A mixed of emotions came into my mind as I was reading the news about relocation of Harapan (Harry), the last Sumatran rhino currently lives in Cincinnati Zoo, to his natural habitat in Indonesia.
Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the only extant descendant of Ice Age woolly rhinos (Coelodonta antiquitatis) which is now faced with extinction due to habitat loss with 50% of the population disappear every 10 years – a very fast pace for a species to go into extinction. In 2015 it is estimated that there are only less than 100 wild individuals of Sumatran rhinos left in the wild, in heavily fragmented populations in Sumatra and (maybe) Borneo.
Earlier this week week, it is officially announced that Sumatran rhino is declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia. This is a very devastating moment for Sumatran rhino conservationists, and pressure is now put on Indonesia’s side to continue to preserve this species.
In captivity, there are currently nine Sumatran rhinos: three in Sabah, Malaysia; one in Cincinnati, which will leave for Indonesia soon; and five in Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS), Indonesia. There are two males in the SRS facilities and they are both related to Harry. Andalas, the only productive male in SRS for the time being, is Harry’s older brother, and Andatu, currently still 3 year old and is not sexually mature yet, is Andalas’ son and Harry’s nephew.
Even though Harry’s homecoming brings hope for the species, the gene pool of captive Sumatran rhinos are small and they all face inbreeding unless a new male Sumatran rhino is captured – a controversial idea remembering almost 90% of over 40 Sumatran rhinos that were captured in the 1990s died within the same year. But that was in 1990s, when very little information was known how to rear Sumatran rhinos in captivity, when nobody knew what they eat and ended up giving them wrong diets. Now everything has changed. Now we know there are over 200 plant species which are edible for Sumatran rhinos. Now we know the behavior of Sumatran rhinos in the wild. Now we know the breeding cycle of the Sumatran rhinos. And until today, there have been four Sumatran rhino calves born in captivity with the help of science and research.
Another alternative to enrich the gene pool is to involve Kretam (Tam), the male Sumatran rhino in Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) in Sabah, Malaysia, in captive breeding program, but until the political issues are put aside between the nations, this is not a solution in the meantime.
We are racing with time here, and I hope any political issues can be put aside to save this primitive species from extinction.