World Wildlife Fund has 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.
There is one species of rhino in Borneo, commonly called the Sumatran rhinoceros, with the scientific name Dicerorhinus sumatrensis. The Borneo form of this rhino is considered to be a separate subspecies (D. S. harrissoni) from the rhinos on Sumatra island and mainland Asia. They feed on the leaves of a wide variety of seedlings and young trees. Unlike other rhino species and other large herbivorous mammals in Borneo (elephant, wild cattle, deer), the Sumatran rhino is a strict forest-dweller that ventures out of forest cover only in unusual situations. Sumatran rhinos are currently found in peninsular Malaysia, and on the islands of Borneo (Sabah, Malaysia) and Sumatra (Indonesia)."
The survey of Sabah's rhinos involved about 120 people in 16 teams. It was undertaken by the Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Parks, the Sabah Foundation, WWF-Malaysia, the Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project, SOS Rhino, Universiti Malaysia Sabah and Operation Raleigh. Also participating in the effort to protect Borneo's remaining rhinos are the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Sabah Foundation, S.O.S Rhino and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Other threatened wildlife in Borneo includes clouded leopards, sun bears, and three species of leaf monkeys found nowhere else in the world. The island is also home to 10 primate species, more than 350 bird species, 150 reptiles and amphibians and 15,000 plants.
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