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Can we save the Sumatran rhino? Indonesia holds out hope

Can a sanctuary in Indonesia keep the world’s most imperiled rhino from extinction?

“One percent of the world’s population,” veterinarian Zulfi Arsan says as he nods towards Bina, a 714-kilogram (1,574-pound), 30-year-old female Sumatran rhinoceros leisurely crunching branches whole.

A gentle and easygoing rhino, pink-hued Bina doesn’t seem to mind the two-legged hominids snapping pictures and awing at her every move at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia’s Way Kambas National Park. At least, it doesn’t interrupt her breakfast.

She also seems unfazed at this particular moment about being only one of a hundred or so—no one really knows for sure—remaining Sumatran rhinos on the planet. Today, the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is probably in the bleakest state of all five of the world’s rhino species, but the 100-hectare Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) may be the one bright spot, especially after producing a calf in 2012. The baby male, Andatu, was only the fourth rhino born in captivity in the past hundred years and the first for the SRS.

“We couldn’t stop smiling for days,” Susie Ellis, the Executive Director of the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), told me via email. Ellis, whose organization provides all the funding for the SRS, was at the birth.


Bina having breakfast at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.


A young Andatu enjoys a mud bath. Photo courtesy of the IRF.

“It was a career peak to see such an accomplishment, knowing how much effort it had taken. We sometimes said it was a 15-year pregnancy.”

But the happiness of watching Andatu grow into a healthy young male over the last three years has been marred by a string of bad news for the species.

Ellis called the Sumatran rhino’s situation “absolutely dire.”

First, there was the announcement in 2013—less than a year after Andatu’s birth—that instead of 250 Sumatran rhinos in the world, there were only about 100 left. Then in 2014, a wild female Sumatran rhino was caught for breeding in Borneo. At first conservationists thought she was already pregnant—until they discovered her womb was riddled with tumors, a common problem for female rhinos that haven’t mated frequently enough and makes natural breeding impossible. In the same year, a young female Sumatran rhino died unexpectedly at the Cincinnati Zoo.

But the worst news came earlier this year when the Bornean state of Sabah announced that the species was extinct in the wild there, which effectively meant that the Bornean subspecies was represented by only three captive individuals and maybe one or two wild ones in the state of Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo. With the almost total loss of the Bornean subspecies—whose survival now depends on in-vitro technology—all hope for the species turns to Sumatra and, more and more, to the efforts of the team at the SRS.

The sanctuary

On the way to meet Bina, driving into the 100-hectare rhino sanctuary in Way Kambas, I couldn’t help but feel like I was inside Jurassic Park. Our open air truck was surrounded by the dense, verdant green of Way Kambas’s lowland rainforest, so thick I couldn’t see more than a few meters into the emerald gloom. On each side of the road was a tall electric fence: both to keep the ancient megafauna inside and the people—aside from the rhino’s caretakers—out. For a moment, I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if a triceratops had lumbered out of the vegetation.



Zulfi Arsan, a vet at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

While Sumatran rhinos by no means approach the evolutionary age of dinosaurs, they are the world’s oldest surviving rhino species. Some evidence suggests that Sumatran rhinos belong to a distinct lineage of rhinos that broke off from the others around 25 million years ago, shortly following the undisputed heyday of rhino evolution and diversity. At one time, there were nearly 30 different rhino genera on Earth; today there are just three. Sumatran rhinos are the only surviving member of their ancient lineage, belonging to the genus Dicerorhinus. Some scientists think that Sumatran rhinos may even be the closest surviving relative of the lost woolly rhinos of Europe and Asia.

“Sumatran rhinos, along with Javan rhinos, are the only two rainforest-dwelling rhino species. The Sumatran rhino’s hairy body and ears make it unique among rhinos,” said Ellis.

The Sumatran rhino is also the world’s smallest, but Bina—when I see her—doesn’t by any means look small. She’s awe-inspiringly massive, with a light coat of hair and a pinkish hue. Bina, the only rhino we meet this morning, is also the oldest captive Sumatran rhino in the world. Conservationists estimate her age at around 30 and the average lifespan in captivity for a Sumatran rhino is 35.

Standing outside Bina’s pen, Zulfi Arsan tells me that the old female has irregular breeding cycles, but there is still hope that she could produce offspring. A handsome young man with a beard any hipster back home would envy, Arsan is one of the vets at the sanctuary and our guide for the morning. He just started at the SRS last year but already speaks of the rhinos here as if they are close friends.

Although theoretically Bina could still have a baby, there are difficulties. When the staff attempted to mate Bina with her only potential beau—Andalas—things got violent, says Arsan. It’s hard to imagine gentle Bina putting up a fight over anything while we watch her eat peaceably, but sex can turn even this gentle giant into a hormonal rager. Tussling before mating may be a common occurrence in the wild, but experts are loath to put any of their rhinos in danger. So, for Bina, at least, they have turned to attempting artificial insemination. An option that has yet to bear fruit.

Widodo Ramono, a Sumatran rhino expert and the Executive Director of Yayasan Badak Indonesia (YABI) (known in English as the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia), told me via email that one of the things that set Sumatran rhinos a part is a “unique breeding behavior” where females are only receptive to mating during a single day of their estrous cycle. This, not surprisingly, has made saving the Sumatran rhino “unique and challenging,” he said.

Bina crunching breakfast. Video by: Tiffany Roufs.

You could also call it maddening and damn-near impossible. In the 1980s and 1990s, conservationists decided on a bold plan to save the species from extinction. They went out and caught 40 individuals from the wild. But at the time no one really knew how to care for or breed them. Not surprisingly, scientists didn’t anticipate all the problems that would arise. Of the 40 animals caught in the wild, only one pair bred successfully. The rest died childless. The only survivor of that group today is Bina—captured in 1991—but she has yet to bear any offspring and her clock is ticking.

While the wild capture program has been acknowledged by conservationists as a failure—a catastrophic one—it did finally lead to the breeding knowledge researchers have today. And it was this knowledge that ended up in the birth of three rhinos at the Cincinnati Zoo, including Andalas and eventually his son—the next generation—Andatu at the SRS.

But even when breeding is successful, those working hard to save the species face a long, long wait. Rhinos breed slowly. Even more slowly than humans. A Sumatran rhino pregnancy generally lasts 15-16 months. Once the baby is born, it stays with its mother for several years as it grows, during which time conservationists keep the mother from breeding again. For example, Andatu has only recently been separated from his mother, Ratu. The separation occurred, according to vet Arsan, after the pair stopped acting like mother and son and more like potential mates. Given this, Arsan says that conservationists generally have to wait four to five years after a birth before attempting to mate a mother rhino again.

At the SRS today, Andalas has three potential mates: Bina, Rosa, and Ratu (the mother of Andatu). Ratu, who was captured in 2005 after wandering into the village, proved the perfect match for Andalas. But that took time. First Andalas, who spent the first six years of his life at the Cincinnati Zoo, had to become accustomed to his new home in Sumatra. He had to learn not to be such a picky eater (wild Sumatran rhinos feed on over 200 plant species), develop new antibodies for the jungle, and overcome parasites, according to Arsan.


To date Ratu is the only female to give birth at SRS. Photo courtesy of the SRS.

But Rosa, the final rhino at the SRS, is another case altogether. Rosa was was caught in 2003 after forming a habitat of strolling into nearby villages and hanging out with humans. With her constant forays into society, Rosa became highly habituated to humans. In fact when I ask about her, Arsan makes a sideways gesture with his hand and that suggests she’s psychologically messed up. She loves being around people, he says, and “is very afraid of other rhinos.”

The team is now trying to reverse Rosa’s behaviors by keeping people away and slowly introducing her to Andalas as a mate. Arsan tells me that it’s “very slow steps, but it’s steps.”

While Andalas is the only breeding male at the SRS currently, he’s not the only potential breeding male Sumatran rhino in the world. His younger brother, Harapan, is still at the Cincinnati Zoo. Harapan has just reached breeding maturity, but all the rest of his kind live thousands of miles away. Plans are now moving forward to transfer Harapan to the SRS because, Ramono said, he “will not contribute anything [to] conservation if he sits in the U.S.”

The Borneo problem

But even Harapan is not the only possible addition to the SRS. A similar sanctuary in Bornean Malaysia also houses three Sumatran rhinos: one male, Tam, and two females, Puntung and Iman. Conservationists have kept the breeding program at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary (BRS) separate from that of the SRS in part because the Bornean rhinos are considered a separate subspecies: Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni.

But desperate times call for desperate measures. In 2009, experts decided to treat the two distinct subspecies as a single species. Four years later, both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments agreed at a rhino summit to bring the Bornean and Sumatran rhinos together for breeding.


Tam, the Bornean rhino, is one of the very last of his subspecies and potentially the last male. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

Still, today there has been little progress towards moving any of the Bornean rhinos abroad.

Earlier this year, Benoit Goossens, a Sabah conservationist who advocated for mixing the subspecies in 2013, blamed Indonesia for the delay.

“Indonesia is holding back! Sabah has tried almost everything in order to breed our three rhinos with Indonesian rhinos [but] Indonesia has been reluctant to do so,” Goossens wrote me via email, adding that they “will pay the price …If they think that they will be able to keep their 100 rhinos in the wild, they are wrong. The same thing [i.e. extinction in the wild] will happen to them within the next 20-30 years!”

But Susan Ellis said the situation was far more complicated than that.

“Pointing fingers at Indonesia for Malaysia’s inaction makes no sense,” she said, noting that Sabah hardly has a stellar record when it comes to rhinos.

According to Ellis, in a 2009 meeting the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA)—which runs the BRS—told attendees that Sabah was home to “at least 20-30 Sumatran rhinos.” Three years later, BORA dropped the number to between 10 and 22. Just one year later, they said they only had four wild rhinos.



Mother Sumatran rhino, Emi, with her calf, Harapan in 2007. Emi died in 2009 after having three calves in captivity, a major milestone for Sumatran rhino conservation. Harapan is currently the only one of his kind still at the Cincinnati Zoo and in the Western Hemisphere. Photo by: W. Alan Baker/Creative Commons 3.0.

“And now the species has been declared extinct in Sabah,” noted Ellis.

The almost hopeless state of the animals in Sabah has also led to a “a fundamental difference of opinion on [the] approach to captive breeding,” according to Ellis.

Indonesia is focused largely on natural breeding, while Malaysia is depending on unproven in-vitro fertilization technology because all three of its rhinos have major fertility problems. BORA has yet to produce a viable embryo, though John Payne, the head of BORA, told Mongabay that the group plans to have one by the end of the year.

He admitted, however, “this is tough.”

For her part, though, Ellis remains unconvinced of BORA’s strategy. For one thing, she said such procedures come with high risks during repeated anesthesia and the rewards may never materialize.

“The state of assisted reproduction in rhinos, on which Malaysia has had to place its emphasis, is very poor,” she said, adding that “despite good intentions from all parties involved, it is highly improbable that it will be perfected in time to save Sumatran rhinos.”

But if the remaining Bornean rhinos are not brought together with their Sumatran relations—and if conservationists are unable to make good with artificial breeding techniques—that means the genetically distinct line of the Bornean subspecies will be lost forever. If they are allowed to mix, that line could at least survive in part. For example, European bison today survive in two lines: one lowland breed and another that mixed the lowland with a Caucuses subspecies. Even though the Caucuses subspecies is now extinct, some of its genetic material survives in living animals. A pale victory, of course, but better than nothing.

Finally, combining the two rhino subspecies could arguably provide a potent shot of genetic diversity needed in a super-rare animal.

Still, Ellis said the final decision to bring Bornean rhinos to Sumatra does not lie with NGOS, but “at a high government level.”

A third subspecies of Sumatran rhino—Dicerorhinus sumatrensis lasiotis—once roamed India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. It is believed likely extinct today, but some conservationists hold out hope for a population surviving in remote Myanmar.

What about the wild rhinos?

Efforts to breed rhinos in captivity are only one part, and arguably the less important part, of the effort to save the Sumatran rhino from extinction. Beyond the electric fences of Sumatra’s rhino sanctuary, around a hundred Sumatran rhinos still roam the island’s dwindling wild. But unlike, say Javan rhinos, these rhinos are split into small, disconnected populations.

Conservationists believe between 94 and 138 Sumatran rhinos survive in total. A few—literally just a few—may be holding on in Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), but the majority are found in three parks in Sumatra: Bukit Barisan Selatan, Gunung Leuser National Park, and Way Kambas. Unfortunately, none of these three populations are connected, and even they are split into about ten subpopulations with between two and fifty rhinos apiece.



Bina having her breakfast. At around 30, Bina is the oldest of the world’s captive Sumatran rhinos. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

This puts the remaining wild populations at grave risk of simply winking out one-by-one.

“What we know from modeling is that these populations cannot tolerate any poaching and that populations of less than 40, if they are not growing, are not likely to survive,” Ellis said. She added that the strongest populations are in Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser, while the population in Bukit Barisan Selatan is “teetering on the brink of being nonviable.”

A common solution to disconnected populations such as these is to create corridors of natural habitat to bring the animals back together. But both Ellis and Ramono said corridors are not feasible in this case.

Sumatra has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates. Between 2000 and 2012, the island lost 2.86 million hectares of forest—an area larger than Haiti—according to a paper in Nature Climate Change from last year. In all, the island has lost around 85 percent of its natural forest in just 50 years. Most of this destruction can be laid at the feet of the palm oil and paper industries, which have put not only rhinos at risk, but most of Sumatra’s big mammals, including tigers, elephants, orangutans, and gibbons. Although rhinos remain the most precarious.

Sumatra’s widespread forest loss—as well as growing road networks, booming villages, and other infrastructure projects—makes it impossible to connect the disconnected rhino populations.

Instead, rhino experts came up with an alternative plan during various meetings from February to May of this year. They intend to consolidate all of the remaining rhinos into two or three large populations.


Sumatran rhino. Photo courtesy of the IRF.

“Consolidation has worked well in Africa and India and Nepal with black, white and greater one-horned rhinos and we have enlisted expertise from Africa in particular for advice,” said Ellis.

Ramono said that “relict unviable individuals” will be brought into these rhino consolidation areas “to increase the capability of [rhinos] meeting each other thus increasing the possibility to breed.”

But to do his, conservationists need to get a better idea of just how many rhinos are left, where they are located, and if they are breeding.



Inside the SRS. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

Despite their hefty size, Sumatran rhinos are notoriously elusive and shy, so much so that even the government-run Rhino Protection Unit rangers—who safeguard the megafauna on a day-to-day basis from poachers and snares—almost never see their charges. This makes counting them particularly difficult. While the team hopes to conduct a thorough survey of the three populations, they still need the money to do so.

“We are having a heck of a time raising the funds to get the job done, which involves ground surveys, camera trapping and fecal DNA work,” said Ellis.

On the bright side, the team has gathered evidence that wild Sumatran rhino populations are still breeding, at least in Way Kambas and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Parks.

At recent meetings, stakeholders also agreed to increase the number of rhino rangers to make sure not a single rhino is killed by poachers.

“Every animal counts,” Ellis said, adding that while it looks like the Rhino Protection Units have put a halt to poaching, it may be impossible to detect 100 percent. “We have not found evidence of poaching in the past years, but in the rainforest environment where carcasses decay so quickly, we also are not finding animals dying of natural causes.”

Determination

After an hour of hanging out and munching her breakfast—less than a stone’s throw and a single fence away from us—Bina waddles back into the deep, deep green. Each rhino has its own fenced territory covering around four hectares. She’s headed for a dip in her wallow. Arsan says the rhinos spend “maybe four to six hours in the mud pits” and each pen has at least two wallows for the rhinos to enjoy. It makes sense given the heat of the forest at midday, the multitude of insects, and the likely soporific effects of digesting so many plants.

Her departure also marks the end of our morning at the SRS. We head back to our lodge and, like Bina, catch a midday catnap.

The SRS received its first rhinos in 1996. Twenty years later its goal has become only more difficult: namely to save the Sumatran rhino from extinction. But Ellis said that the sanctuary has allowed scientists and conservationists the chance “to study a species whose basic biology, until recently, was unknown.”

“We now understand nutrition, basic biology, reproduction, and behavior on a level we never have before,” she added. “Our challenge is to take that knowledge and apply it, so that the SRS population can truly support wild populations. ”

Most importantly—decades of work at the SRS and Cincinnati Zoo—has made breeding possible, if by no means easy.

“We’ve cracked the nut—we know how to breed Sumatran rhinos successfully and this is do-able,” said Ellis. “But it will take enormous resources as well as political support within Indonesia to take some risks [to save the species].”


Ratu with her four-day old calf, Andatu. The SRS has succeeded in one birth, but can it accomplish more? Photo courtesy of the IRF.

With time—meaning probably decades—the team hopes it will be able to release rhinos born at the SRS back into the wild to augment those populations and increase genetic diversity.

Conservation always means playing the long game. For Sumatran rhinos, that game is even longer. Long life spans, slow breeding, and an increasingly perilous position in the wild means many of the conservationists who have dedicated their lives to this species will never know the end game of their efforts. Instead, they must live in faith and hope.

Back at our lodgings, I thought about those conservationists. I was almost surprised that they didn’t seem despondent, but determined. The odds may not be with Sumatran rhinos, but human determination has beaten the odds before. And maybe, just maybe, it can do it again.


Bina walking in her forest enclosure. At 0:19 she vocalizes. Sumatran rhinos are incredibly vocal animals with a wide-range of sounds. Video by: Tiffany Roufs.


Encountering a Sumatran rhino can feel like you’ve traveled back to another age. Here is Rosa. Photo by: Willem V. Strien/Creative Commons 2.0


Bina in her fenced-in, but natural forest home. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.


Andatu growing up. Photo courtesy of the SRS.