A Global Mission to Save the Sumatran Rhinos


KUALA LUMPUR, 28 May 2013 – They came from 18 countries around the world, gathering for a critical cause, with a single mission on their minds and in their hearts. About 100 participants who converged in Singapore for five days in April were not heads of governments deliberating on the global economy. They gathered for an emergency summit to seek and agree on the means to save the Sumatran Rhinos, a species which existed 20 million years ago and today is in the twilight of its existence.

The severity of the situation brought together the diverse group of government officials from Malaysia and Indonesia, non-governmental organisations, donors, funders, scientists and veterinarians. They discussed, argued, and disagreed at the Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit (SRCS) and at the end of the five days, grown men and women shed tears, vowing to work together to fight and save the species from extinction.

The Sumatran rhino plight is a cause close to the Sime Darby Foundation which provided a substantial grant to ensure that the Summit could be held, and has pledged RM11.4 million from 2009 until 2015 towards efforts to conserve the species via the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) which assists the Government of Sabah to manage the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary programme.

The Sumatran rhinos are among nine threatened animal species, which fall under the Foundation’s Big 9 programme, as part of its efforts to conserve animal species that are classified as endangered or vulnerable. The nine animals identified are the Bornean sun bear, orangutan, Malaysian elephant, clouded leopard, hornbills (all species), banteng, proboscis monkey, Sumatran rhinoceros and Malayan tiger.

Fossils show that the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the smallest rhino species that has ever existed, standing at 112–145cm height at the shoulder with a weight ranging from 500 to 800kg. It has two horns, one larger than the other, and the horn is why the species has been hunted over the past millennium for its purported medical values.

A myth, conservationists would tell you, as the horns are said to have the same “medicinal” properties as your fingernails! Until a few decades ago, the decline in the Sumatran rhino has been attributed mainly to poaching. But conservationists say the population has continued to decline and disappear from most areas despite these being conserved and protected. As rhino numbers decline to a very low level, fertile females and males rarely meet, and eventually natural death rate exceeds birth rate. Conservationists say that this is what has been happening over the past few decades, and is why protecting forests and rhinos in the wild is simply not enough to prevent their extinction.

From estimates in recent years of between 200 to 300 Sumatran rhinos in the wild, reality hit home during the Summit, with experts now believing less than 100 are in existence in the entire world, in Sabah, Malaysia, and in East Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia. The rhinos used to be found in all other countries in Southeast Asia, including north-eastern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and southern China.

There are currently 10 Sumatran rhino individuals in managed breeding facilities in Sabah, Indonesia and the United States. Four calves have been successfully bred in captivity, three in Cincinnati Zoo and one in the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia.

Though similar meetings were held several times over the past four to five decades to work towards conserving the animals and saving their declining numbers, the species has continued to decline alarmingly. The previous meeting convened in Singapore in 1984 concluded with steps being recommended to conserve the animals in large areas of protected native habitat, develop an education programme to enhance public awareness and support for the Sumatran rhinos, and establishing a captive propagation programme for the preservation of the genetic diversity of the animals in the countries of origin and in North America and Europe, using animals with no hope of survival in the wild.

What has happened since then?

The lack of consensus amongst experts, NGOs and governmental agencies, and bureaucracy, with egos getting in the way were cited as reasons for things to fall back and not proceed much further. Important material transfer including gametes between the relevant organisations came to a halt due to these setbacks. This time around, participants vowed to avoid the temptation of doing the same things again, and agreed that new and drastic approaches must be taken.

This time around, rhino experts, scientists, government officials and representatives of non-governmental organisations shared stories and lessons learnt on conservation successes of other rhinos and species such as the Californian Condor, the Black-footed Ferret and Hawaiian forest birds.

The Summit witnessed historical discussions held between high ranking government officials from Indonesia and Malaysia, which were cemented with further action plans being mooted.

The resounding message from the participants was loud and clear, the SRCS vision is to ensure all Sumatran rhinos are secure in the wild and at managed breeding facilities with no further human-induced losses, and to increase Sumatran rhino numbers by all possible means including the use of advanced reproductive technologies.

The participants had to “sell their issues” during the Open Space Technology “market place” (which encourages participants to freely speak their minds) to other participants. 72 issues were raised and over four days, 23 discussion groups were narrowed down to five main topics which formed the ensuing action groups.

The five action groups are for government relations and coordination, wild (in situ) management, captive breeding management, fund raising and communications. Each group has representation amongst the participants who are experts in the respective fields.

The government relations and coordination group pledged to formalise the discussions with an agreement to be drafted by the end of June this year. Also in the pipeline is an emergency strategic plan to revise existing Sumatran conservation plans and to lobby endorsement from the highest levels of the Malaysian and Indonesian governments to jointly manage the rhinos as a single population and establishing an International Sumatran Rhino Crisis Centre.

The wild (in-situ) action group will meanwhile work towards ensuring no unnatural losses of wild Sumatran rhinos. All concentrations of wild Sumatran rhinos are to be adequately protected and monitored to minimise unnatural deaths and to maximise prospects for natural breeding to occur. This is expected to be achieved through adequate capacity to protect and audit these concentrations with accurate periodic estimates made of the location and size of wild Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The captive (ex-situ) action group will try to increase Sumatran rhino births by facilitating exchange of genes between all captive Sumatran rhinos and using all possible opportunities via both natural breeding and assisted reproductive technologies, and through exchange of rhinos, gametes and other materials between institutions that hold Sumatran rhinos in fenced facilities.

Continuous efforts will be made to better understand reproductive pathology in Sumatran rhinos, and to pursue all possible advanced reproductive technologies that may increase Sumatran rhino births with a target of having four reproductively viable rhinos to be included in the managed breeding programme within the next two years.

The fund raising group meanwhile has been tasked to plan and prioritise fundraising activities arising from SRCS including costings of the action of the five groups and coming up with a systematic approach and strategy to raise funds.

Coordinated publicity initiatives will be carried out by the communications group for all future developments and implementation of the action plans which are being put in place.

Two people who have been played a leading and passionate role over the past four to five decades to fight the Sumatran rhino cause are Rhino Foundation of Indonesia (YABI) executive director Widodo Ramono and Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) executive director Datuk Dr John Payne.

“The most exciting outcome of the SRCS is the strong interest expressed by the government representatives to work together on Sumatran rhino conservation. This will pave the way to manage all remaining rhinos as a single jointly managed population. This approach is now the only way to boost rhino births, which is the major need to prevent extinction of the species,” Payne said.

Widodo meanwhile reiterated that serious steps must be taken immediately to turn back the tide of extinction of the rhinos.

“Our window is very small and this is the last opportunity to save the species. From this Summit, we see the possibility of positive collaboration between range states, experts and specialists which brings a glimmer of hope. We must get our act together and work hand in hand to stop failure of previous attempts to collaborate,” Widodo added.

Groups that spearheaded, conceptualised and organised the Summit include Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA, Malaysia), Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), WWF-Indonesia, WWF-Malaysia and WWF-International, Rhino Foundation of Indonesia (YABI), International Rhino Foundation (IRF), Fauna and Flora International (FFI Indonesia), Indonesian Zoo and Aquarium Association (PKBSI), Leuser International Foundation (LIF, Indonesia), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS Indonesia), Taman Safari Indonesia (TSI), and SOS Rhino USA.

The event was hosted by Wildlife Reserves Singapore at Jurong Bird Park and Singapore Zoo, while Sime Darby Foundation, WWF, BORA, LEAP, IRF and TSI provided funds and resources with International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) convening the Summit.

At the end of the Summit, participants went home in great spirits with a common belief that there was some glimmer of hope for the Sumatran rhinos. Only time will tell if all their efforts will bear fruit.

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Last Updated:
04 Dec 2018
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