There is still a chance to save the Sumatran rhino (commentary)

  • In 2017, rhino experts from around the world and government officials reached a consensus that saving the Sumatran rhino requires the capture and consolidation of remaining wild populations in intensively managed captive breeding facilities.
  • A female rhino has been identified for immediate capture in Indonesian Borneo.
  • In this commentary, WWF Wildlife Practice Leader Margaret Kinnaird and IUCN Species Survival Commission Chair Jon Paul Rodriguez say that local and international conservation groups are ready to support the Indonesian government’s efforts to save the Sumatran rhino through captive breeding and release into safe sites.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Captive breeding has been a key strategy to save species on the brink of extinction, but it is frequently not applied until wild populations have dwindled to a very small size. Under these circumstances, it becomes a challenging and risky undertaking, from the unpredictable nature of capturing and relocating wild animals to the vagaries of advanced reproductive technology or unsuccessful coupling. The ultimate goal is to keep remaining animals in human care until the threats have been addressed and the population is large enough to reestablish them in the wild.

In 2017, rhino experts from around the world and government officials reached a consensus that saving the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) required the capture and consolidation of remaining wild populations in intensively managed captive breeding facilities, in response to the gravity of the animal’s plight.

Previous attempts to halt its decline, including intensive monitoring and anti-poaching efforts, and habitat protection and restoration, have been less successful than expected – in part, because they did not address the serious problem of poor reproduction.

The Sumatran rhino is one of the most critically endangered mammals on Earth. Fewer than 100 individuals remain in nine isolated populations in Sumatra and Borneo, now so dispersed that they rarely, if ever, find each other to mate, and none with sufficient numbers for the species to survive in the wild. And to add insult to injury, through lack of encounters with males, female rhinos tend to develop reproductive problems.

In short, the species is in crisis. Facilitating recovery by capturing isolated individuals from very small populations to increase rhino births in captivity is inevitable. That the impending onset of the dry season may push this animal into areas with an increased the threat of poaching, makes the situation urgent.

A baby Sumatran rhino, one of two calves born in captivity at Indonesia’s Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

This is a slow and hazardous mission, not guaranteed to succeed. In 2016, conservation organizations, including WWF and the Government of Indonesia, attempted to rescue and translocate a rhino that unfortunately died due to multiple complications from the capture and treatment of a wound previously sustained by a poacher’s snare.

Nevertheless, the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Way Kambas National Park in southern Sumatra has shown captive breeding can work with two calves born at the facility, a male in 2012 and a female in 2016.

And now a female rhino has been identified for immediate capture in West Kutai in Indonesian Borneo’s East Kalimantan province. No other animals are near, so breeding is not possible. The forest is likely to be cleared, thus removing her home range and increasing the likelihood that she will be poached. Unless captured and moved to a secure facility, there is no hope for this animal.

With the recent approval from the Government of Indonesia in coordination with the IUCN Species Survival Commission, and the support of partners, including local NGOs, the National Geographic Society, Global Wildlife Conservation and the International Rhino Foundation, WWF has joined a team of the world’s top veterinarians, experts in tracking and capturing rhinos, and professional handlers from YABI, and is now finalizing the capture plan which will see the rhino relocated to a protected place in the West Kutai district. If successful, the plan will boost the wider captive breeding program.

Closely related to the woolly rhinoceros which became extinct around 10,000 years ago, and the only existing member of the ancient Dicerorhinus genus which dates back to the Early Miocene, 23–16 million years ago, the Sumatran rhino is one of over 200 mammal species that are critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In the context of the Anthropocene’s ongoing sixth mass extinction, this is akin to being on “death row.”  Should the species go extinct, the Sumatran rhino would be the first land mammal genus extinction globally since the Tasmanian tiger in 1936. No one wants to see this happen but the avoidance of such an inauspicious milestone is not all that matters.

How many more species must perish before we end what has been called a “biological annihilation” and a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization”?

The current species extinction rate is estimated to be up to 1,000 times higher than natural background rates. Whether we as a species are able to grant a reprieve for the Sumatran rhino and so many other animals with whom we share the Earth is a test of our collective humanity.

The world has woken up to climate change. Now it must do so to the need to reverse the loss of nature.

Female Sumatran rhino in Way Kambas, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for

Many organizations besides those already mentioned, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Borneo Rhino Alliance and YABI, are ready to help the Indonesian President, his government and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry seize the opportunity to save the Sumatran rhino through captive breeding and release into safe sites without further delay and maximize the chances of success.

Capture and translocation have been successfully used to save populations of white, black and Asian rhinos. Experts from these efforts are ready to lend a hand. It is clearly time to be proactive and gather remaining individuals, reduce their threat of being poached, and increase their likelihood of reproduction. There is always the risk that our efforts will not succeed, but doing nothing is clearly not an option.

In the meantime, we need to support the government of Indonesia to protect as much of the Sumatran rhino habitat as possible, so that in the foreseeable future, Indonesia can reintroduce this small, two-horned species back into the wild. This will only happen if we do all we can now to ensure every remaining animal contributes to making more rhino calves. The quick, decisive action that has begun taking place with leadership from the Government, is the only way to save the Sumatran rhino from extinction.

Margaret Kinnaird is global wildlife practice leader at WWF. Jon Paul Rodriguez is chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, founder and president of Provita and a professor at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) Ecology Center.

Banner image: Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) Rosa originates from  Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia. Currently she’s living at the Sumatran rhinoceros sanctuary to protect her from poaching threats. Image courtesy of WWF-Indonesia / Gert Polet.

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