Sumatran rhinos were declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia in 2015. No more than 100 are believed to survive anywhere.
This week, researchers for WWF Malaysia announced that an August expedition found a footprint in the Sabah’s Danum Valley Conservation Area, which they believe could belong to a rhino.
Other experts say the evidence is too scant to support such a conclusion.
In 2015, Malaysian officials publicly confirmed there were no wild rhinos left in Malaysia. It was grim news for the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), whose surviving population is now believed to amount to no more than 100, including ten rhinos in captivity in Indonesia and Malaysia. Still, some experts working in the field welcomed the announcement as an official acknowledgement of a fact-on-the-ground they had already accepted.
This week, that changed.
A WWF Malaysia researcher announced at a press conference that new evidence has been found to suggest that at least one wild rhino could still be roaming the forests of Malaysian Borneo.
During an August expedition in Sabah State’s Danum Valley Conservation Area, a survey team found a 23-centimeter wide footprint, WWF Sabah Terrestrial Conservation Program Manager Sharon Koh Pei Hui told local media.
The team did not see any rhinos in the field and could not confirm that the footprint did not come from an elephant or other animal, but they were hopeful that it might have been from a rhino, Koh reportedly said.
“There was no signs of an accompanying mother elephant or elephant dung anywhere. Taking all these into consideration, it strengthens our hope that this could be the footprint of a rhino,” she explained.
According to Malaysia’s Daily Express, Koh raised the possibility that the footprint could be the first sign of a “ghost population,” appearing after a long time without detection. There is some precedent for such a finding, she said. In 2014 a lone female rhinoceros was captured deep in the Danum Valley Conservation Area. That rhino, named Iman, now lives at the rhino sanctuary in Sabah’s Tabin National Park.
The 2013 discovery of a footprints and other traces of rhinos in Indonesian Borneo presaged the announcement earlier this year that 15 wild rhinos were living in the Indonesian state of Kalimantan. In that case, however, footprints were accompanied by other signs of rhinos such as wallows, tree markings and signs of feeding.
Sumatran rhinos are among the world’s most endangered species and researchers have struggled to breed them in captivity, so the discovery of even one wild rhino would be cause for celebration. However, not everyone has welcomed this week’s announcement.
“There is no piece of forest anywhere in Borneo that has been searched more intensively for rhinoceros than Danum Valley, by WWF-Malaysia since 2006 employing many tens of thousands of hours of time by an experienced field team searching for footprints, and tens of thousands of hours of camera trap nights,” said John Payne, executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), in a statement emailed to Mongabay. “It is inconceivable that a 500-kilogram mammal would leave a vague outline of a single footprint and no other sign in the vicinity. And inconceivable that an adult rhino – which will have a home range – appears in a specific location where there has been no evidence of the species over the past few years.”
Seeing an unidentified footprint in the forest and concluding that it indicates the presence of Sumatran rhinos shows a lapse in logical thinking, Payne added.
Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, also expressed some doubts on social media, noting that reports of a rhino footprint being found are still “not confirmed.”