I have never seen a Sumatran rhino in the wild. Few people have, not even the Rhino Protection Units who patrol the three national parks on the island of Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago. Despite being out in the forest for at least 15 days a month, it’s incredibly rare that they get a sighting. And the reason is simply that there are so few Sumatran rhinos left in the world: fewer than 100 is the current best guess, and they are very, very shy.
Yet Sumatran rhinos, which are descended from the woolly rhino of 40 million years ago, used to be so numerous that they were regarded as garden pests and shot like vermin. Poachers killed them for their tiny horns, considered more potent than those of the African rhinos. Then the rhinos began to lose their forest home, cut down for tropical hardwoods, cleared for palm oil plantations or for mining. Roads were built to allow vehicle access, cutting ever deeper into Sumatran’s shrinking wild places. As rhino populations began to fragment, it became harder and harder for breeding-age males to find receptive females. And that’s how, in the space of just 100 years, the species has almost disappeared.
Almost. Because there’s a tremendous conservation effort underway to try to reverse the decline. A coalition of NGOs is fundraising in order to implement a Sumatran rhino conservation strategy. One of the key components of this strategy is the expansion of the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, located in Way Kambas National Park in southern Sumatra.
I was lucky enough to visit the Sanctuary in 2007, just after Andalas, a male rhino born in Cincinnati Zoo, had been translocated to Indonesia. The hope was that Andalas, a breeding-age male, would successfully mate with the two young female rhinos already in the Sanctuary, Ratu and Rosa, who had been rescued from villages after straying out of the forest – in search of food, a mate, who knows? When I visited, Andalas was still going through the quarantine process, slowly being introduced to the different vegetation, insects and smells and sounds of the Indonesian rainforest. It would be a while before he actually met the other rhinos, but as we went from him to the two girls, they sniffed at our hands to try to work out what this exciting new scent was.
Andalas lived up to everyone’s hopes, enthusiastically mating with Ratu. In 2012, she gave birth to a healthy male calf, Andatu, and then again earlier this year, this time to a female calf named Delila, meaning “Gift from God”. It took a while longer before Rosa swiped right, but she too has now mated with Andalas several times. We’ve got everything crossed for a pregnancy. We’re also planning to bring additional rhinos from marginal forest areas into the Sanctuary, in order to have enough genetic diversity for the breeding programme.
The two calves and the plans to bring in other rhinos have created a problem we’re delighted to have: we need more space. We also need quarantine facilities to ensure that new animals arriving at the Sanctuary can be safely integrated into the breeding programme without putting its current inhabitants at risk of disease.
At least I’ve seen a Sumatran rhino, albeit in captivity, though captivity that looks as natural as could be. The closest I’ve ever come to a Javan rhino is a handful of its dung. We’d spent 5 hours driving from Jakarta to Labuan, on the west coast of Java, and then sailed overnight to Ujung Kulon National Park, the only place in the world where Javan rhinos still survive. We met up with one of the Rhino Protection Units and for two days we joined them on patrol, paddling along rivers in canoes carved from tree trunks, clambering out to visit known wallows, and all the while sweating, sweating in the humid heat of the jungle.
The vegetation was like you see in picture books – huge leaves, spiky thorns, every shade of green you can imagine. Squelching through the mud and pushing aside branches, I knew I was making so much noise that every animal, let alone the notoriously secretive Javan rhino, would have long since fled. Little wonder then that almost every photo ever taken of a Javan rhino has been taken by remote camera traps.
But at one of the wallows, there was fresh dung. A day old reckoned the patrol leader. I picked up a handful; it smelled like the mulch we put on our gardens, a clean, vegetal kind of smell. Bits of twig and grass were twisted and matted together. How tantalising to think that sometime in the last 24 hours, a Javan rhino had walked this way.
The camera traps, together with DNA testing of dung like the handful I’d teased apart, tell us that there are between 58 and 61 Javan rhinos. Not many, but enough to work with: the science tells us we need a minimum of 20 unrelated animals for a viable breeding population.
Like the Sumatran rhinos in the Sanctuary, the Javan rhinos need more space. As the human population of Java has grown, the rhinos have been pushed into the very western tip of the island, any further and they have to be even better swimmers than they already are. So a few years ago, the Indonesian government gave permission for the Park to expand eastwards, with a couple of villages relocated and fences constructed to stop livestock straying back into the Park. New wallows and saltlicks were created, invasive plant species cleared, and little by little, the Javan rhinos are colonising this expanded area.
Once again, this has created a problem we’re pleased to have: we need more Rhino Protection Units to patrol the area. That will require money for salaries, rations, uniforms and camping equipment.
Raising funds for an animal so rare that almost no one has ever seen it presents some enormous challenges. But there can be no doubt that these two ancient and wonderful species are worth every effort possible to protect. I am enormously grateful to Paignton Zoo for having the vision, passion and commitment to put on this summer’s parade of rhinos, which has captured the hearts of so many people. Now we have to see if we can capture some wallets too, at the Great Big Rhino Project auction on 3 November. Go on, make a difference: bid on a rhino and help save a species!
To find out more about The Great Big Rhino Charity Fundraising Auction including how to buy tickets and register to bid, please click here.
The surplus from The Great Big Rhino Project will be used by Paignton Zoo to support Javan and Sumatran rhino conservation via Save the Rhino International.
Director - Save the Rhino International