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First wild Sumatran rhino in Borneo captured for breeding campaign

The rescued Sumatran rhino has been named Pahu. Image by Ridho Hafizh Zainur Ridha/WWF-Indonesia.

  • A female Sumatran rhinoceros has been captured in Indonesian Borneo and moved to a local sanctuary as part of an initiative to conserve the near-extinct species through captive breeding.
  • A team of veterinarians and rhino experts is now caring for the rhino around the clock, and will seek to establish whether she is viable for breeding.
  • Conservationists and government officials have welcomed news of the capture and rescue, a key step toward replenishing a species whose total population may be as low as 30 individuals.
  • The capture comes two years after another female rhino was trapped in the same district, only to die less than a month later.

JAKARTA — Conservationists have captured a wild Sumatran rhinoceros in Indonesian Borneo and relocated it to a breeding center — a key step toward saving the critically endangered species.

The adult female Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) fell into a pit trap on Nov. 25 in West Kutai district, East Kalimantan province. Wildlife experts from the Sumatran Rhino Rescue initiative had set the trap, one of many, to catch rhinos for a captive-breeding program.

Within 24 hours, conservationists and government officials worked to move the rhino to a rehabilitation center in West Kutai, where a team of veterinarians and experts will attend to the animal. The rhino has been named Pahu.

“This particular rhino was in a grave danger due to her degraded habitat,” said Rizal Malik, chief executive officer of WWF-Indonesia, which was involved in the rescue. “While risks remain for this rhino, with her safe arrival at the sanctuary, we’re cautiously optimistic, and our dedicated team will continue with the round-the-clock care as she settles into her new home.”

Sunandar, the head of the East Kalimantan conservation agency, said in an official statement that Pahu was in “stable and good” condition. In another statement, WWF said the team at the rehabilitation center would “work to ensure her safety and health in this new environment, at which point they will begin work to determine her breeding viability.”

The capture comes two years after WWF conservationists captured a female rhino, also in West Kutai, that had sustained a severe leg injury from a snare. The rhino, named Najaq, was the first that conservationists had encountered in Indonesian Borneo in 40 years; she died within weeks of her capture, prompting criticism of her handling and care by WWF.

A critically endangered Sumatran rhino in a pit trap in West Kutai district, East Kalimantan province, Indonesia. Image by Ridho Hafizh Zainur Ridha/WWF-Indonesia.

Rhino experts from around the world last year agreed that the captive breeding of Sumatran rhinos, from both Sumatra and Borneo, was the only viable way left to save the species. Habitat loss and poaching mean there are no more than 80, and possibly as few as 30, of the animals left in the wild. Breeding centers in Indonesia and Malaysia hold a combined nine rhinos.

A previous effort to capture Sumatran rhinos for breeding, launched in the 1980s, collapsed a decade later after more than half of the animals died without any calves being produced. But a string of successful captive births in both the United States and Indonesia, and a growing consensus that the species will go extinct without intervention, have laid the groundwork for the latest captive-breeding effort.

“There’s still a long road ahead but today the future of the Sumatran rhino is looking brighter,” WWF-Indonesia’s Malik said.

Wiratno, the Indonesian environment ministry’s head of conservation, also welcomed the capture and rescue of Pahu. “This translocation exercise is an essential first step in a wider effort to rescue the Sumatran rhino as they are now in a critical situation,” he said.

Besides adding to the population of captive rhinos for breeding, Pahu’s arrival also gives a much-needed boost to the gene pool of a species so diminished that inbreeding is a real risk. The rhino populations in Sumatra and Borneo are believed to have been genetically separated for hundreds of thousands of years.

“The Sumatran rhino is one of the most evolutionary distinct mammals on the planet, and this week’s rescue is a critical step in making sure we don’t lose an entire branch of the rhino tree of life,” Jonathan Bailie, executive vice president and chief scientist at the National Geographic Society, said in a statement.

“We are losing the world’s species faster than ever before in human history, and it’s time we come together to halt these dangerous declines,” he added.

The female rhino has been named Pahu. Image by Ridho Hafizh Zainur Ridha/WWF-Indonesia.
The rhino has been safely transported to a Sumatran Rhino Rescue center as part of a captive-breeding effort to save the species. Image by Ridho Hafizh Zainur Ridha/WWF-Indonesia.

The National Geographic Society is one of five organizations — alongside WWF, Global Wildlife Conservation, the International Rhino Foundation, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature — that established the Sumatran Rhino Rescue initiative in September this year. The initiative aims to capture isolated Sumatran rhinos from the wild and move them to the two captive-breeding facilities in Borneo and Sumatra.

Wiratno, the Indonesian conservation chief, said captive breeding was just the start, with an eventual goal of replenishing the wild population.

“The government of Indonesia is fully committed not just to the captive breeding effort now underway but to safeguarding the natural habitat of the Sumatran rhino with the hope of eventually reintroducing a healthy population of animals into the wild,” he said. 

Banner image of Pahu, a female Sumatran rhino captured by conservationists in East Kalimantan province, in Indonesian Borneo. Image by Ridho Hafizh Zainur Ridha/WWF-Indonesia.

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