Scientists have been monitoring numbers of Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) for some time now, with wild populations rapidly declining in recent decades due to poaching and forestry. Now, sadly, they've confirmed that the animal is extinct in the wild in Malaysia, with no sightings in its natural habitat since 2007.
The researchers, led by scientists at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, say that the survival of the species now depends on the few that remain elsewhere - it's estimated that less than 100 Sumatran rhinos still live in the wild in Indonesia, and there are nine animals in captivity in facilities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the US.
"It is vital for the survival of the species that all remaining Sumatran rhinos are viewed as a metapopulation, meaning that all are managed in a single program across national and international borders in order to maximise overall birth rate. This includes the individuals currently held in captivity," said Rasmus Gren Havmøller, a researcher from the university's Centre for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, in a statement.
His research, published in Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation, suggests that decades of existing conservation efforts have so far failed to stem rapid population decline in the species, which peaked with estimated losses of 50 percent or more of the population per decade until the early 1990s.
Havmøller and his colleagues say that intensive management zones are a last-chance solution to save the species. The plan, which was announced by scientists back in 2013 but has yet to be carried out, calls for the creation of areas offering increased protection from poaching – the single biggest threat to the species, due to high demand for the animal's horn, predominantly in Asia. The protected zones would also enable bringing as many of the animals together as possible to increase the number of potential mating partners.
"The tiger in India was saved from extinction due to the direct intervention of Mrs. Gandhi, the then prime minister, who set up Project Tiger," said Christy Williams, co-author and coordinator of the WWF Asian and Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy. "A similar high level intervention by President Joko Widodo of Indonesia could help pull the Sumatran rhinos back from the brink."
Sadly, the Sumatran rhino is not the only endangered rhino crisis we're facing. There are now just four northern white rhinos left in the world, and the alarming rate at which various rhino species are disappearing is leading researchers to experiment with all sorts of novel ways to save the animals, including fitting rhinos' horns with spy cameras and alarms and sequencing rhino DNA before it's too late. We just hope these last-ditch efforts work to save these beautiful animals.