Various measures have been taken to conserve Sabah’s rhinos since the 1980s by government and NGOs alike. Attempts were made at captive breeding at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehablitation Centre with little success. This well-intentioned effort was hampered by inadequate knowledge of the Bornean rhino, its behaviour, reproductive physiology and diet. Borneo’s forest dwelling rhino was quite unlike the Indian or African rhino species -in many ways as such rhino conservation knowledge from these species could not simply be transplanted to Borneo. Much remained to be learned.
Thus, up to present, rhino numbers have continued to decline overall, and have seemingly stagnated in both Tabin and Danum. A July 2007 expert workshop in Kota Kinabalu led by SOS Rhino and the Sabah Wildlife Department, resulted in strong consensus that urgent and decisive steps needed to be made to concentrate remaining rhinos at a single site in order to boost prospects for successful breeding.
In early 2008, the national government of Malaysia launched the Sabah Development Corridor programme to promote a more rapid approach to development in Sabah. The official Sabah Development Corridor document, page 189, section 7.4.9 Rhino Rescue Programme clearly states that “guaranteeing the sub-species protection is no longer sufficient to ensure its survival” and that “Lack of breeding and inbreeding present the most immediate threat”. The document also concluded that it was necessary to establish a closely-managed population in a designated area.
In terms of a conservation strategy for Sabah’s rhinos, there is a need to implement two sorts of actions to stop the Bornean rhino from drifting to extinction, and to initiate a trajectory of increasing rhino numbers. The first is to have zero poaching and trapping of rhinos anywhere in Sabah. The second action consists of a “Rhino Rescue Programme” and establishment of a “Borneo Rhino Sanctuary” in Tabin Wildlife Reserve.
Tabin Wildlife Reserve consists of 1,220 square kilometers of mainly regenerating logged dipterocarp forest located in eastern Sabah, 42 kilometers from Lahad Datu. The area has been a secure wildlife reserve for the past 25 years and is categorised as a Class Seven forest reserve in Sabah. This means that its primary purpose is to conserve wildlife, and the forest cannot be logged. It is also in no danger of being encroached upon by surrounding oil palm estates. In addition, Tabin Wildlife Reserve is one of the most significant conservation areas in Southeast Asia, with wild populations of Bornean elephant, Bornean orang-utan, banteng (wild cattle), Sunda clouded leopard, sun bear.
The Borneo Rhino Sanctuary will be developed as a large fenced area inside Tabin Wildlife Reserve, to be populated by rhinos translocated from sites where they are not breeding. What conservation scientists now know about the Bornean rhino is that it is a creature that favours the cover of the forest canopy and seems to require a combination of nutrients and minerals from wild plants and the natural salt licks which are a feature of Tabin, as well as clay-rich soils for constructing mud wallows. The small population of rhinos in Tabin and Borneo Rhino Sanctuary will be managed in an attempt to boost the breeding rate, as well as to prevent the death of rhinos by illegal hunting and trapping.
A doomed species?
There are some that contend that it is too late to save this rhino because its numbers are critically low, or because of inbreeding. One response to this view is that historically there are several examples of species that were teetering on the brink of extinction that have been able to recover through successful human intervention. The African and Indian rhinos are prime examples of species that were similarly threatened about a century ago. Other mammal species such as the European bison, Arabian Oryx and Pere David’s deer each have amazing comeback stories. Today these species are inspiring living examples of what is possible with appropriate passion and action by a small number of people.
BORA believes that no species is doomed if concerned people are prepared to intervene. The organisation is determined to doing all that it can to reverse the fate of the Bornean rhino. With the continued commitment of the Sabah government and other supporters we believe that together we can give the Bornean rhino population a chance to stabilise and strengthen. In our lifetime we will be able to tell our children that we did all that was possible to ensure the survival of this magnificent and endearing creature.