Sumatran Rhino Conservation Program
The goal of IRF’s comprehensive Sumatran Rhino Conservation Program is to increase the population of Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia by monitoring and protecting rhinos and their habitats through our Rhino Protection Units, understanding its basic biology, breeding the species at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, and working with local communities to build support for conservation.
No more than 100 Sumatran rhinos survive in very small and highly fragmented populations in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia and Malaysia the only significant range countries. The largest populations of wild rhinos are found in Bukit Barisan Selatan, Gunung Leuser, and Way Kambas National Parks in Sumatra, Indonesia; there is also a small population in Kalimantan, Borneo. The species was recently declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia.
The main cause of the initial decline of Sumatran rhinos was poaching for horn, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Now, the populations are also limited by living in fragmented habitats which prevent their ability to get together to breed; rhino habitat is also continuously encroached by human populations.
With our on-the-ground partner, the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia (Yayasan Badak Indonesia or YABI), IRF operates a multi-faceted Sumatran Rhino Conservation Program that includes protection of Sumatran rhinos and their habitat through our Rhino Protection Units, research on and propagation of the species at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (in collaboration with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, and White Oak Conservation Holdings), and outreach to local communities, including education programs and alternative income development.
We operate seven Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) in Bukit Barisan Selatan and five Rhino Protection Units in Way Kambas. In addition, our RPUs are actively involved in training similar units in Gunung Leuser National Park. RPUs are highly-trained, four-person anti-poaching teams that intensively patrol key areas within Indonesia’s national parks. They monitor threatened wildlife, deactivate traps and snares, identify and apprehend illegal intruders, including poachers, and investigate crime scenes, thus preventing or reducing the loss of wildlife.
IRF also helps manage the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS), a 250-acre complex located within Way Kambas National Park. At the Sanctuary, the rhinos reside in large, natural rainforest habitats and receive state-of-the-art veterinary care and nutrition. The five rhinos at the SRS are part of an intensively managed research and breeding program. The goal of this program is to increase our knowledge about the ecology and behavior of the species while also increasing the population in the wild.
In the two national parks where the RPUs operate, no Sumatran rhinos are known to have been poached in more than 7 years.
The RPUs patrol and survey several thousand kilometers per year in each national park, on foot, by motorbike, and by boat, all the while monitoring rhino, tiger, elephant and tapir populations through direct sightings, footprints, feces, wallows, and evidence of feeding. RPUs immediately remove any traps or snares discovered during patrols and investigate any illegal activity, including illegal hunting and fishing, illegal logging, construction of camps or houses, and clearing of land for crops. If appropriate, the RPUs then collect evidence and help make arrests.
Thanks to community development activities, the RPUs also have been successful in halting and even turning back encroachment in some areas of the parks. The RPUs are working with adjacent communities to develop alternative farming practices to boost local incomes, as well as discourage future encroachment within Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. The RPUs set up demonstration plots using environmentally-friendly agricultural practices and conducted sustainable farming training programs on small timber and rubber tree crops. Growing these crops, an Indonesian farming family can expect to earn US $500 more for each hectare.
At the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, female Ratu gave birth to a male calf, Andatu on June 23, 2012, after having been bred by Andalas in March 2011 and taking a 16-month pregnancy to term.
Ratu is a wild Sumatran rhino who wandered out of Way Kambas National Park in 2005, came into contact with local villagers, and ultimately was rescued and brought to the SRS. Andalas is one of three Sumatran rhinos born and raised at the Cincinnati Zoo – the first of his species born in a zoo in more than a century. In 2007, he was sent to the Sanctuary with hopes that he would sire calves from one or more of the females. And he has!
Given the Sumatran rhino’s Critically Endangered status, it’s important that we learn as much as possible about this species – its basic biology, disease risks, food and habitat requirements – to help it survive. The rhinos living at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary serve as ambassadors for their wild counterparts, and as instruments for education for local communities and the general public. They also comprise an ‘insurance’ population that can be used to re-establish or revitalize wild populations, once threats have been eliminated in their natural habitat.
IRF is also working to secure more funding for large-scale efforts to conserve Sumatran rhinos and other species that share their habitat. IRF, along with WWF and Conservation International, recently helped secure approval of an $11.2 million Debt-for-Nature Swap agreement with the U.S. to help save Sumatran rhinos. The objective of this new funding is to enhance the conservation of tropical forests, focusing on key areas for Sumatran rhinos, tigers, and orangutans. With a grant from Disney’s Reverse the Decline Fund, IRF is also leading a large multi-stakeholder initiative to create and implement a 10-year recovery plan for Sumatran rhinos.