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SOS Rhino : In the News : Rhinos alive and well in the final frontier
 

Rhinos alive and well in the final frontier

  01 Jul 2006

http://www.nst.com.my
New Straits Times online

IT is not a tall tale. Rhinos do roam Sabah’s wild as validated by the first ever photograph of the animal recently.

Until a Sumatran rhinoceros was finally captured on film by a motion-triggered camera in Sabah, the only proof of the elusive mammal’s existence in Borneo was its footprints and droppings.

No wonder the conservation community was excited.

Although researchers are unable to confirm the gender of the rhino, the photograph reveals that it is healthy.

WWF-Malaysia Asian Rhinoceros and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) project manager Raymond Alfred says any photograph of a rhino in the wild is significant.

"If we just study footprints, we cannot determine if the animal is healthy or not," says Alfred.

"The photograph we have, which is a first, indicates that the rhino is healthy.

"This is probably due to the availability of good-quality forage in the forest. We hope to take more photos of other rhinos so that we can piece together information on the animal."

Spotting a rhino can be difficult as the animal has a strong sense of smell, allowing it to detect people who may be a kilometre or two away.

The rhino photographed is believed to be one of the 13 whose existence was confirmed during a field survey last year. The survey had studied droppings and footprints.

Rhinos in Borneo are regarded as a distinct sub species of the Sumatran rhino as they have different physical characteristics from those found in Sumatra and peninsular Malaysia.

The Sumatran rhino is one of the world’s most critically endangered species.

After the survey, a decision was made to place motion-triggered camera traps to get photographs of more rhinos.

The infrared camera traps are remotely activated by passing animals.

WWF-Malaysia and the Sabah Wildlife Department, through the "Rhino Rescue" project, are joining hands to conserve the species.

The Honda Malaysia-funded project aims to protect rhinos through activities such as studies on the animal’s needs, prevention of poaching and habitat conservation.

"Before we set up the four cameras, we did detailed studies on the movement and habitat conditions. The cameras were installed in February and can be moved from one location to another," says Alfred.

"We checked one camera recently and found that we had managed to capture a photograph of the rhino on April 16 sometime in the afternoon."

Several new camera and video traps will be set up at the rhino core area to get more information on the animal and its status in the wild.

Another piece of good news earlier this week was the announcement by SOS Rhino, a lesser known NGO, that its rangers have found the tracks of a young rhino.

The rangers were trailing rhinos that had wandered away from the protection of the forest reserves and gone into a oil palm plantation.

On the number of rhinos in Borneo a century ago compared to now, AREAS technical adviser Dr Junaidi Payne laments on the lack of data back then.

However, he believes there were probably more rhinos at that time based on advertisements in the British North Borneo Herald (The paper began printing in the mid-1880s).

"There were advertisements seeking rhino horns in the newspaper. So they were probably more common then," Junaidi says.

He says the only figures available on the rhinos were from surveys done in 1992 and 1995, which were similar to work done last year.

Both surveys found that there were fewer than 13 rhinos but Junaidi feels it was probably because fewer people were involved in the studies.

On the possibility of in-breeding, Junaidi says it was not known if the rhinos were related.

"In terms of conservation, we would be lucky if random hunting has left a pool that are not related. Whatever the case, there is risk in the middle to long term.

"In theory, it is possible to identify if they are related based on DNA samples taken from dung. In practice, it may not work because you need fresh dung to do this."

Junaidi also said there had been no reliable report until now to verify whether rhinos are found in Sarawak or Kalimantan, which make up Borneo island with Brunei and Sabah.

There is no confirmed report of the species in other parts of Borneo, leading experts to fear the rhinos may be extinct on the rest of the island.

The main threat to the last rhinos in Sabah is poaching for its horn, which is traditionally used as a cure for illnesses such as nose bleeds, strokes, convulsions and fevers.

However, there is no scientific proof to validate the use of horns for medical purposes.

Other threats include loss of habitat, following large conversions of forests for economic reasons.

The Sumatran rhino is the smallest among the three species of the Asian rhino, and is the only one with two horns.

The overall population is estimated at 300 but figures indicate the sub species in Borneo numbers only between 20 and 30.

The other Asian rhinos are the greater one-horned rhino also known as the Indian rhino, and the Javan rhino, or lesser one-horned rhino.




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