Site icon Conservation news

Could a new map save the Sumatran rhino?

Sumatran Rhinoceros photographed in Gunung Leuser National Park (inside Leuser Landscape). Photo courtesy of Leuser International Foundation and the Gunung Leuser National Park

  • Study has mapped five intensive protection zones within Sumatra’s forests where rhino conservation can be prioritized.
  • Researchers have also identified isolated sub-populations of rhinos that are too small to survive on their own, and need to be brought together into a single protected population.
  • Study warns that not doing anything now could push Sumatran rhinos towards extinction
Sumatran Rhinoceros photographed in Gunung Leuser National Park (inside Leuser Landscape). Photo courtesy of Leuser International Foundation and the Gunung Leuser National Park

Researchers have identified what could be the last safe havens for the Critically Endangered Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), according to a new study published in the journal PLoS One. Only about 100 such rhinos remain in the wild, mostly on the Island of Sumatra.

“Our study provides hope for the survival of the Sumatran rhino,” Wulan Pusparini, lead author from WCS-Indonesia and a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Mongabay.

Between 2007 and 2011, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Leuser International Foundation (LIF), the Sumatran Tiger Trust, and government staff members surveyed three Sumatran forests — believed to be rhino strongholds — for signs of the animals. These forests included the Leuser Landscape, Way Kambas National Park and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra.

On analyzing the data, the team found that Sumatran rhinos seem to occupy only about 13 percent (~382,500 hectares or 1,477 square miles) of the forests surveyed.

Bina at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by Tiffany Roufs

Within the small forest patches where these rhinos do occur, the researchers have identified and mapped five sites where conservation efforts could be prioritized.

“We’ve identified the core areas (most are inside national parks), and we’ll intensify our efforts to strictly protect these areas with government and NGO partners,” Pusparini said.

These priority areas can be used to create Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs) for the rhinos, the researchers suggest. These IPZs would be similar to the ones created for rhinos in South Africa to protect them against rampant poaching.

Researchers surveyed three forests in Sumatra for signs of Sumatran rhinos: Leuser Landscape, Way Kambas National Park and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Map courtesy of Wulan Pusparini.

While the actual rhino numbers within these forests are not yet available, the researchers urge that urgent conservation steps be undertaken within the priority conservation zones to save the remaining rhino individuals.

These steps, according to Pusparini, include translating political will into effective management. Funding support for forest ranger patrols also needs to be increased, she added, and rhino populations occurring outside of the national park borders need to be protected too.

The researchers note that protecting these areas is not only necessary for sustaining a viable rhino population, but also for providing a place for animals that might be produced in a successful captive breeding program.

“The presence of Sumatran rhinos can provide a strong argument for protecting vast landscapes, as the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) has for Africa,” they write in the paper.

The team has also identified isolated rhino sub-populations — such as those scattered outside core areas of the Leuser Landscape, and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park — that may be too small to survive on their own. To successfully protect these rhinos, the authors recommend that these sub-populations be brought together into a single protected population.

The researchers also recommend that assessing the proportion of breeding females in the rhino populations is essential to protecting the species.

Moreover, the team warns that doing nothing could push the Sumatran rhinos towards the same fate as the Javan rhinos in Vietnam. In 2009, poachers killed the world’s last Javan rhino.

“For the first time we have a clear idea of where the priority rhino’s sites are, we have the tools and techniques to protect them, and now must ensure a concerted effort by all agencies to bring the Sumatran rhino back from the brink of extinction,” Joe Walston, WCS’s Vice President for Global Programs, said in a statement.

CITATIONS