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Making sense of a rare rhino’s death in Indonesian Borneo (commentary)

  • Fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos are thought to remain in the wild. The Bornean subspecies is even more imperiled.
  • Last week, the first Bornean rhino to make contact with humans in 40 years died from a snare wound, despite conservationists’ attempts to save her.
  • Some, like the author, wonder if the rescue effort might have been better managed.
  • This post is a commentary — the views expressed are those of the author.

OK, I will keep this short. Plenty has been said about the recent sad event in Indonesian Borneo. For those unaware of the story search the internet for “WWF”, “Kalimantan”, “Meijaard”, “rhino”, and “dead”, and you will get the gist.

The facts, as I see them, are: 1) in 2013, the World Wildlife Fund “rediscovers” the rhino in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) through camera trapping evidence; 2) in November 2015, one rhino is photographed with an apparent snare wound and the decision is made to capture it; 3) in March 2016 this breeding-age female is captured; and 4) the animal, named Najaq, dies within a couple of weeks in captivity.

The general reaction from the organizations involved has been that losing 7–10% of Borneo’s rhinos (one of the 10-15 animals thought to survive) was extremely sad, but that everyone did their utmost best to keep the animal alive, and that ultimately no one, aside from the hunters who set the snare, is to blame. The government authorities state that they regret what happened but they will continue in Kalimantan with the same strategy and approach. WWF Indonesia’s CEO was quoted to say that the death was a lesson learned for the program.

Najaq in her final days. She was a Bornean rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), a subspecies of the critically endangered Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). Photo by Sugeng Hendratno/WWF Indonesia

To me all of that is not good enough. If you run the risk of losing 10% of a species you do everything possible to prevent something bad from happening. You make sure the animal is taken care of in the best facilities possible by the world’s best experts. You have a helicopter on standby to transport it to these facilities if things go wrong. You put all possible means in place to keep it alive — get the army involved for all I care. Can WWF and other organizations involved honestly say they can tick all these boxes? That’s a rhetorical question to which my answer is a clear “no”.

Wildlife conservation in Indonesia is in an extreme crisis. Species like orangutans, elephants, banteng, pangolins, and hornbills are all on steep downward trajectories towards extinction in the wild. There are many forces working against conservation. It surely is a tremendously difficult task to achieve positive conservation outcomes here.

But what we cannot afford as a conservation community is not to learn from our mistakes. If we mess up, we have to openly admit to it, understand why we messed up, and ensure we don’t mess up again. Accountability and transparency are key to that. If we don’t admit and recognize our mistakes, we will never improve.

WWF are the leading conservation organization in the world. The organization has taken a lot of global glitter and glory for their work on Kalimantan’s rhinos. Now it is time they openly say what went wrong with Najaq, and how they are going to ensure that it will not happen again. Denial and blaming others helps no one (apart from the WWF brand).

Conservation is extremely complex, and inherently as a conservation community we will make mistakes or work less optimally than we could. This is especially the case for conservation of Sumatran rhinos, which many want to kill for their horns and which have had very low breeding success in captivity. But if we don’t always honestly strive to do better, it will be so much harder to achieve our conservation objectives.

With that in mind, I challenge WWF to publicly state how they will manage the Kalimantan rhino program to ensure optimal outcomes for the survival of the species and to prevent similar mishaps from occurring.

Najaq before her death on April 5. Photo by Ari Wibowo/WWF Indonesia

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative. Follow @emeijaard and @borneofutures.