I never want to be associated with extinction. But unfortunately, we simply don’t win every conservation battle. My first-ever encounter with a rhino was a skeleton of a Sumatran Rhino laying by the bent sapling and wire noose that had entrapped and killed this magnificent beast. This moment profoundly changed my life and I’ve been working on rhino conservation ever since.
My passion is the two southeast Asian rhino species: the Sumatran and Javan. My early survey work in Vietnam only resulted in old stories of rhinos in the dense forests of the Annamites, where other enigmatic species such as the Saola and Large-antlered Muntjac had managed to keep a toehold to survival. My search in Cambodia the year after the Khmer Rouge handed in their weapons similarly delivered stories from a few years previous, but no surviving animals. I then helped to design and fund the survey that proved the extinction of the mainland sub-species of Javan Rhino in Vietnam.
“Having all your rhinos in one basket is a very risky strategy, especially when that basket is prone to tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.” –Barney Long, GWC Director of Species Conservation
Everywhere you look in Southeast Asia, we are 20 years too late to save rhinos. Unlike 20 or 30 years ago when these species were facing extinction at the hands of snares or bullets, the largest threat to the survival of the Sumatran and Javan Rhinos is now their small and fragmented populations. Don’t get me wrong: any rhino is constantly threatened by poaching, but that threat is better controlled than the inability of animals to simply meet each other for breeding.
We now have one last chance to save each of these two species:
The Sumatran Rhino needs its many small populations consolidated into areas where viable numbers of animals can live, meet and reproduce. This means at least 40 animals per population. We may have enough animals to create two such populations if we are lucky and can find the resources to catch and move these large animals from their remote forest homes. The captive population must also be a major focus so birth rates can be maximized. For the Sumatran Rhino, time is not on our side; we need births to outpace deaths and this has probably not happened in any population for many, many years.
For Javan Rhinos, their single forest home is now too small for them. Their forest is being overtaken by a palm that shades out food plants for the rhino. Their forest home needs to be managed to allow rhino numbers to expand. Ideally we would also move some rhinos to a new site so that they have more room in both sites to grow their populations. Moreover, having all your rhinos in one basket is a very risky strategy, especially when that basket is prone to tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
The Sumatran and Javan Rhino total less than 160 animals between them. Extinction looms for both, but can be avoided if we act now, and if we act at the level of intensity that is required. In fact, I strongly believe both species can be put on the path to recovery if the conservation community can unite, enough resources are directed to the challenge, and the political will to act both now and boldly can be found.
Extinction is forever, but my hope and optimism is strong.