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Rhinos clinging to survival in the heart of Borneo, despite poaching


Poaching has significantly reduced Borneo’s population of Sumatran rhinos

World Wildlife Fund today released the results of a field survey from the island of Borneo which found that poaching has significantly reduced Borneo’s population of Sumatran rhinos, but a small group continues to survive in the "Heart of Borneo," a region covered with vast tracts of rain forest.

The survey found evidence of at least 13 rhinos in the interior of the Malaysian state of Sabah in northeast Borneo. It was conducted in 2005 by teams of more than 100 field staff from the Sabah Foundation, the Sabah Wildlife Department, WWF, Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Parks, S.O.S. Rhino, Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project, University Malaysia Sabah and Operation Raleigh.

WWF and Malaysian authorities have launched rhino protection units to patrol the area where the rhinos were found.

"If this band of rhinos is to have a healthy future in Borneo the poaching must be stopped immediately. Their numbers are so small that losing one or two rhinos to a poacher could upset the remaining rhinos’ chances of survival," said Sybille Klenzendorf, lead biologist of WWF’s Species Conservation Program. "Conservationists and Sabah government agencies are hopeful that there is a chance to save this group of rhinos and are diligently working to protect them."

In addition to the 13 rhinos found in the interior of Sabah during this survey, a few individuals still survive in other parts of the state that weren’t covered in this survey. Previous estimates of rhino numbers had suggested there were 30 to 70 rhinos on the island of Borneo. Populations in other parts of the island are believed to be extinct.

There are believed to be fewer than 300 Sumatran rhinos left in the world and they are considered one of the most endangered rhino species because of the intensity of poaching. Sumatran rhinos are only found in widely scattered areas across peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Rhino numbers globally have been devastated because rhino horn carries a high price on the black market, where it is predominantly sold for use in traditional Asian medicines.

As poaching is such a threat to this species, the survey results were not released until strong protection measures could be put in place in the areas where the rhinos are found. Those security measures were recently installed. WWF and partners last month launched a five-year project called "Rhino Rescue," which will organize rhino protection units and other activities to deter poaching.

"The results from the survey of Borneo’s rhinos are crucial additions to our scientific understanding of the species," said Dr. Christy Williams, of WWF’s Asian rhino program. "We believe this population may be viable and could recover if their habitat is protected and the threat of poaching is eliminated."

Sabah and the forests of the "Heart of Borneo" still hold huge tracts of continuous natural forests, which are some of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth, with high numbers of unique animal and plant species. This is one of the world’s only two places – the other being Indonesia’s Sumatra island – where orangutans, elephants and rhinos still co-exist and where forests are currently large enough to maintain viable populations.

WWF aims to assist Borneo’s three nations (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia) to conserve the "Heart of Borneo" – a total of about 84,942 square miles of equatorial rain forest – through a network of protected areas and sustainably managed forest, and through international cooperation led by the Bornean governments and supported by a global effort.

Sarah Janicke | EurekAlert!
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