Photos prove rare Sumatran rhino is still alive | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 10.08.2012
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Photos prove rare Sumatran rhino is still alive

Seven of the world's rarest rhinoceroses have been found in a national park in Indonesia. This is the first time the creatures have been seen in 26 years. Deforestation is still pushing the Sumatran toward extinction.

'Two-horned Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) ´Photo: Jamal Gawi, Leuser International Foundation

Nashorn Aceh Sumatra Indonesien

Hidden cameras buried deep in an Indonesian national park have snapped images of seven critically endangered Sumatran rhinos. The rhinos haven't been seen in more than a quarter of a century and conservationists had feared the Sumatran was extinct. But, six females and one male rhino are now known to live in the Mount Leuser National Park, which is on the northern tip of Sumatra.

"I feel really happy. After 26 years, we have found the rhino in the Leuser ecosystem," said Jamal Gawi, who heads the Leuser International Foundation. "We attend international conferences on the plight of the Asian rhinos. When they talk about the Sumatran rhinos in Leuser, they always put a question mark. Now we can prove to the world, we found the rhinos! They alive!"

'Two-horned Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) ´Photo: Jamal Gawi, Leuser International Foundation

Proof of life: an infrared camera placed deep in the forest captured this rare image of the Sumatran rhino

Gawi's team first discovered evidence that the rhino was alive while they were doing research on tiger populations in the north. They noticed track marks and droppings that belonged to the Sumatran rhino and set up infrared cameras to capture images proving the creatures are not extinct. They have gathered thousands of photos and believe the tiny population is in good health.

Immediate protection needed

"We are very pleased!" said Stefan Ziegler of WWF Germany's department for the protection of endangered species in a statement to DW. "This shows that the protection of the Sumatran rhinoceros isn’t doomed to failure." But he warned that quick action was needed to protect the animals because news of their survival could attract poachers.

Sumatran Rhinoceroses at the Cincinnati Zoo. Photo: Charles W. Hardin

There are fewer than 200 Sumatran rhinos left in the world

According to the World Wildlife Fund, habitat loss due to the destruction of forests is pushing the Sumatran rhino toward extinction. Even in protected areas, the organization says illegal settlers are destroying forest stands in order to produce coffee and rice. But another threat is the continued interest of poachers. Hunting rhinos is illegal, but there is a strong demand for their horns, which are believed to have medicinal properties, especially in traditional Asian medicine practices.

Road to extinction

The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of rhinoceroses still alive today and is among the rarest large mammals on the planet. It is also unique because it is the only Asian rhino with two horns, though the posterior horn is often no more than a hump. They are solitary animals, often only approaching each other to mate. Their population has dropped by 50 percent over the past 20 years. It's believed there are now fewer than 200 left in the world.

Sumatra-Tiger. EPA/BAGUS INDAHONO +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++null

The rhinos were first discovered by researchers studying Sumatran tigers

Gawi told DW that the number of poachers in the Leuser ecosystem has dropped because there are so few rhinos left. But he warned that the construction of roads intended to aid the timber trade also makes these areas easier for poachers to reach. "We object to new roads in this area," he said. "Roads are actually first step toward rhino extinction. We call them the roads to destruction."

But, Gawi hopes that the photos will renew international interest in preserving the habitat where the rhinos live. The team is already preparing to protect the rhinos from poachers. "We will set up a Rhino Protection Unit. This consist of patrol units. We'll gather information about hunters active in the area."

Benefits for all

The discovery of these rhinos may lead to better protection and more funding for conservation intiatives, says Andreas Dinkelmeyer of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Germany. "I think there is a fascination with rhinos. They are impressive animals. And if we can protect environment of the Sumatra rhinos, we also protect other species," he explained in an interview with DW.

"There are certain animals considered umbrella species. It's hard to get funding and interest for a small insect that might be valuable for the ecosystem. But raise the funds for the rhino and the whole ecosystem sees a benefit," he said.


The discovery of Sumatran rhinos may renew interest in conservation across the region

Stefan Ziegler of WWF Germany also believes this discovery needs to be used to push forward a broad agenda for conservation. "We hope that we can make the Indonesian government take action to better protect endangered animals," he said. "There are international regulations that forbid commercial trading of the Sumatran rhino, but these rules are not enforced by at the national level. Poverty, corruption and poor compensation for the rangers creates ideal conditions for illegal poaching."