Sumatran Rhinos Now Extinct in Malaysia

The survival of the species now rests with around 100 rhinos in the wild in Indonesia and nine in captivity.

Save for two females captured in 2011 and 2014 for captive breeding programs, Malaysia has not seen a Sumatran rhinoceros in the wild since 2007. Now scientists have asserted that the animal is extinct in the wild there.

The sad conclusion is documented in the conservation journal Oryx by a team of scientists led by the University of Copenhagen's Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate.

The picture is grim for the Sumatran rhino, according to the researchers. It once ranged across much of Southeast Asia, but now its numbers have shrunk to about 100 left in the wild in Indonesia and nine others that are safeguarded in captivity.

The focus now turns to ways to protect those remaining creatures.

"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 maximize overall birth rate. This includes the individuals currently held in captivity," the paper's lead author, University of Copenhagen PhD student Rasmus Gren Havmøller, said in a press release.

The researchers make a number of suggestions for how the situation might over time be improved for the rhinos. Among them is the creation of "management zones," to which rhinos can be moved and in which there are increased protections for the animals.

The nine rhinos in captivity are spread across several facilities. One is held in the Cincinnati Zoo in the United States, though it will soon be relocated to Indonesia. Three are in Sabbah, Malaysia and the remaining five are in a rhino sanctuary in Sumatra, Indonesia. It's hoped that the Sabbah rhinos will be able to produce embryos via in vitro fertilization.

"Serious effort by the government of Indonesia should be put to strengthen rhino protection by creating Intensive Protection Zone, intensive survey of the current known habitats, habitat management, captive breeding, and mobilizing national resources and support from related local governments and other stakeholders," said Widodo Ramono, a co-author of the paper and director of the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia.

The Sumatran rhinoceros (

There’s no silver bullet solution to protecting endangered species. We can't stand guard over every single one of them, as this man is doing to protect black rhinos in Zimbabwe. But technology can be helpful in staying ahead of wildlife poachers who have been winning the war for too long, according to Crawford Allan, a senior director based at the World Wildlife Fund for a large international wildlife trade monitoring program called TRAFFIC. Here’s a look at their arsenal.

One of the first technologies rolled out consistently to monitor wildlife, camera traps were catching poachers in the act. They’ve since evolved into tinier, almost impossible to detect digital devices. Some have live video feeds, automatic triggers, remote access, heat sensing, vibration detection and are smart enough to triangulate shotgun sounds so park rangers know exactly where to go.

Wildlife conservationists need to know where the animals are in order to protect them. Radio-frequency identification tags are an important tool, WWF’s Crawford Allan said. RFID chips implanted in rhinoceros horns connect to ground or mobile sensors so when one falls off the grid, a team can work on tracking it down and check the animal's welfare. The tags work for other species, as well. Here, two Canada Lynx kittens are tagged by rangers from the US Fish and WIldlife Services.

Getting a visual on poachers before they strike is tall order. Masts with static night vision cameras are used to keep an eye out, but the image angle and range are limited, according to Allan. Light aircraft are expensive, require a pilot, need runways and could be shot down. For these reasons, unmanned aerial vehicles are emerging as a potential solution. Cost is still an issue but poachers can’t hide easily from UAVs with thermal detection patrolling the skies.

Mesh networks are digital communications systems originally developed for the military, Allan explained. With help from a $5 million Google grant, WWF is installing a mesh network to relay sensor and device data. Rangers on the ground can also use the network to communicate without poachers being able to listen in.

Satellite technology has transformed basic tracking collars. Accelerometers inside can indicate whether the animal is well, sick or has died given its motion and the satellite connection means the animals are easier to locate. The collars can be used on a wide range of animals, from birds on up to elephants. Allan said the price has been prohibitive for developing countries, so he hopes it will come down.

The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, known as SMART, is a free open-source software created by a community of conservation organizations. Available in local languages, the software is designed to make wildlife conservation activities and wildlife law enforcement patrols more effective. Tracking animals, patrols and vehicles means an influx of data, and SMART can crunch it all to show stakeholders the big picture.

In India, the illegal metal snares used to catch tigers were being cleverly camouflaged. To fight back, the TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network trained forest guards to use robust, easy-to-assemble Deep Search Metal Detectors. “Word kind of got around that there was some sort of magic technology out there that was going to find every poacher in the forest instantly,” Allan said.

In South Africa, the Rhino DNA Index System or RhODIS project has unique DNA profiles for individual rhinos. If one is killed for its horn, the database aids in prosecuting poachers. Wildlife forensics has such a high degree of resolution now that DNA testing can actually show which country in Africa confiscated ivory came from, Allan said. Here, a tiger cub is donating a blood sample for DNA sequencing.