BORA staff in action.
Together with the Javan Rhino, the Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the most critically endangered of the rhino species. This rhino species may represent the rainforest relic of a rhino which was once adapted to the open woodlands of the Pleistocene ice ages when sea levels were much lower than now, and Borneo and Sumatra were joined to mainland Asia via savannahs now under the South China Sea.
Over the past millennium, hunting and habitat loss have driven this rhino to the brink of extinction. Now, there may be just too few fertile females and males in any one forest area to sustain breeding.
Scientists now estimate that there are only about 200 animals remaining in the wild, clinging to existence in highly fragmented populations. As the persistence of populations in Peninsular Malaysia is very much in doubt, Indonesia and Sabah hold the only significant breeding populations. Between 30 – 40 rhinos are thought to be found in Sabah’s Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Danum Valley Conservation Area, and pockets of eastern and central Sabah.
In Indonesia, small populations may be found in three Indonesian National Parks in Sumatra: Bukit Barisan Selatan, Way Kambas and possibly Gunung Leuser.
Sumatran rhinos can be expected to persist and breed only in protected areas where they are physically guarded from harm by Rhino Protection Units. The continuation of this protection provides a necessary but perhaps insufficient means for the species’ survival. Active programmes to bring fertile females and males together may now be a necessary supplement to pull the species back from the brink of extinction.
The Littlest rhino
The Sumatran Rhino found in Sabah, is somewhat smaller than that found in Sumatra. It ranges from 4 to 5 feet in height, and 6.5 to 9.5 feet in length. Of course little is relative when discussing rhinos! Sumatran rhinos still weigh in at between 500 and 800 kilos. The Borneo form has been classified as a sub-species belonging to the same species as the rhinos found in Sumatra. This is based on skull shape, DNA and a slight difference in size – the Sumatran rhinoceros is now known as Dicerorhinus sumatrensis sumatrensis while the Bornean rhinoceros is more correctly referred to as Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni.
The Sumatran Rhino is also known as the Asian Two-horned rhino because of its two horns – a larger anterior horn and a smaller horn behind it. However, the main feature that distinguishes it from the other four rhino species is its covering of hair and reddish-brown skin. This is why the Sumatran rhino is sometimes called the ‘hairy rhino’.
Sumatran rhinos are browsers and consume a wide variety of plant species in the tropical forest. They have a lifespan of between 25 and 35 years. Mothers give birth to one calf every 3 years and the gestation period for a Sumatran rhino is 15-16 months. Females reach sexual maturity between 6 and 7 years of age, while males mature at approximately 8 years of age. Sumatran rhinos are generally solitary in nature and generally form temporary associations for mating before parting ways once again.
Three of Malaysia’s endangered large mammal species are experiencing contrasting futures.
Populations of the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) have dwindled to critically low numbers in Peninsular Malaysia (current estimates need to be revised) and the state of Sabah (less than 40 individuals estimated). In the latter region, a bold intervention involving the translocation of isolated rhinos is being developed to concentrate them into a protected area to improve reproduction success rates.
For the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), recently established baselines for Peninsular Malaysia (0.09 elephants/km2 estimated from one site) and Sabah (between 0.56 and 2.15 elephants/km2 estimated from four sites) seem to indicate globally significant populations based on dung count surveys. Similar surveys are required to monitor elephant population trends at these sites and to determine baselines elsewhere.
The population status of the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) in Peninsular Malaysia, however, remains uncertain as only a couple of scientifically defensible camera-trapping surveys (1.66 and 2.59 tigers/100 km2 estimated from two sites) have been conducted to date. As conservation resources are limited, it may be prudent to focus tiger monitoring and protection efforts in priority areas identified by the National Tiger Action Plan for Malaysia. Apart from reviewing the conservation status of rhinos, elephants and tigers and threats facing them, we highlight existing and novel conservation initiatives, policies and frameworks that can help secure the long-term future of these iconic species in Malaysia.
The above is an ABSTRACT of an article published online in the scientific journal Biodiversity Conservation on January 23 2010.
The authors of this orginal paper are as follows: Reuben Clements • Darmaraj Mark Rayan • Abdul Wahab Ahmad Zafir • Arun Venkataraman • Raymond Alfred • Junaidi Payne • Laurentius Ambu • Dionysius Shankar Kumar Sharma.
To read the whole article, download it HERE.
Isolated rhinos in fragmented Sabahan forests will be captured and placed in a new rhino sanctuary in a last bid to multiply their numbers.
Article by Michael Cheang, The Star, August 18 2009
AS you head into Tabin Wildlife Reserve, there is a massive tree that stands tall and proud beside the road. The tallest tree in the reserve, it seems to stand guard against the advancing hoard of oil palm trees across the road that also serves as the border between protected and developed land.
Tabin Wildlife Reserve is in need of such guardians, symbolic or otherwise. Located 48km from Lahat Datu in south-east Sabah and spanning 120,500ha of the Dent peninsula that forms the northern headland of Darvel Bay, it is one of the largest remaining protected wildlife reserves in the country; and crucially, the last major stronghold of the Bornean rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni).
The Bornean rhino is a sub-species of the Asian two-horned rhinoceros, more commonly known as the Sumatran rhino. It is also the most endangered species in Malaysia, and will probably go extinct if there is no active human intervention, according to Junaidi Payne of WWF and Borneo Rhinoceros Alliance (Bora). Bora is a non-profit organisation and a joint effort between government and non-governmental groups that focus specifically on saving the rhino in Malaysia.
“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,” said Payne. “Tabin is the only place left in Malaysia where there is hope of saving the rhino because there are a few breeding individuals and we know the habitat is good because historically they were here.”
It is estimated that only 30 to 40 Bornean rhinos remain in Sabah, with the last survey in 2006 locating at least 13 individuals within Tabin. Consisting mostly of secondary regenerated forest (the area was heavily logged in the 1970s and 80s), Tabin has been a secure wildlife reserve for the past 25 years. It is categorised as a Class Seven forest reserve in Sabah – meaning its primary purpose is to conserve wildlife, and the forest cannot be logged anymore. It is also in no danger from being encroached upon by the surrounding oil palm estates.
As such, it is only fitting that Tabin was chosen to be the site of a new (and some say, final) hope for the Bornean rhino – the 4,500ha Borneo Rhinoceros Sanctuary (BRS) where a small population of the animal will be left to roam free in the hope that they will mate and breed.
The initiative is jointly set up by Sime Darby Foundation and the Sabah Government. Foundation chairman Tun Musa Hitam and State Wildlife Department Director Datuk Laurentius Ambu signed an agreement on the initiative on June 30 at the Tabin Wildlife Resort located inside the reserve.
According to Musa, the project is part of Sime’s Big 9 campaign to protect nine endangered Malaysian animals – the Sumatran rhino, orang utan, hornbill, sun bear, banteng (wild cattle), clouded leopard, pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey and the Malayan tiger, all of which (with the exception of the tiger) can be found in Tabin. Apart from the rhino reserve in Tabin, the foundation has funded the Malaysian Nature Society conservation project on the plain-pouched hornbill in Belum-Temenggor forest in Perak.
“We are providing RM7.3mil, including RM5mil for the infrastructure, to build the 4,500ha sanctuary for the rhinos in Tabin,” Musa said, adding that the funding will continue for three years until 2012.
A bulk of the funding will go towards upgrading existing infrastructure like volunteers’ living quarters and roads, as well as encircling the sanctuary with an electrified fence, which will make it the first such project involving a large fenced up area in a tropical rainforest.
The sanctuary is also unique in the sense that it is a “hands-off breeding programme.” Learning from the painful lessons of past rhino captive breeding programmes in Malaysia where most of the animals died in captivity, the rhinos in the Tabin sanctuary will be a confined area and it is hoped that nature will then take its course.
However, this does not mean that all the remaining rhinos in Sabah will be herded up into the area to breed. Payne said wild rhinos that are already within Tabin wildlife reserve would be left alone. What the sanctuary is setting out to do is to capture “doomed” rhinos in isolated forests all over Sabah, and put them in the sanctuary. .
“There are pockets of forests all over Sabah where individual rhinos are living with no hope of ever meeting a mate and they will never contribute to the species’ survival. The sanctuary aims to bring these so-called ‘doomed rhinos’ together in the hope that they might mate,” said Payne.
The sanctuary already has its first resident – a mature bull called Tam, who was found wandering around an oil palm plantation 48km from Tabin last August.
“We found Tam in an oil palm plantation, and monitored him for two weeks until it was apparent that he did not want to go back to the forest. No one really knows why. The feeling is that he was injured by a trap in the forest. Finally, the Wildlife Department decided to catch it and bring it here instead,” said Payne.
Tam was put in a 2,500ha fenced area where he is free to roam. There is also a makeshift paddock in the area where Tam is fed and where volunteers conduct medical check-ups on him. These are just temporary lodgings for Tam though. Once the sanctuary is ready (hopefully in a year’s time), he will be put there to mingle with the other rhinos to be captured.
“We are targeting to catch another four or five other rhinos, in the next few years,” said Payne.
He reckons that with funding from Sime for at least three years, the sanctuary has a chance to work. However, the success or failure of the initiative may not be known for at least 10 years or so.
“Even if we catch a small number of rhinos and they don’t breed within three or four years, it still doesn’t mean the project is not successful,” he emphasised.
While the main priority is saving the rhinos, the sanctuary initiative will also draw attention to the importance of protecting and preserving a wide array of biological resources within Tabin. These include trees and plants from primary and secondary forests, as well as a large number of animal species inhabiting the forest. Besides the rhino, it is also home to the pygmy elephant, tembadau, deer, orang utan and other primates, carnivores such as the honey bear and the rare clouded leopard, birds, reptiles, amphibians and different species of river fish.
“Hopefully, the higher profile that the project brings will help elevate the status of Tabin to the level of iconic sites such as Sipadan Island, Danum Valley or Maliau Basin,” said Payne.
PETALING JAYA, Malaysia, March 20, 2006 (ENS) – Poaching has reduced Malaysia’s population of Sumatran rhinos to just a small group plus a few individuals clinging to survival in the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, according to an extensive field study conducted in 2005.
Teams from nine government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and academic institutions were able to find just 13 animals in the state of Sabah.
The survey of Sabah’s rhinos involved about 120 people in 16 teams. It was conducted by the Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Parks, the Sabah Foundation, WWF-Malaysia, the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, SOS Rhino, University Malaysia Sabah, and Operation Raleigh.
A few individuals still survive in other parts of Sabah that were not covered by the study, the researchers said. Rhinos on the Indonesian side of Borneo and in the Malaysian state of Sarawak are believed to be extinct.
Today, Sumatran rhinos are found only in widely scattered areas across Borneo, peninsular Malaysia, and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
The smallest of the five rhino species, Sumatran rhinos are about at 4.5 feet tall and weigh about one ton. It is the only Asian rhino species with two horns. There are believed to be fewer than 300 Sumatran rhinos left in the world and they are considered one of the most endangered rhino species because of the intensity of poaching.
Rhino horn carries a high price on the black market, where it is sold for use in traditional Asian medicines.
Previous estimates of rhino numbers had suggested there were 30 to 70 rhinos on the island of Borneo, all in Sabah.
“Poaching has decimated Borneo’s once-healthy rhino population, but we were heartened to find that a few individuals have managed to cling to survival,” said Raymond Alfred, of WWF-Malaysia. “Conservationists and Sabah government agencies are working hard to ensure this small population is protected and can grow.”
To conserve the few animals that remain in Sabah, WWF and Malaysian authorities have launched rhino protection units to patrol the area where the 13 rhinos were found.
Because poaching is such a threat to this species, the survey results were not released until strong protection measures could be put in place in the areas where the rhinos are found. Those security measures were recently installed.
In February, WWF-Malaysia and partners launched a five year project called Rhino Rescue, which will organize rhino protection units and other activities to deter poaching.
Partners with WWF-Malaysia in this effort to protect Borneo’s remaining rhinos are the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Sabah Foundation, S.O.S Rhino and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Untouched forest the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo (Photo courtesy University Malaysia Sabah) “The results from the survey of Borneo’s rhinos are crucial additions to our scientific understanding of the species,” said Dr. Christy Williams, of WWF’s Asian rhino program. “We believe this population may be viable and could recover if their habitat is protected and the threat of poaching is eliminated.”
WWF aims to assist Borneo’s three nations – Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia – to conserve the Heart of Borneo – a total of 220,000 square kilometers of equatorial rainforest – through a network of protected areas and sustainably managed forest, and through international co-operation led by the Bornean governments and supported by a global effort.
Sabah and the forests of the Heart of Borneo still hold vast stretches of continuous natural forests, which are some of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth, with high numbers of unique animal and plant species.
This is one of the world’s only two places where orangutans, elephants and rhinos still co-exist and where forests are still large enough to maintain viable populations. The other place is Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
The species of rhino in Borneo, commonly called the Sumatran rhinoceros, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, is considered to be a separate subspecies, D.s. harrissoni, from the other Sumatran rhinos.
The rhinos feed on the leaves of a wide variety of seedlings and young trees. Unlike other rhino species and other large herbivorous mammals in Borneo such as elephant, wild cattle, and deer, the Sumatran rhino is a strict forest dweller that ventures out of forest cover only inunusual situations.
Other threatened wildlife in Borneo includes clouded leopards, sun bears, and three species of leaf monkeys found nowhere else on Earth.