Poachers Are Hunting Down the World’s Last Wild Sumatran Rhinos

The arrival in Indonesia of a rhino named Harapan from an American zoo could offer hope for the species.
(Photo: Supri/Reuters)
Nov 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Is there any hope for the Sumatran rhino?

Only about 100 of these small, hairy rhinos remain on the planet, and the few that exist in the wild are almost impossible to find. They live solitary lives, scattered among the rainforests on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Scientists are lucky to spot one or two on camera traps every couple of years.

Like all other rhino species, Sumatran rhinos have been poached into near extinction for their valuable horns, which are used in traditional Asian medicine and can sell at prices that rival gold. Although rhino horn has no medicinal effects, it is used to “treat” everything from cancer to hangovers.

(See Pete Bethune and his team investigate Sumatran rhino poaching in this week’s episode of The Operatives, which airs on Sunday, Nov. 15, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. Join the Operatives on their missions, and take action to protect all wildlife, by clicking here.)

That it’s so hard to find the last wild Sumatran rhinos doesn’t stop poachers from trying. Earlier this year the species was declared extinct in the wild in the Malaysian portion of Borneo. A year earlier, conservationists rescued what now appears to have been the last wild Bornean rhino in Malaysia from a poacher’s pit trap.

That rhino, a female named Iman, was briefly thought to be a sign of hope for the species. At the time of her rescue, it appeared that she was pregnant. That didn’t turn out to be the case. Examinations revealed that she—like many of the remaining females in her species—carried a collection of tumors inside her uterus that would permanently prevent her from becoming pregnant. The tumors grow when the animals do not spend enough time mating or breeding.

RELATED: Moves That Could Save the Nearly Extinct Sumatran Rhino

Another sign of hope arrived this month. A Sumatran rhino named Harapan—whose name means “hope”—arrived in Indonesia as part of an anticipated captive-breeding program. Harapan was born in the United States and was the last Sumatran rhino living in the U.S. before his transfer from the Cincinnati Zoo.

“Harapan brings hope for captive breeding of this species,” said Wulan Pusparini, species conservation specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Indonesia. The American rhino joins his older brother, Andalas, who arrived in Sumatra in 2007 and fathered a rhino in 2012. All previous captive-breeding efforts in Indonesia failed—for 140 years—until Andalas arrived. Andalas’ mate, Ratu, is now expecting her second calf.

Every potential new birth comes coupled with the fact that the remaining Sumatran rhinos have a very limited genetic diversity, which could create health problems in later generations. “One has to be concerned about the small genetic variation,” Pusparini said. “All new offspring will share similar genetic line from single male, Ipuh, the father of Andalas and Harapan.”

Any captive-born rhinos would also not help the remaining wild animals, because they probably won’t be able to be released into the jungle after being raised among humans. That means protecting the few wild rhinos remains important.

“Threats to Sumatran rhinos include poaching, habitat loss, and a fragmented population,” said Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s SSC Asian Rhino Specialist Group. He said the Indonesian government needs to create more safe habitats to help ensure the rhinos have a place to live. The animals prefer dense forests where they can’t be seen easily and travel great distances while they graze. Protecting large amounts of habitat may also allow the scattered wild rhinos to find each other and breed, something they may not have the opportunity to do otherwise.

Although the Sumatran rhino population is incredibly low and the animals are hard to find, Pusparini said she feels poaching is their greatest threat. “The threat from poaching remains omnipresent,” she said. “For example, the Javan rhino in Vietnam was poached until the very last individual was killed.”

He fears the same fate could befall the Sumatran rhino.