WWF risking Sumatran rhinos by releasing camera trap images, says scientist

Jeremy Hance
October 09, 2013

On October 2nd, WWF released camera trap videos of Sumatran rhinos surviving in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. The conservation organization had already announced in April that they had evidence of at least one Sumatran rhino in the province, but the new images confirmed what is likely to be a small surviving population. While this is good news for an animal on the edge of extinction, Erik Meijaard, a researcher who has worked in Indonesia for over 20 years, says WWF has made a mistake publicizing the news around the world, noting "the last thing those rhinos need is publicity."

"What WWF should have done is keep quiet, lobby in the background for the protection of the forest and the establishment of effective conservation management...Only, when everything was in place to deliver long-term effective management with experienced and preferably well-heeled conservation partners, then WWF could have considered announcing that they had effectively protected the last rhinos of Kalimantan for over 10 years and that the population had boomed," Meijaard told mongabay.com. "What they are doing now is seeking to fast-track solutions, but such quick solutions do not work in Indonesia. And with a few rhinos in their area, the margin for error is zero."

Rhino poaching to fuel the black-market trade for the big mammal's horns has skyrocketed recently. Thousands of rhinos have been killed in the last few years alone across Africa and also in parts of Asia where their populations are much smaller. Meijaard fears that by making this information public, WWF has put the population of Sumatran rhinos hanging on in Kalimantan at risk.

In a press release, WWF says it has set up on-the-ground patrols in the forests where the rhinos survive.

Still from camera trap video of Sumatran rhino in Kalimantan wallowing in a mud hole. Photo by:© WWF-Indonesia/ PHKA.
Still from camera trap video of Sumatran rhino in Kalimantan wallowing in a mud hole. Photo by:© WWF-Indonesia/ PHKA.

"A joint monitoring team from the Kutai Barat administration, Rhino Protection Unit, and WWF have been conducting regular patrols around the area," said Nazir Foead, Conservation Director of WWF-Indonesia. "WWF calls on all parties, in Indonesia and around the world, to immediately join the effort to conserve the Indonesian rhinoceros."

The rarest rhino's last stand

(06/04/2012) Trekking through deep mud and sawgrass we find a stinking wallow. The elite rangers, dressed completely in black despite the tropical heat, mark the site with the GPS unit, measure the mucky puddle's depth, and move on. This is the first sign of one of the planet's rarest animals—the Javan rhino. Only 35 or so remain, including none in captivity. This patch of rainforest and swamp in Ujung Kulon National Park—on the very tip of West Java—is their last and only refuge.
However, wildlife rangers and consistent patrolling have not stopped rhino poaching in countries like South Africa, Nepal, and Kenya among others.

Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) are among the world's most endangered mammals. Scientists have recently estimated that less than 100 exist in the wild with tiny, splintered populations persisting on Sumatra and Borneo. Conservationists are currently attempting to breed rhinos in semi-captive conditions in Sumatra and Sabah (Indonesian Borneo) as well as in the Cincinnati Zoo. Between the three breeding institutions, there are currently ten rhinos.

Not long ago, most conservationists believed the rhinos of Kalimantan were gone for good, however rumors persisted. For centuries, Kalimantan's rhinos faced relentless hunting, especially by the nomadic forest people in the area, according to Meijaard. However, by the end of the century, the government of Indonesia had resettled these nomadic people into villages, ending their nomadic culture and, unintentionally, regular rhino hunts. According to Meijaard, the reduction in hunting pressure likely allowed the few surviving rhinos to breed and perhaps even increase in population. Still, hunters told Meijaard they killed a rhino in Kalimantan as recently as 2000.

"The problem is that no one in Indonesia, apart possibly from the Ujung Kulon people, have been able to stop rhino poaching," says Meijaard.

Still from camera trap video of Sumatran rhino in Kalimantan. Photo by:© WWF-Indonesia/PHKA.
Still from camera trap video of Sumatran rhino in Kalimantan. Photo by:© WWF-Indonesia/PHKA.

Camera trap videos show Sumatran rhinos in Kalimantan. Video © WWF-Indonesia/PHKA.

AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book.

Related articles

WWF: careful planning went into announcement on rhino rediscovery in Indonesian Borneo

(04/08/2013) WWF-Indonesia had considered the impact of the publication of finding traces of Sumatran rhinos in Kalimantan. In the two-month period before it was published, WWF-Indonesia had coordinated with various parties, including the local government, the Forestry Ministry, rhino experts, local university and other related parties to set up strategies and to ensure commitment to full protection of the rhino.

Sumatran rhino population plunges, down to 100 animals

(04/08/2013) Less than 100 Sumatran rhinos survive in the world today, according to a bleak new population estimate by experts. The last survey in 2008 estimated that around 250 Sumatran rhinos survived, but that estimate now appears optimistic and has been slashed by 60 percent. However conservationists are responding with a major new agreement between the Indonesian and Malaysian governments at a recent summit by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC).

Has WWF just condemned the last rhino in Kalimantan?

(04/04/2013) WWF-Indonesia recently caught the attention of the global media with their announcement that the Sumatran rhinoceros still exists in Indonesian Borneo, some 40 years after being declared extinct there. This sounds like great news for biodiversity conservation. But is it really? Worst rhino poaching year on record for South Africa

(09/29/2013) At least 688 rhinos have been poached in South Africa this year, surpassing last year's record of 668 with more than three months remaining in 2013, reports the country's top environmental official.

Rhino slaughtered for its horn in city park

(08/13/2013) In another sign that the rhino poaching crisis has gone out-of-control, Kenyan officials announced late last night that a pregnant rhino was poached in Nairobi National Park, which sits on the edge of Kenya's capital. Home to lions, leopard, giraffes and hippos in addition to rhinos, the park is known for its views of iconic wildlife flanked by Nairobi's skyline.

The Javan Rhino’s final stronghold

(07/29/2013) August 27, 1883. It’s been called 'the day the world exploded'. One hundred and thirty years ago this month, the volcanic island of Krakatau (Krakatoa) blew its top. The smoking mountain had given several days warning to the human inhabitants of Java and Sumatra, the closest large islands, but no one could have imagined the intensity of the eruption and the devastation that followed. Several cubic miles of rock and ash - more than half the island – rocketed skyward. The explosion released over 10,000 times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and was an order of magnitude more powerful than the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Tsunamis greater than 100 feet high roared over coastal habitats, inundating lowland forests and scouring them of wildlife.

Tigers, orangutans, rhinos: Sumatra's big mammals on the edge of extinction

(06/12/2013) Karman Lubis's body was found near where he had been working on a Sumatran rubber plantation. His head was found several days later a mile away and they still haven't found his right hand. He had been mauled by a Sumatran tiger that has been living in Batang Gadis National Park and he was one of five people killed there by tigers in the last five years.

Rhino populations in Sumatra, Borneo should be combined to save Sumatran rhino from extinction

(05/15/2013) A new study argues for treating endangered Sumatran populations in Borneo and Sumatra as 'a single conservation unit', lending academic support to a controversial proposal to move wild rhinos from Malaysia to Indonesia.

Malaysia may loan Indonesia rhinos to save species from extinction

(04/30/2013) Conservationists and officials meeting last month at a rhino crisis summit in Singapore agreed to a radical plan to loan Sumatran rhinos between nations if it means saving the critically endangered species from extinction. The proposal, which could still be thwarted by red tape and political opposition, could lead Malaysia to send some of its Sumatran rhinos to semi-captive breeding facilities in Indonesia.

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (October 09, 2013).

WWF risking Sumatran rhinos by releasing camera trap images, says scientist.