7 by an anti-poaching squad.

Tam at dinner time. Photo by Jeremy Hance

Of course, the situation is not perfect, it would be best if Tam could have remained in the wild to live out his life—only this time near other rhinos, instead of the forest patch where he was trapped and alone. But his injured foot had required care and now he is too accustomed to humans to simply be placed back in the wild, because he would likely wander into human habitations again—where he may not be so lucky.

However his appearance on the human stage has given Tam another role to play: a survivor’s role.

Tam—this massive, purplish, very ‘manja’ animal who almost crushed my hand against the bars as I tried to take rapid photos into his pen because he probably thought I was trying to feed him the camera—could be the key to bringing the Bornean rhino back from the brink.

The story of the two-horned Asian rhino

The story of Tam and his kind goes back—way back.

Bornean rhinos are actually a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino, of which there are only an estimated 250 left in the world. Sumatran rhinos—and their Bornean subspecies—are the only rhinos left in the genus, Dicerorhinus. Most researchers believe that the Sumatran rhino is the last living representative of early Miocene rhinos and therefore the oldest rhino species left in the world, one that emerged between 15 and 20 million years ago.

This also makes the Sumatran rhino the closest living relative to the legendary Woolly rhinoceros, which roamed the steppes during the Ice Age. Evidence of their ancient ancestry is seen in the Sumatran rhinos’ thick black strands of hair; the same hair that probably covered the Woolly rhinoceros, only in a far thicker coat.

For millions of years the Sumatran rhino inhabited Southeast Asia, from Borneo to Northeastern India. Living largely solitary lives, they preferred deep tropical forests near muddy and swampy areas. Not known to fight over territory, the Sumatran rhino is actually quite a gentle creature, despite its heavy bulk and huge horns. Considered the most vocal of all the rhinos, it makes a number of surprising noises, including one which has been compared to a whale singing.

After millions of years the rhino’s fate turned. Following the path similar to many lost and threatened species in the region, habitat loss and large-scale hunting drove the rhino into smaller and smaller pockets until it finally reached its current pathetic state. The rhino’s horn is key to understanding the demise of the animal; it fetches hefty prices (upwards of 30,000 US dollars per kilo) on the black market where it is sold as traditional Chinese medicine. Despite decades of anti-poaching measures and laws, the trade is still booming and rhinos across the world are still paying the price. In fact this year has been a particularly bad one for rhinos worldwide: poaching is at a fifteen-year-high and rhino horn by kilo is not worth more than gold.

The Sumatran rhino has already lost one subspecies to extinction—the Northern Sumatran rhino, once prevalent in India, Burma, and Bangladesh—while the remaining two subspecies—the Bornean and the Western Sumatran rhino—hang-on by a thread in Borneo, Sumatra, and peninsular Malaysia.

Oil palm plantation and tropical forests: plantations have fractured forest habitat across Southeast Asia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

On top of all of this Junaidi Payne, chairman of the Borneo Rhinoceros Alliance (BORA) and longtime conservationist with WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), Malaysia, says that a new and insidious threat faces the species: population collapse.

“In the past, rhinos were threatened by poaching, loss of habitat and so on. But now they are mostly threatened by the simple fact that there just aren’t enough of them around in one place anymore,” Payne told The Star.

Habitat is so fragmented and rhino numbers so low, that many remaining rhinos are simply unable to locate another individual to breed with. They are caught in pockets of forest surrounded by oil palm plantations with no opportunity to safely cross the plantations and reach other rhinos. Tam is an example of this: his front foreleg was caught in a snare that was mostly likely put out by oil palm plantation workers.

“Most workers in oil palm plantations, as well as rural people in general, do not earn big incomes and survive how they can” says Payne. Palm oil plantation workers—mostly immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines in Sabah—as well as local people in some areas, are known to set snares to catch deer and other animals for meat, but these snares trap indiscriminately and sometimes injure or kill Bornean elephants, sunbears, rhinos, and other imperiled species.

Scar from snare that caught Tam. Photo by Jeremy Hance

But it’s not just the situation on the ground that has brought the Sumatran rhino so close to extinction; it is also a matter of perception. Both Payne and Ong told me that Tam and his kind have been largely overlooked by the public, both local and international.

“People don’t understand the significance of the rhino,” Ong says, who describes the Sumatran rhino as “one of the top five endangered mammals in the world”. Ong adds that the public simply doesn’t realize how rare the Sumatran rhino is or its evolutionary importance as the last representative of an ancient mammal line.

In Sabah most of the focus is on orangutans with elephants coming a distant second. When compared to the huge amount of information available on orangutans, there are few research papers, books, and no documentary films on Sumatran rhinos. Any conservationist knows that it is difficult to save a species that doesn’t excite the imagination of the public, and since rhinos are so secretive and rare they have largely been out of sight, out of mind.

“It could be an intimate relationship [between humans and rhinos], but how we choose to engage shows us where we are at as a human community,” Ong says.

The good news is that the Sumatran rhino has a new champion. Having worked to save numerous species in Sabah, Payne says that he has now dedicated his time to saving the embattled rhino.

However, his decision raises some eyebrows.

Why work to save a doomed species?

Why? Junaidi Payne gets asked this question all the time. Why work to save a species that is doomed to extinction? Why not work on a species with a little more promise, like, say, the orangutan or elephant?

Tam. Photo by Jeremy Hance.

“Simple reason,” Payne told me. “There are estimated to be 11,000 orangutans [in Sabah alone] and probably 1,500 [Bornean pygmy] elephants, but there are no more than forty rhinos and new populations have stagnated and are going down slowly. It’s about need.”

However, Payne is not shy about the difficulties facing him and others who have joined the new effort to save the Bornean rhino.

“One can guess that there might be only 6-7 fertile females [of Bornean rhinos] in existence,” he says, adding that with this knowledge in hand “anyone, any common sense person, would agree that [attempting to save the subspecies] is a waste of time”.

I asked Payne if he believed then that the rhino was doomed.

“Probably,” he answered. “Yet maybe not”. And it is that ‘maybe not’ that really interests and excites Payne. He remains hopeful—and with good reason.

Payne pointed out to me that past conservation success stories prove the rhino is not a lost cause. At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Africa’s white rhinoceros—once widespread—were down to just over twenty individuals surviving in one location in South Africa. Intensive conservation measures pulled the white rhino back from the brink: today an estimated 17,480 white rhinos live in east and southern Africa, making it the most populous rhino species in the world.

But it’s not just the white rhino: over one thousand European bison survive today, all of which are descended from just a dozen individuals in captivity; and after going extinct in the wild in the 1970s, the Arabian oryx has been successfully reintroduced into its native habitat—several hundred strong—while at least 6,000 survive in captivity.

Despite these and other success stories, Payne says that there has been a “strange change where academics claim [species] are doomed unless you have a certain minimum number of individuals – often the number 500 has been proposed “.

Tam currently has 2.5 hectares to himself. Photo by Jeremy Hance

Payne calls this the “geneticist’s tyranny” where in spite of “empirical evidence” that large mammals have gone through genetic bottlenecks and come back, many geneticists would claim that the fate of the rhino is already decided.

“People are forced to give reasons why we save these species,” Ong added, but it’s clear that “you can change the course of events”.

Of course, the question of ‘why?’ could be asked of any endangered animal. Why put money, time, and energy into saving a species at all? Certainly, species provide what are called ‘ecosystem services’, they in concert with their environment, provide pollination, clean water, clean air, food, medicine etc. But are there other reasons?

“I can only say—I’m shy to say it […] but the general answer would be that humans, having even thought about [saving a species], gives some responsibility to actually save them,” Payne said.

Ong agrees that the decision to save a species says just as much about humans as it does about the embattled and vanishing species: “I see this as a question of where we are in our evolution and how do we respond to this critical situation.”

She then puts it in more personal term: “When our great grand children ask ‘when you found out about [the rhino] what did you do?’ How will we respond?”

The plan going forward

Of course, it’s not enough to simply decide to save a species on the precipice of extinction, large-scale action and a lot of funds are required. In the case of Sumatran rhinos, there has already been a concerted effort to save the species—which ended in failure.

The Sumatran rhino is the world’s smallest rhino species, while the Bornean subspecies is smaller than the Western Sumatran. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

In 1984 the IUCN brought together a wide range of interested parties from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, Indonesia, the United States, and Britain to discuss how to save the Sumatran rhino. They decided the best thing would be a globally managed program of captured individuals for breeding in captivity in a number of different locations. Between 1986 to1994, around forty Sumatrans rhinos were caught and placed in zoos, as well as other closely managed situations.

The government of Sabah embraced the plan. In 1988 they established Sabah Wildlife Department, previously a division of the Forestry Department, which was created in part as a means to facilitate rhino conservation.

Unfortunately the well-thought out plan didn’t produce: only one breeding pair was successfully established in Cincinnati Zoo, bearing three offspring. Nearly all the original rhinos caught are now dead; the only female to bear offspring died just this year.

Starting in the late 1990s, another breeding site of 100 hectares was established at Way Kambas on Sumatra. However, while the conservation center includes three females and two males, no offspring have been born. Conservationists hope that will change, since the second male was only brought in two years ago.

“The thinking is that the whole idea of very closely managed rhinos in captivity isn’t working as well or as fast as is needed to save the species,” Payne says.

Tam. Photo by Jeremy Hance

In 2007 researchers concluded at a Conference on Rhino Conservation in Sabah that due to reproductive issues and possible inbreeding, rhino numbers in the Malaysian state had stagnated and were probably declining, therefore simply preserving habitat for rhinos would not save them, nor they thought would captivity. A bold and innovative proposal was put forth.

As Payne tells it, the conservation community was confronted with a choice: either do nothing or place rhinos in a large conservation area that would be less closely managed.

Two years later Payne and BORA are in the midst of assisting the Sabah Wildlife Department in implementing a vast fenced-in sanctuary—4,500 hectares—where Bornean rhinos can be brought together. The rhinos will be monitored, but will have “minimal human influences”. They will be largely left alone in the hopes that nature will take its course and the rhinos will breed.

“In theory we are putting one half of Sabah’s rhino eggs in one basket,” Payne says of the plan.

Ong adds that conservationists have to “make a decision to go all the way with human intervention or why bother.”

Only rhinos which are cut off from others will be placed in the new sanctuary. Rhinos in parks like Tabin or Danum, which are known to be breeding on their own, will not be a part of the sanctuary, but will be left in the wild and protected by anti-poaching units.

The sanctuary already has its first resident. It is, of course, none other than Tam, who is bidding his time until the new sanctuary is built and the other rhinos are caught and brought in. If all goes according to plan Tam will come face-to-face with a female, perhaps his first ever. Payne says that the sanctuary only needs one more male and two females to make the program “just about doable”.

A ranger gathering leaves for Tam. Photo by Jeremy Hance

The plan has received full-support by the government and funds have been promised to the tune of 8 million ringgits by the national government (over 2 million US dollars) and 250,000 ringgits (70,000 US) by the State Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment for interim holding paddocks for rhinos. The sanctuary has also received a large donation by the Sime Darby Foundation, a corporate social and environmental responsibility arm of one of Malaysia’s largest palm oil companies. All that needs to happen now is implementation on the ground: basic infrastructure is scheduled to be completed by next year.

“Director of Sabah Forestry Department, Datuk Sam Mannan, and Sabah Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, Datuk Masidi Manjun have both taken lead roles in supporting the early stages of the program, and both have shown a strong personal interest in pushing it forward.” said Payne.

Masidi, well-known is Sabah for his unwavering commitment to environmental issues, headlined a fundraiser in the spring organized by LEAP that raised 530,000 ringgits (150,000 US) for BORA. Without such government support, the plan to save the rhinos would have stalled before it even started.

Weighing out Tam’s food. Photo by Jeremy Hance.

Payne believes that Sabah is the best hope for the Sumatran rhino going forward, despite Indonesia having a larger population of the rhinos.

“Due to human population pressures in Indonesia and the massive expansion of big scale plantations that compete for land with small-holders,” Payne says that “it may be only a matter of time before the Sumatran rhino vanishes from the wild in Indonesia”.

A large number of unanswered questions remain—such as just how many rhinos are left and how many are capable of breeding—but Payne says that the answer to these questions are largely unnecessary for conservation efforts.

“What is the point spending 10 years researching if the population is 10 or 15 individuals when the species is still going down?” he asked.

Conservation, according to Payne, cannot always wait for hard science and data; often it comes down to using one’s “best judgment” at the time to save a species.

Illustration of the Sumatran rhino, 1927.

When I left Tam the first time, I thought it would be the last. But the next morning, to my surprise, we were able to visit him again. Beforehand we followed rangers with the Sabah Wildlife Department in a pick-up as they cut branches, leaves, and vines for Tam’s breakfast.

By the time we reached Tam, he was already waiting at the gate where they feed him, rubbing his head against the bars. Tam was “like a cat rubbing against you”, Cynthia Ong had told me, and it was true. He would rub his head along the bars like a pet asking for attention. In fact, he had largely rubbed away his magnificent horn. This shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing: without a horn he is of little interest to poachers.

Ong described the day that Tam wandered injured into the palm oil plantation as a “fortuitous and unplanned event”, because “it pushed the idea of [the] proposal” to start a massive rhino sanctuary.

Tam, she told me, “is not an accident”.

After eating his breakfast—carefully measured out on a scale meant for a giant—and having his photo taken a few hundred times, Tam turned and made his way back into the forest. First, he spent a moment wading in the mud and then slowly, but surely, he wandered back into the deep green of Borneo’s jungle. One moment he was there, roaming on the forest’s edge and the next he was gone as if he had never been.

Days before when I asked Junaidi Payne if this was the last chance to save the species, he told me simply: “Yes.”

It’s true that this story will end in one of two ways. In the first Tam and all of his kind will vanish from the dwindled forest, leaving not even their ghosts behind. In this version, he will become another member of those animals painted so nicely in books on extinction: Tam, I imagine, will appear somewhere between the dodo, the thylacine, and the great auk.

In the second version Tam and his kind will continue inhabiting the deep, largely unseen areas of Southeast Asia’s magnificent forests. While this version is dependent on many factors not in our control—factors where previous generations have already failed the rhino—it is our choice now whether or not we give this ending a chance.

I don’t know what we will find when the last page is turned, but having been among the fortunate few to come face-to-face with the two-horned rhino of Asia, I can’t help but dread the day we fail, while simultaneously hoping for the day where I can take my children to meet Tam’s.

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This article written by Jeremy Hance was originally published on MONGABAY.COM
Mongabay.com seeks to raise interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife, while examining the impact of emerging trends in climate, technology, economics, and finance on conservation and development.

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