It’s been a jam-packed month for our efforts to conserve Asian rhinos. The week before last, Dr. Bibhab Talukdar (IRF Asian Rhino Coordinator), Inov (Indonesia Liaison), and I were privileged to participate with experts from the US, India, and Indonesia in Way Kambas National Park to determine how to coordinate and implement a Sumatra-wide survey for Sumatran rhinos. We put together a coordinated, multi-dimensional plan, including identifying high priority 4 x 4 km quadrants within the three Indonesian parks where Sumatran rhinos remain (Way Kambas, Bukit Barisan Selatan, and Gunung Leuser National Park including the Leuser Ecosystem) and the number of days needed for ground surveys. We also identified how many video camera traps would be needed, and staff from our partner the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology trained field teams in collecting and storing dung to be analyzed to determine sex ratios win the populations and later, possibly, to determine reproductive status. The total cost to pull together all this information? About US $2 million. The value of finding even a few more rhinos in addition to the ~100 we now know exist? Priceless.
So what do we do if we find more rhinos?
In April this year, united in a fear of losing the Sumatran rhino, and with hope that a new, creative, and effective international strategy could be developed and implemented in time to save it, more than 100 participants from various organizations and institutions working on Sumatran rhino and other endangered species gathered for the Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit in Singapore. The meeting included not just Asian rhino experts, but seasoned conservationists who had worked with and had success with other critically endangered species, such as the California condor, Hawaiian forest birds, the saola, the giant panda, and Indian and African rhino species. Lessons were also shared from recovery efforts that eventually resulted in species losses (e.g., the Yangtze River dolphin, the Vietnamese subspecies of Javan rhino). The Government of Indonesia, the IRF and partners are determined to build on these lessons as we implement a new conservation paradigm for the Sumatran rhino’s recovery. A series of priority actions, in addition to the recommended surveys, were identified at the Summit, including:
- Establish a high-level task force of senior Indonesian government decision makers supported by an advisory body of national and international experts on rhino population and habitat management, which will make decisions on conservation management proposals in a timely manner and report each year to the President of Indonesia or a designate on the progress achieved in rhino conservation;
- Appoint a full-time government focal point for rhino conservation within the Nature Conservation Division of the Government of Indonesia;
- Allocate sufficient resources, including adequate staff numbers, to the National Parks to enforce protection of remaining Sumatran rhino populations in Bukit Barisan Selatan, Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser National Parks, and the wider Leuser Ecosystem;
- Monitor all rhino protection efforts using the SMART law enforcement monitoring database and share results with all stakeholders on a monthly basis;
- Establish Intensive Management Zones (IMZ) in Bukit Barisan Selatan, Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser National Parks, and the larger Leuser Ecosystem;
- Significantly increase enforcement effort in these IMZs to maintain rhino densities;
- Move rhinos not in IMZs either into IMZs or into the managed breeding program;
- Permit the movement of animals within and between IMZs and experienced managed breeding facilities.
The main value in the surveys is in learning just what we have in hand before we start implementing the strategic management actions listed above. We are fortunate to have seed funding for this work already lined up. As part of their commitment to conserving regional biodiversity, the Government of Australia has made a AU $3 million dollar commitment over three years for Sumatran rhinos. Kudos to the visionary leaders who made this decision!
Historic Gathering of Asian Rhino Range Countries
Last week, in a major step towards recovery, we participated in the first-ever Asian Rhino Range States meeting to discuss the plight of Asian rhinos. Officials from India, Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bhutan exchanged information and experiences, ultimately agreeing on measures to increase the populations of Asian rhinos by at least three percent annually by 2020. The agreement signed by the five countries also set out recommendations to improve biological monitoring and management and carrying out tough anti-poaching initiatives to help boost the dwindling population of Asian rhinos, including the greater one-horned rhino (about 3,333 remaining), the Sumatran rhino (about 100 remaining), and Javan rhino (no more than 44 remaining). Two out of the three Asian rhino species — the Sumatran and Javan rhino – are Critically Endangered, and the third, the greater one-horned rhino, is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The populations have dwindled rapidly as poachers hunt the animal for its horn, which has been highly valued for use in traditional Chinese medicine, and more recently in Vietnam, falsely touted as a cure for hangovers and cancer. The group will meet again next year in India to assess progress against their aims. For the full text of the agreement, please click here.
The problem facing Sumatran rhinos is a solvable one that requires a new and active management paradigm. Through effective conservation action and protection, two of the five rhino species have recovered from fewer than 100 animals since the early 1900s; both the Greater One-Horned and White Rhino have recovered to more than 3,000 and more than 20,000 animals. Lessons learned in active management, including consolidation of fragmented populations for these species are directly applicable to Sumatran rhinos. One of the main strategies will be to develop intensive management zones within the national parks, as well as setting up a metapopulation management system so that genes can flow between the populations.
We know how to recover the species – it’s still feasible – but it needs to start now, in a coordinated, targeted effort. IRF’s core values of hard work, partnership, passion, and optimism have never been more important. Thank you for your commitment to being with us on this journey, and for your continued support as we work together help ensure that these precious species are not lost.
Susie Ellis, PhD