Sumatran Rhino, Thought Extinct, Shows Up After 40 Years

The Sumatran rhinoceros disappeared over 40 years ago. But tracking them through their native rainforests and swamps of Kalimantan, Borneo, and the island of Sumatra, scientists knew the smallest version of the Asian rhino was still around. They found teasers, such as footprints and dung, and an occasional photo snapped by a strategically placed trail cam.

The Sumatran rhinoceros was a ghost; a shadow of its primitive past. But with numbers estimated under 100 individuals, the rhino was considered, for all intents and purposes, extinct. Counting them was difficult, because like most rhinos, individuals were loners. They scatter far and wide in the hilly country, foraging for twigs and fruit, digging in mud and doing rhino stuff. They like to remain in thick undergrowth. This habit, along with their dwindling numbers and preferred solitude, made them especially elusive.

This month, in Indonesian Borneo, conservationists made the first physical contact with a Sumatran Rhino in over four decades.

“That’s a very, very rare thing,” said Simon Stuart, a rhino expert at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. According to a report by The Guardian, Stuart said that the dense rainforest and remote nature of the area made sightings difficult.

“Finding a single Sumatran rhino is good news given we can’t even account for 100 in the world.”

The rhino, a female estimated to be 4- to 5-years-old, was safely captured in a pit trap in Kutai Barat in East Kalimantan on March 12, and she will be relocated for her own safety.

Pak Efransjah, the CEO of the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) in Indonesia, said it was exciting news and a major conservation success.

“We now have proof that a species once thought extinct in Kalimantan still roams the forests, and we will now strengthen our efforts to protect this extraordinary species.”

WWF Global reported that a team of surveyors found that the Sumatran rhino was not extinct in Kalimantan in 2013. Over the past three years, 15 Sumatran rhinos have been identified in three populations in Kutai Barat.

The captured female rhino is being held in an enclosure, until she can be transferred by helicopter to an undisclosed sanctuary, about 100 miles from where she is now. There will be less risk of poaching in her new location, Dr. Efransjah indicated.

“This is a race against time for rhino conservation. Providing a safe home is the only hope for the survival of the Sumatran rhino for many generations to come. WWF will work continuously with the Sumatran rhino conservation team for the protection of the Sumatran rhino population in Kalimantan.”

WWF is teaming up with Sumatran Rhino Conservation Team, established by the Indonesia Ministry of Environment and Forestry. The group is working to relocate at least three rhinos from their current habitat to the sanctuary. There, they will be safer and hopefully will establish a breeding population.

Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, commended the Indonesian government for their cooperation in preserving the Indonesian rhino.

“This unprecedented discovery and unparalleled operation boosts our hope to save one of the most endangered species and an iconic symbol of the majestic Asian rainforests. This is an exciting moment in our efforts to save the world’s amazing biodiversity.”

Once widespread across south-east Asia, from northern India to southern China, the Sumatran rhino was declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia last year. Also called the “hairy rhino” because of its reddish-brown hair, it is the most vocal rhino species. It is thought to be closely related to the extinct woolly rhinoceros. Like the woolly mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros survived the last Ice Age, but died off around 10,000 years ago.

[Image via Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press]