Sumatran Rhino Conservation

Geographical location:

Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Malaysia

First-ever camera trap photo of a Sumatran (Bornean) rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni) in the wild on the island of Borneo. 15 April 2006. Malaysia.
© WWF Malaysia / Raymond ALFRED

Summary

Listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN and on Appendix I by CITES, the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is internationally recognised as the most endangered of the 3 Asian rhino species. In Malaysia, it is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1976.

This project aims to build on previous conservation work to protect the Malaysian populations, including protection and management of the rhino population and its habitat; collection of information on population viability and habitat requirements; and the promotion of scientific research and dissemination of data on captive individuals. Work will also focus on increasing ‘sanctuary’ populations with a view to reintroducing them to the wild.

Background

Historically the Sumatran rhino was found from the foothills of the Himalayas, through Burma, Thailand, and the Malay Peninsula. Healthy island populations were also present on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The present-day, global population is thought to be around 300 animals whilst, in Malaysia, the species persists in around 20 small and isolated locations. Only 6 of these are considered to be even reasonably viable for long-term conservation action: Tabin and Danum Valley in Sabah and Ulu Segama, Taman Negara, Endau Rompin and Belum in Peninsular Malaysia.

The 50% population decline over the last few decades has been attributed to poaching for the horn (used in traditional Chinese medicine) and habitat loss through logging, conversion to agriculture, human settlement and shifting cultivation. In 1987 the 'Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan' was produced by the IUCN/SSC Asian Rhino Specialist Group (AsRSG). In 1996 a Population Viability Analysis concluded that, without increased protection, the Sumatran rhino could become extinct in Malaysia by the year 2020.

In 1993, the Malaysia Rhino Conservation Action Plan was produced by the 3 responsible government agencies: the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Peninsular Malaysia), the Department of Wildlife (Sabah) and the Department of Forestry (Sarawak). This document, based on the IUCN Action Plan, identified 4 main objectives:

1. Provide in situ protection and management of key populations and habitat.
2. Develop target population numbers and distribution.
3. Experiment with a gene pool sanctuary as a means for propagation.
4. Continue to participate in a global propagation and research programme to support in situ efforts.

In 1995 Malaysia received, through AsRSG and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), a USD 1,000,000 Global Environment Facility (GEF) grant to form and deploy over a 3-year period Rhino Protection Units (RPUs). Since the end of that funding period (1998) RPU related actvities have been funded by AsRSG and IRF along with a number of recruited donors such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and WWF. The RPUs are engaged in anti-poaching patrols and community outreach programmes and are generally considered to be the best method for effective rhino protection.

In Indonesia, reports are that this system is working very well with the remit of the units extended to tiger protection. In Malaysia, however, the system appears to be suffering from a lack of resources and capacity.

Objectives

1) Implement a reliable and sustainable mechanism for the protection of target populations.

2) Record current and future population status for each of the focus sites and implement monitoring measures.

3) Gain a complete understanding of the ecological, biological and spatial requirements of the Sumatran rhino.

4) Include a rhino conservation specific component in the Royal Belum Management Plan.

5) Gain a complete understanding of the nature and dynamics of the rhino poaching/trade issue.

6) Ensure local communities are aware of the value of the rhino and of the need to protect it.

7) Consider the participation of local communities in tourism as an alternative livelihood.

Solution

The Belum/Temenggor forest complex in Peninsular Malaysia and the Danum Valley Forest Reserve (DVFR) in Sabah were chosen as focus sites, based on their inclusion in current action plans, the status of forest cover and WWF Malaysia’s existing work in the area.

Several surveys have already been carried out in the Belum forest: 2 by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) in 1993 and 1998; 2 by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) (1994 and 2001) and 2 by the Forestry Department (1997 and 2003 - the latter with the Perak State Forestry Department).

In ensuring the long-term survival of rhinos, it is crucial not just to gain a better understanding of their conservation status but also to secure better protection for their habitat. The State Government of Perak has given its commitment to gazette the Royal Belum as a State Park but gazettement in itself will not ensure effective management of the park and protection of its natural resources.

A management plan for the Royal Belum is a basic requirement in ensuring the effective management of the park. The management plan will be a holistic document taking into consideration all aspects of planning, resource requirements, financial sustainability, development and management of the park.

In 1995 the first 5-year management plan was developed for Danum Valley Forest Reserve and though it recognized the importance of the area for the Sumatran rhino, it did not include any specific management measures for the resident population.

There is currently a management committee for the reserve comprised of the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD), the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and the Sabah Foundation (SF). To date there have been several multiple-team surveys carried out in DVFR, 2 that included representatives from SWD, SFD, SF, WWF Malaysia and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in 1992 and 1995 and one led by the Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) (joined by SWD, SFD, SF and Sabah Parks) in 2005.

Under the auspices of AREAS, this project will seek collaboration and partnership with in Peninsular: Perhilitan, the Perak State Government, PSPC and MNS; and in Sabah: SF, SWD, SFD, University Malaysia Sabah and SOS Rhino. At a project level, the collaboration of Malaysian Rhino Foundation and AsRSG will be sought.

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