Can holistic conservation save the Sumatran rhino?
During the last ice age, about 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago, Sumatran rhinos roamed the far reaches of East Asia. To the north, the stocky, hairy, two-horned ungulates could be found as far as the Yellow River Valley in present-day China. In the south, their range extended to the tropics of present-day Indonesia. When global temperatures warmed on the dawn of Holocene era, sea level rose and separated Borneo, Java and Sumatra from mainland Asia, creating multiple distinct populations of the species. For millennia, Sumatran rhinos thrived on both sides of the South China Sea.
But, as civilizations advanced and the human population increased in ancient East Asia, the Sumatran rhinos were less and less numerous. Forests shrunk to make way for agriculture and development, and animals were hunted for their skins and horns. In the modern era, habitat destruction and widespread poaching have pushed the mainland population to the brink. The last known mainland Sumatran rhino, Iman, died in Malaysia in 2019.
Today, there are less than 80 Sumatran rhinos left in Indonesia – and this number decreases. The population is scattered between a few protected areas in Sumatra and a province of Borneo. And their future is uncertain. Even though the remaining population is protected, limited genetic variability and low reproduction rate Sumatran rhinos remain challenges for their survival.
Cultivate a forest
After their first years of life, Sumatran rhinos tend to live lonely lives. During the day, they bathe in mud pools to combat the high heat and humidity of the habitat they have chosen. At night, they travel many kilometers in search of food, water and lick stones. According to Inov Sectionov, Indonesia’s program manager at the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), Sumatran rhinos eat twigs and leaves from at least 200 species of trees, shrubs and undergrowth plants. By grazing, rhinos give back as much to the forest as they take from it. “A rhino can travel 15 kilometers in one night. Along the way, the seeds cover their bodies and spread everywhere, ”he says.
While Sumatran rhinos are the smallest living rhinos of today, they are even more closely related to extinct woolly rhinos than to any other species. (Credit: Light and Dark Studio / Shutterstock)
In addition to scattering the seeds, rhinos also fertilize them. In one experiment, Sectionov placed Sumatran rhino feces in a neutral medium and waited to see what came out. “From a poo, we’ve seen 12 to 15 species of food plants grow,” he says. “You can imagine in the wild, when they drop poo everywhere, it can grow a new forest.”
Like most “megaherbivores“Sumatran rhinos are an integral part of the ecosystem in which they live. Conservation efforts to strengthen rhino herds must also protect an ecosystem that is home to the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran elephant, and countless species of plants and fungi.
From destruction to reforestation
Today, habitat destruction is the biggest threat to the declining Sumatran rhino population in Indonesia. For decades, the palm oil industry has decimated tropical forests on which animals depend. But, sometimes encroachment is as simple as a local farmer clearing an agricultural field to grow food for his family. This is a pervasive problem in Way Kambas National Park, a 485 square mile expanse of forest and swamp in South Sumatra.
“Way Kambas National Park is the only protected area in Indonesia that does not have a buffer zone. Villages adjoin the park boundaries and in the past human settlements have often encroached on the park, ”says Nina Fascione, Executive Director of IRF. “But it is also home to one of the only, perhaps, two Sumatran rhino populations that are large enough to reproduce.”
In 2019, the Indonesian national park system partnered with IRF and Yayasan Badek Indonesia, a local NGO, to tackle the problem with a new approach. They enlisted workers from surrounding communities to embark on a reforestation project that would restore degraded land within the park’s boundaries to native forests. At a site dubbed Rawa Bunder, an overgrown former cassava plantation, workers planted more than 15,000 seedlings in the project’s first season. “We tried to include as many people as possible in the planting process,” Sectionov said.
In addition to employing local help, Sectionov hoped that the project would continue to provide value to community members after the forest was created. A healthy forest could boost local tourism, and some of the same trees that rhinos depend on are useful to humans as well. Jackfruit is an example. By making the forest’s neighbors actors in its restoration, its founders believe that the project could bring lasting change.
One step back, two steps forward
However, it didn’t take long for the seedlings to settle in the ground at Rawa Bunder before being disturbed again. In November 2019, the site was consumed by flames. Sectionov suspects that a group of poachers set the fire, hoping to distract from operations elsewhere in the park. “The whole project was burned down, gone,” Sectionov says.
But, instead of losing hope, the team led by the national park doubled down. In addition to restoring the burnt site, the team began work on a second site, Rawa Kidang, just outside the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Sectionov recruited a large team of local workers that included farmers, people with disabilities and even former poachers. Together, they planted 21,000 seedlings. Many local families have also signed pledges not to farm or hunt in the park.
Working with former poachers was more than an offer of peace. Thanks to these new alliances, the team was able to locate hundreds of traps, which pose a danger to rhinos long after they have been abandoned. “Last year we collected over 300 snares. This year, less than 50. The risk is decreasing, ”explains Sectionov.
Already, many saplings are taller than humans and wildlife has started to return to the area. This year, the reforestation team found footprints of a tapir, a pig-like mammal that had once disappeared from the area. “I am so proud to work with these people. The project went far beyond my expectations, ”Sectionov said.
Hopefully, the team will one day find rhino tracks in Rawa Kidang as well.
Anthropocentrism, that is, an ethical system in which humans have the highest value, is often used pejoratively by conservationists. If we can’t see value in an ecosystem as a whole, we will inevitably degrade it, some say. But, others have argued that a healthy dose of anthropocentrism can help and motivate environmental protection. In the case of Rawa Kidang, conservation was only possible once the needs of the surrounding community were met. By including those who had the most to gain, and also the most to lose, from a conservation standpoint, the Sectionov team succeeded.
This perspective is important to the work of the IRF in all global rhino species ranges, although it may be more effective in Indonesia than in places with higher poaching rates. “It is not the local people who are at the root of the global poaching crisis when we talk about rhinos,” says Fascione. “They are international criminal syndicates. ”
Even so, poaching operations count on local help for access to an area, knowledge of the local terrain and, often, infantry. Whether it’s poaching or habitat encroachment, local communities will always be part of the equation. “Working with the local population is essential,” says Fascione. “If you can create sustainable employment opportunities and industries based on your species conservation, it reduces the motivation to help these criminal syndicates.”