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Save the rhino
Save the rhino
30 Oct 2006
New Straits Times
The rare Sumatran rhino may soon be a distant memory if efforts are not escalated to save them. KARINA FOO writes.
THEY are gentle beasts that roam our tropical forests peacefully. A harmonious existence ... until the poachers come, bulldozers appear and factories arise out of empty land.
Left are barren plains which are scarce and unsightly. The animals that lived there have gone on in search of greener pastures or have sadly perished.
The rare Sumatran rhino is now an endangered species. Only 300 are struggling to survive in Sumatra (Indonesia) and in Sabah.
It is one of the least studied (and therefore least known) mammals because of its elusive character and remote dwellings.
Dr Nan Schaffer, the president of SOS Rhino, a non-profit international organisation, shares her concerns for the slowly diminishing numbers of these animals.
“The rhinos are endangered because of their loss of habitat. The pockets of rhinos on the reserves are too small and too far apart for a productive population. Vast lands separate individual rhinos so it is difficult for them to find each other,” she explained.
The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is known as a deep rainforest creature so it is hard to locate and protect it. It’s also the smallest among the five main rhino species.
African rhinos are found in eastern and southern Africa in savannah woodlands and grasslands while Asian rhinos (like the Sumatran rhino) thrive in tropical forests and grasslands of Asia.
There are afew rhino protection projects worldwide. In Malaysia, SOS Rhino has set up a successful project at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve inSabah.
It has been assisting the Sabah government since 1998. SOS Rhino’s protection units patrol the forest regularly to look for the elusive creature.
Their efforts prevailed last month —the first video footage of a Sumatran rhino was captured.
It showed the animal springing out of the bush and then dashing past the camera man.
The excitement generated by this barely 10-second video was hardly surprising as it was the first time a Sumatran rhino was spotted in 10 years.
In July, the tracks of a baby rhino were found by rangers belonging to the SOS Rhino Patrol Unit. It brought hope that that a new generation of rhinos would prevail.
“Most people perceive rhinos to be aggressive and fierce but the Sumatran Rhino is gentle. The male, for instance, displays a solicited and almost romantic behaviour towards the female.
“While they have poor eyesight, they have an acute sense of hearing and sense of smell which they rely on for feeding. All rhinos are active in the mornings but love to wallow in the mud to cool off after a long hot day.”
Rhinos are killed mainly by poachers for their horns used either as ornaments or Chinese medicine (though there’s no scientific proof as to their efficacy).
The reproduction rate of these complex creatures is very low.
In the past 100 years, only 40 Sumatran rhinos were kept in captivity and only two calves were bred and born in captivity.
“Sumatran rhinos live in vast spaces usually by themselves so this makes them very isolated creatures. Right now there are very few left as they are scattered around Malaysia and Indonesia.
“That already makes it a difficult task to bring a male and female together as they are likely to fight and can only be kept together when she is ready to mate.”
The Sumatran rhino’s lifespan is only 30 years and there are only 70 of these animals left in Peninsular Malaysia. In Sabah, there are about 30-40 while the remaining are in Indonesia.
“While there are also other endangered animals like the Orang Utan and the elephants, the Sumatran Rhino is much closer to extinction. Very few people knowthis. This also makes developing research facilities and rhino facilitation units more expensive,” said Schaffer.
“However, we have seen a good increase in awareness over the years. People have responded to our volunteer programmes while the villagers living near the reserves are very hospitable.
Yet she stresses that more work needs to be done.
“It’ll only be a matter of a few years for the Sumatran rhinos to become extinct. Poaching must stop and more volunteers are needed to help preserve the natural habitat of these creatures.”
Aim of SOS Rhino
SOS Rhino was invited by the Malaysian Government to help save the Sumatran rhino, one of the world’s most critically endangered species.
With over 20 years’ experience, it has set up a successful SOS Rhino Borneo project in Sabah and has been assisting the Sabah Wildlife Department for eight years.
It constructed the Tabin Wild life Reserve which is a dedicated ground for the breeding of wildlife and birdlife, including the Sumatran rhino and Borneo pygmy elephant.
SOS Rhino is constantly looking for volunteers to help save the Sumatran rhinos. They can participate in surveys (depending on experience), assist with building camp sites, write articles about jungle experiences, do fundraising and help teach English to some of the field staff.
Sponsorships and donations are welcome and will be used to help conserve the rhino, create public awareness of the animal’s bleak future and acquire new vehicles and equipment for the SOS Rhino’s Rhino Protection Unit.
A survey on the population and condition of the Sumatran Rhino at the Tain Wildlife Reserve will be conducted from Nov 1-12.
Visit www.sosrhino.org for more information.
A dedicated researcher
SOS Rhino president Dr Nan Scaffer has spent the past 25 years working on rhinoceros reproduction and has been instrumental in the success of artificial insemination in the white rhino and the birth of a captive-born Sumatran rhino.
She received her doctorate of veterinary medicine and masters in physiology from Texas A&M University in the United States where she specialised in the fertility evaluation of male zoo animals.
She received her post-doctorate from the Bronx Zoo and continued her career in wild animal fertility.
She was asked to come to Malaysia in 1991 by the Malaysia Wildlife Department to advise it on Sumatran rhinos as well as its breeding programmes using special ultrasound technology.
In 1997, she founded SOS Rhino with the aim of involving as many people as possible in the drive to save the Sumatra rhino