May 24, 2008

Borneo One Horned Rhino



Greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis),
Javan rhino (R. sondaicus),
Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis)
Habitat Tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannahs and shrublands, to tropical moist forests
Location Southeast Asia, South Asia
Status Endangered to Critically Endangered (IUCN-The World Conservation Union)
Population Less than 3,000

Mysterious, often unseen, and very low in numbers, two of the three Asian rhino species hover on the brink of extinction

Historically hunted for their horn, a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicines, and devastated by the destruction of their lowland forest habitat, Asian rhino populations are now distressingly small. These animals are among the world’s most endangered, with one species numbering only around 60 individuals. Throughout their range, their habitat continues to dwindle fast due to illegal logging and other human pressures, and the threat of poaching is ever-present.

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia/Gland, Switzerland – A motion-triggered camera trap set up in a remote jungle has captured the first-ever photo of a rhino in the wild on the island of Borneo, the Sabah Wildlife Department and WWF announced today.

The rhino is believed to be one of a population of as few as 13 individuals whose existence was confirmed during a field survey last year in the interior forests of Sabah, Malaysia in an area known as the “Heart of Borneo”.

A handful of rhinos are thought to survive in addition to the 13, scattered across Sabah but isolated from each other.

Conservationists hope that this population of 13 is viable and will be able to reproduce if protected from poaching. A full-time rhino monitoring team was established at the end of 2005 in Sabah to monitor the rhinos and their habitat, and to keep poachers away. The camera traps, set up in February 2006, are remotely activated by infrared triggers when animals walk by.

“This is an encouraging sign for the future of rhinoceros conservation work in Sabah,” said Mahedi Andau, Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department.

"While the total number of Borneo rhinos remaining is uncertain, we do know there are very, very few. To capture a photo of one just a few months after placing camera traps in the area is extraordinary.”

The rhinos on Borneo spend their lives in dense jungle where they are rarely seen, which accounts for the lack of any previous photographs of them in the wild.

“These are very shy animals that are almost never seen in the wild,” said Raymond Alfred, Project Manager of WWF-Malaysia’s Asian Rhinoceros and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS).

“Based on the photo, we can tell this is a mature and healthy individual thanks to the availability of plentiful, good-quality forage in the forest. We hope to take more photos over the coming months of other rhinos so we can piece together clues about this tiny, precarious population.”

The rhinos found on Borneo are regarded as a subspecies of the Sumatran rhinoceros, which means it has different physical characteristics to the animals found in Sumatra (Indonesia) and Peninsular Malaysia. The Sumatran rhinoceros is one of the world’s most critically endangered species, with a total global population of fewer than 300. On Borneo, there have been no confirmed reports of the species, apart from those in Sabah, for almost 20 years, leading experts to fear that rhinos may now be extinct on the rest of the island.

The main threats to the last rhinos on Borneo are poaching – its horn and virtually all of its body parts are valuable on the black market – and loss of its forested habitat due to land conversion for other uses such as agriculture. WWF is working with the Sabah Foundation and the Sabah Wildlife Department to establish a Rhinoceros and Orangutan Research Programme Centre in the Heart of Borneo forest area to bolster the rhino monitoring and research work in that area.

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 orang-utans, 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 220,000km2 of equatorial rainforest – 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.


  • The Borneo rhino is considered to be a separate subspecies (D. S. harrissoni) from the rhinos on Sumatra and mainland Malaysia. 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 and Sumatra.

  • The main reasons for the drop in rhino numbers are due to illegal hunting and the fact that the remaining rhinos are so isolated they may rarely or never meet to breed. In addition, there is evidence that a high proportion of the female rhinos on Borneo have reproductive problems. Many of the remaining rhinos are old and possibly beyond reproductive age, so the death rate may be exceeding the birth rate.

  • 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 ten primate species, more than 350 bird species, 150 reptiles and amphibians and 15,000 plants.

  • A field survey of Sabah’s rhinos in May 2005 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, SOS Rhino and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.