Conservation news

Forgotten species: the overlooked Sumatran striped rabbit

Everyone knows the tiger, the panda, the blue whale, but what about the other five to thirty million species estimated to inhabit our Earth? Many of these marvelous, stunning, and rare species have received little attention from the media, conservation groups, and the public. This series is an attempt to give these ‘forgotten species‘ some well-deserved attention.

Almost nothing is known about the Sumatran striped rabbit, but it is likely threatened with extinction. Photo by: Jeremy Holden/Fauna and Flora International.
Almost nothing is known about the Sumatran striped rabbit, but it is likely threatened with extinction. Photo by: Jeremy Holden/Fauna and Flora International.

When you read the words ‘Sumatra’ and ‘Endangered Species’ in the same sentence there is a 99 percent chance that you will be reading about one of four animals: orangutans, tigers, elephants, or rhinos. These big four of Sumatra have become the rallying cry to save the island’s ever-dwindling forests. This is not surprising, given that these species include some of the world’s most publicly beloved animals and, in addition, they are all considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. But by dominating the headlines in Sumatra’s deforestation crisis, these four species often overshadow the thousands of other species found on the island, many of which also face extinction. In fact when you read the words ‘Sumatra’ and ‘Endangered Species’ you will almost certainly not be reading about the Sumatran striped rabbit.

“For the most part local people don’t even know that the species exists,” doctoral student Jennifer McCarthy with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst told, adding that,”local villagers in some areas may have heard about the species, and a very few might have seen it.”

Although the Sumatran striped rabbit has been known to science since 1880, biologists have taken almost no interest in it, at least until recently. McCarthy stumbled on the Sumatran striped rabbit herself while looking for other species: the clouded leopard, the Asiatic golden cat, the marbled cat and the leopard cat in a project supported by the Panthera, the MBZ Species Conservation Fund, and the Clouded Leopard Project. But when McCarthy’s camera traps also took photos of a Sumatran striped rabbit, McCarthy couldn’t help but become interested.

“We don’t know anything about the ecology, habitat preference, population status of the species, or threats that the species faces,” she says. “Our present study tried to gather all available occurrence data on the [Sumatran striped rabbit] in Sumatra, and we believe we were fairly successful, but even so we are only able to really identify two areas (Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Kerinci Seblat National Park) that we are positive still harbor the species.”

Forest and creek in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

McCarthy adds, “Basically, we just know that the species exists and persists, and not much else.”

Inhabiting dense, montane jungle, the Sumatran striped rabbit—for good or ill—has succeeded in keeping itself largely unseen. Photos of the species are almost non-existent and most of those have been taken by camera trap. Still, even hazy photos show the attractiveness of the lagomorph: charcoal black stripes, including one that ends in spear-point, a white body, a red rump, and short ears makes this rabbit look like no-other on Earth—except its single relative, the Annamite striped rabbit, which was only discovered in Southeast Asia in 2000. McCarthy, herself, described the Sumatran striped rabbit as “beautiful.”

Although little is known of the species, by digging around in the literature and contacting researchers, McCarthy was able to piece together a little bit about the Sumatran striped rabbit, some of which now appears mistaken.

“There are several things that we thought we knew,” she says. “We thought that it was probably a nocturnal species since most of the photographs taken have been at night, however during our survey we found that there have been several sightings during the day and so now we really can’t even say for sure that they are nocturnal. We also thought that they occurred above 600 meters, but during our survey we had reports from very low elevations as well, so we know that they aren’t just occurring above 600 meters. We had thought that the species occupied mostly intact, primary forest, but we had a report of the species from a selectively logged forest. So, basically we can make some guesses about the behavior and ecology of the species, but it is going to take a lot more data before we have a very good idea whether we are right or not.”

But this is where the gap comes in. When asked what research work is being done on the species, McCarthy says bluntly, “Nothing.”

“There have been no studies of the species despite continued recommendations for research from the IUCN lagomorph specialist group,” McCarthy adds. “There have been some previous reports of single camera trap photographs, or sightings, but our study is the first to try to combine all of this data to be a bigger picture of where the species may be occurring.”

A dearth in research—and publicity—also means that there is currently no conservation work going on in Sumatra that is focused on the Sumatran striped rabbit. This leaves the rabbit’s fate wholly connected to Sumatra’s forests, which as anyone familiar with the region can tell you is not promising: Sumatra has lost half of its forest cover since 1985, while primary forests have been cut by 90 percent since 1975. The island has become the heart of the battle against deforestation with forest activists targeting commercial pulp and paper and palm oil companies for decimating the island’s ecology.

In order to save the Sumatran striped rabbit from extinction, McCarthy says that the first thing to do is step-up protections for both Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Kerinci Seblat National Park.

Rangers on Sumatran elephants riding through Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“We know that they are in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Kerinci Seblat National Park, so we need to make sure that we try to limit habitat loss and degradation in these areas,” she says. “This is not always easy in Sumatra because there is a lot of demand for land for agriculture and logging and houses. There are proposals to build roads through the parks and this not only causes direct habitat loss, but allows easy access to areas that were previously more inaccessible. Preserving the known habitat of this species is important because we don’t want to lose these known populations of the species without knowing that they do occur elsewhere.”

Secondly, the species needs a research champion.

“It has been difficult to find funding and to find a suitable study area,” she admits, but adds that, “until we are able to get more information on the species, we won’t know anything about their present status, habitat needs, or the threats the species faces.”

Currently the Sumatran striped rabbit is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, but McCarthy says there is evidence the species may be more imperiled than that category implies.

“There has been a fair amount of camera trapping done on the island of Sumatra, and the number of photographs captured of Sumatran rabbits is very low, as is the number of sightings. I think this indicates that the species is fairly rare,” she explains. “In addition, although we acknowledge that the species may occur in other areas, we were only able to document recent occurrences of Sumatran striped rabbits in two areas, Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Kerinci Seblat National Park. Both of these areas are continually threatened with development (roads and illegal logging) and encroachment (agriculture and villages and poaching). I think that unless additional information shows that the species has a broader range, or is more abundant than we currently think, it is likely to be raised back to Endangered or Critically Endangered.”

But anyone can help the Sumatran striped rabbit by supporting NGO work in Sumatra or making “mindful decisions” to avoid products linked to deforestation in Indonesia such as pulp and paper, uncertified tropical woods, and unsustainably produced palm oil, says McCarthy. In addition, funding for rabbit research in Sumatra is desperately needed.

Of course, the Sumatran striped rabbit is not the only ‘forgotten species’ on Indonesia’s largest island. Sumatra is home to over 200 mammals, 580 birds, 200 reptiles, 60 amphibians, 300 fish, and some 10,000 species of plant, few of which are known to the global public. To date, scientists have discovered 17 plant genera on the island, which are found no-where else on Earth. In fact, the world tallest flower, Amorphophallus titanum, and the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia arnoldii, are found only in—you guessed it—the rainforests of Sumatra.

Perhaps it’s time then, when we speak of Sumatra, to talk about more than just tigers, orangutans, elephants, and rhinos—no matter how splendid they are—and to also take note of the Sumatran muntjac (just recently rediscovered after missing for 78 years), the Sunda clouded leopard (only dubbed a distinct species in 2006), the Dayak fruit bat (the only mammal whose males naturally lactate), the Sumatran pine (which is considered Vulnerable), the dhole (one of Asia’s most imperiled predators), the white-winged duck (one of the world’s biggest and most endangered), the Paedocypris progenetica (the world’s smallest fish), and of course the Sumatran striped rabbit among hundreds and thousands of others.

CITATION: Jennifer McCarthy, Todd Fuller, Kyle McCarthy, Hariyo Wibisono, Mark Livolsi. Using camera trap photos and direct sightings to identify possible refugia for the Vulnerable Sumatran striped rabbit Nesolagus netscheri. Oryx. 2012.

Can you spot the Sumatran striped rabbit in this camera trap photo? Photo by: Jennifer McCarthy.

One of two Sumatran striped rabbits caught on camera trap by McCarthy. Photo by: Jennifer McCarthy.

This Sumatran striped rabbit may be even more difficult to see. Photo by: Jennifer McCarthy.

The second Sumatran striped rabbit caught on camera trap by McCarthy. Photo by: Jennifer McCarthy.

Close-up look at the Sumatran striped rabbit. Photo by: Jeremy Holden/Fauna and Flora International.

Related articles

Forgotten Species: the wonder-inducing giant clam

(06/11/2012) The first time I ever saw a giant clam was at a ride in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. My family and I piled into the Nautilus submersible at the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage and descended into the playtime depths. While we saw sea turtles, sharks, lobsters, mermaids, and even a sea monster, the creature that lingered in my mind most was the giant clam, raising and closing its pearly shell in the weedy abyss. Of course, none of these aquatic wonders were real—they were animatronics—but to a child with a vivid imagination they stirred within me the deep mystery of the boundless ocean, and none more so than that monstrous clam with its gaping maw.

Forgotten species: the wild jungle cattle called banteng

(01/31/2012) The word “cattle,” for most of us, is the antithesis of exotic; it’s familiar like a family member one’s happy enough to ignore, but doesn’t really mind having around. Think for a moment of the names: cattle, cow, bovine…likely they make many of us think more of the animals’ byproducts than the creatures themselves—i.e. milk, butter, ice cream or steak—as if they were an automated food factory and not living beings. But if we expand our minds a bit further, “cattle” may bring up thoughts of cowboys, Texas, herds pounding the dust, or merely grazing dully in the pasture. But none of these titles, no matter how far we pursue them, conjure up images of steamy tropical rainforest or gravely imperiled species. A cow may be beautiful in its own domesticated sort-of-way, but there is nothing wild in it, nothing enchanting. However like most generalizations, this idea of cattle falls to pieces when one encounters, whether in literature or life, the banteng.

Forgotten species: the rebellious spotted handfish

(07/12/2011) Evolution is a bizarre mistress. In her adaptation workshop she has crafted parrots that don’t fly, amphibians with lifelong gills, poison-injecting rodents, and tusked whales. In an evolutionary hodge-podge that is reminiscent of such mythical beasts as chimeras and griffins, she has from time-to-time given some species’ attributes of others, such as the marine iguana who is as happy underwater as a seal, the duck-billed platypus that lays eggs like a reptile, and the purple frog that has a lifestyle reminiscent of a mole. Then there’s one of her least-known hodge-podges: the fish who ‘walks’ with hands instead of swimming.

Forgotten species: the endearing Tenkile tree kangaroo

(05/03/2011) With their long snout, furry body, soft eyes, and, at times, upright stance, tree kangaroos often remind me of the muppets. Of course, if there were any fairness in the world, the muppets would remind me of tree kangaroos, since kangaroos, or macropods, have inhabited the Earth for at least 5 million years longer than Jim Henson’s muppets. But as a child of the 1980s, I knew about muppets well before tree kangaroos, which play second fiddle in the public imagination to their bigger, boxing cousins. This is perhaps surprising, as tree kangaroos possess three characteristics that should make them immensely popular: they are mammals, they are monkey-like (and who doesn’t like monkeys?), and they are desperately ‘cute’.

Forgotten species: the plummeting cycad

(12/06/2010) I have a declarative statement to make: cycads are mind-blowing. You may ask, what is a cycad? And your questions wouldn’t be a silly one. I doubt Animal Planet will ever replace its Shark Week with Cycad Week (perhaps the fact that it’s ‘animal’ planet and not ‘plant’ planet gave that away); nor do I expect school children to run to see a cycad first thing when they arrive at the zoo, rushing past the polar bear and the chimpanzee; nor do I await a new children’s book about a lonely little anthropomorphized cycad just looking for a friend. In the world of species-popularity, the cycad ranks pretty low. For one thing, it’s a plant. For another thing, it doesn’t produce lovely flowers. And for a final fact, it looks so much like a palm tree that most people probably wouldn’t know it wasn’t. Still, I declare the cycad to be mind-blowing.

Forgotten species: the nameless giant forest snail

(08/04/2010) All species known to science are granted a Latin name. While this naming system is beneficent to researchers, Latin names—sad to say—don’t really capture the public’s attention anymore. Fortunately most species also have common names—the red fox, the pileated woodpecker, the Asian elephant, and so on. Some of these names even end up being quite wonderful: like the dusky dolphin (love the alliteration), the strawberry poison dart frog (points for creativity), the blobfish (if you see a photo you’ll know why), and my all-time favorite: the goliath bird-eating spider. Although this name is slightly redundant (any spider that eats birds is goliath), I wouldn’t change it for anything. However, some species, especially those less ‘charismatic’ ones, never get beyond their Latin name. Such is the fate of a giant forest snail known to researchers as Archachatina bicarinata and to the rest of us as…well nameless. But this begs a question: how do we save a species if we don’t even name it?