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Protecting the Sumatran Rhino

WWF's Barney Long on the steps we need to take to save a critically endangered species

Sumatran rhino

It was a stiflingly hot and humid afternoon in the dense rainforests on the island of Sumatra when I saw something white. White is not a color you see much in the rainforest; it becomes highlighted against the dark green of the forest.

At first I did not know what it was, then I realized it was a skeleton. I became excited by what I may find, but as I got closer, the reality of the situation crystalized and my head started to spin. It was a full skeleton of a Sumatran rhino laying in a clearing along an animal trail. The vegetation had been flattened in a wide circle, the center of which was a solid branch dug deep into the ground with a thick wire snare dangling from it.

This critically endangered species had captured my imagination growing up a world away in England. I’d always dreamt of catching a glimpse of one—but not like this. This Sumatran rhino had been poached for its horn.

“The plight of Sumatran rhinos needs global attention and commitments of conservation to succeed. ”

Barney Long
Director, Species Conservation, WWF

Changing paths
I had just turned 19. It was my second summer in Indonesia on what can only be described as my dream internship studying primates and tigers with Fauna & Flora International. I wanted to study animals in the rainforest, but the moment I saw the Sumatran rhino skeleton, I knew I had to change course and fight for the very survival of the species and places that intrigue and captivate me. I like to fight for species little known to the general public like the Sumatran rhino and the saola. The Sumatran rhino will always be at the pinnacle of my goals; I will do all I can to ensure it thrives in the wild once again.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s an uphill battle. But it’s not an impossible one.

Protecting a species
I co-authored the most-recent scientific assessment of the current conservation responses to save the species. In brief, we are falling short. Given that there are only around 100 left in the wild, it is clear that the survival of the Sumatran rhino now lies entirely within the hands of the government of Indonesia. WWF and partners like the International Rhino Foundation, Rhino Foundation of Indonesia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society stand ready to assist in all ways possible.

The good news is that we know the key actions required to save the Sumatran rhino:

  • Consolidate all Sumatran rhinos into no more than three sites. This will allow the remaining animals to find each other and breed.
  • Establish intensive protection zones in these three sites with strict regulations, patrolling infrastructure, increasing ranger presence and closely monitoring individual animals.
  • Enhance the captive population so we have a viable population.
  • Mange the entire population as one so animals will have to be moved between sites and to and from captivity to ensure genetic and population viability.

The plight of Sumatran rhinos needs global attention and commitments of conservation to succeed. Significant financial support for implementing the above priority actions are being provided by the US and German governments as well as the Disney Conservation Fund. More is needed. And nothing can be achieved without rapid decision making and the highest level of political blessing in Indonesia.

The science is telling us that we can’t put off mounting a serious, concerted effort to save Sumatran rhinos. We have pulled three species of rhino back from the brink so we know we can do the same for the Sumatran rhino. I’m going to do my best. And with your support, I know we can not only save the Sumatran rhino from the edge of extinction, but we can recover its numbers across Sumatra.

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