The rhino reckoning

Foose’s Vision

Over the last 30 years, the Sumatran rhino population in the wild has collapsed far more quickly than many could have guessed. In some places, populations have gone from estimates in the hundreds to near zero in a matter of a few years. Quite simply, the Sumatran rhino is vanishing.

So conservationists have returned to Tom Foose’s vision from 1984; in many ways the Sumatran Rhino Rescue is Foose’s Vision 2.0.

“I certainly think that we should get more rhinos into the breeding program, if for no other reason than we need the genetic diversity,” Roth says.

According to new numbers released by the Sumatran Rhino Rescue Program there are only around 80 wild Sumatran rhinos in the world spread over eleven subpopulations.

Nearly everyone agrees that all the rhinos should be rounded up in Kalimantan and Bukit Barisan National Park in southern Sumatra, where new numbers released by the Sumatran Rhino Rescue Program show the population at up to ten and up to five respectively. However, there is more debate about Way Kambas National Park, also in southern Sumatra, where new numbers show less than 20, and the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra, where researchers estimate fewer than 50 animals spread out over six subpopulations. Some believe these areas may house enough rhinos to sustain a wild population, assuming they are protected from poachers and snares. But others think it necessary to take animals out of these populations — if only to ensure we are capturing some young, healthy, fertile females.

“If there are still rhinos in their forests, they are no longer in sufficient numbers to propagate the species scattered as they are. Those last ‘forest ghosts’ need our help to meet each other now,” Nardelli says.

Ara, a male Sumatran rhino, at Sungai Dusrun. Caught in 1994 in Peninsular Malaysia, Ara survived just over nine years in captivity. He perished in 2003 when disease struck the facility of Sungai Dusun. Ara was the last wild rhino ever caught in Peninsular Malaysia. The species is now believed to be extinct there. Image by Mohammed Khan bin Momin Khan.

But Roth, who was instrumental in making the captive breeding a success, says we shouldn’t go so far as to bring all the rhinos into sanctuaries like the SRS.

“Now, I almost find myself in the opposite part of that spectrum where people are saying, ‘We have to bring them all in and [a managed] breeding program is the only way to go,’ and I’m kind of arguing, ‘No, I don’t think so, look at the Javan rhino,’” she says. The Javan rhino today survives in a single site with a stable, albeit small, population. Roth says she doesn’t see the dilemma as a binary — all captive or all wild — but a situation that requires “multiple strategies.”

“I’m not ready to give up on the wild populations,” she adds.

Griffiths says there are plans to catch some animals for captive breeding from the eastern Leuser population. But he believes conservationists should not take animals out of the western Leuser population, which he thinks is viable in the long term.

“The population of rhinos in Western Leuser is increasing in numbers and range,” he says, noting that they have evidence of recent births. Griffiths believes that if this area can be protected it could one day be home to “several hundred rhinos.”

Rainforest in the Leuser Ecosystem. Situated in northern Sumatra, the ecosystem is home to tigers, elephants and orangutans as well as rhinos. New estimates put the number of Sumatran rhinos in Leuser at high as 50. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

What about Way Kambas? Roth says she’s not against taking animals out of Way Kambas — with a new estimate of less than 20 animals — to contribute to genetic diversity of the captive population.

But even as conservationists’ plans to capture more rhinos are coming into fruition, the question remains: Are we doing enough?

“Things don’t move fast enough. There’s no question. Again, deciding on what should be happening and then making it happen, those are two different steps,” says Roth, who calls the decision to catch rhinos “a huge step forward.”

In the meantime, she says, more can be done with the rhinos available. For example, she thinks that Tam, the last male rhino in Sabah, should be sent to Indonesia for attempted breeding.

“I know they’re concerned that Tam maybe is subfertile. I’m not sure that he is. I think he’s maybe just like all the other Sumatran rhinos,” says Roth, who notes that sperm samples taken from other Sumatran rhinos have been poor, even for proven fathers like Ipuh and Andalas.

Tom Foose, Nico van Strien and veterinarian Marcellus Adi at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in the early 2000s. Image courtesy of IRF.

“As Tom Foose used to say… [we] need to maximize our options and minimize our regrets,” Ellis says. “And I think that’s where we’re trying to go, just to be sure we’re doing everything we can.”

We’ve come a long way from the meeting kick-stared by Foose in 1984. We know more than we ever have about Sumatran rhinos. And that knowledge may, in the end, be the only thing that saves them.

“Tom was the most visionary of all of us in the 1980s,” Payne says.

Without Foose, Sumatran rhinos probably would have never made their way to Cincinnati Zoo and our whole story would be very different — and likely all the more tragic.

“He was the one who obviously encouraged us all along,” Ed Maruska, former head of Cincinnati Zoo, says of this “dedicated rhino man.”

Banner image: One of the seven residents of the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia’s Way Kambas National Park. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

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Young Sumatran rhino at SRS in Way Kambas, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Article published by Isabel Esterman

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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