In Sumatra, a horned little 60-pound bundle of hope for rhinos

On Saturday, June 23rd, hundreds of conservationists, veterinarians and rhino-lovers around the world waited for news from the deep jungles of Southeast Asia. A female Sumatran rhino living in a breeding facility in Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra, gave birth to a baby male rhino calf named Andatu (a combination of his parent’s names and a shortened version of the Indonesian expression for “gift of god”).  This birth was monumental on a global scale, as Sumatran rhinos are among the rarest species on earth, with every individual animal birth—and this birth in particular—vital to stave off extinction.

The birth also had personal significance to me, as I was lucky enough to have met the calf’s mother, Ratu, when she was in the middle of her approximately 16 month pregnancy (rhinos have one of the longest gestation periods in the animal kingdom). 

In October 2011, I had traveled to Asia to give a presentation at the International Tapir Symposium in Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia (tapirs are a little-known large land mammal, and coincidently a close relative of the rhinoceros).  While there, I joined three colleagues to do a site visit to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas.  We were taken by our hosts from the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) to the breeding facility buried deep in the jungle at a secret location for security reasons.  Accompanied by guards from the park’s impressive Rhino Protection Unit, they graciously drove us around the expansive natural pens built for their handful of precious charges.  The cages were actually large fenced-in pieces of jungle with occasional small shelters built for medical treatment, supplementary feedings and overnight protection when needed.

After visiting a number of these odd relatively-small reddish-brown prehistoric looking animals—so different than the black and white rhino species I had seen while doing research in Africa—our hosts pulled over the jeep and told us that we had to be absolutely quiet.  We were approaching the pen of Ratu, a female impregnated by one of the males that we had just met.  As there had never been a successful captive birth of a  Sumatran rhino in Indonesia (actually only four any where in the world), this one small female in the distance was carrying the symbolic and literal hope for the species and for all the dedicated guards, scientists and conservationists working to save the animal from extinction.  The anticipation and expectations from our guides were palpable in the way they looked and talked about Ratu.  It was frightening how much attention and hope was all pinned on this one young creature, a wild born rhino who had already suffered two miscarriages in the past and never successfully carried a baby beyond the first trimester.

We silently and quickly passed by Ratu and her jungle enclosure, but she left an indelible impression on all of us with the importance of her unborn calf.  It also put my traveling companions and I among an elite group of people on the planet to have ever seen a live Sumatran rhino – what’s more, the half-dozen that we saw that day at the Sanctuary.

One of the rarest animals on Earth, the critically endangered Sumatran rhino lives in dense tropical forests of Southeast Asia.  There are thought to be about 200 individuals surviving in the wild – mostly in protected areas on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

One of five species of rhinoceros, the Sumatran rhino is the smallest of all the rhinos and distinct with skin more wrinkled than plated, and tufts of coarse long shaggy hair on its ears and tail.  Additionally, captive Sumatran rhinos have been known to have long, sparse hairs all over their bodies – a feature likely unobserved on wild Sumatran rhinos due to the fact that they are usually covered in mud.  Sumatran rhinos have suffered greatly from habitat loss and recently from intensive poaching for its valuable horn, which is believed to have healing properties in the traditional Asian medicinal trade.

The birth of this baby gives tremendous hope for a species that is teetering on the edge of extinction.  It wouldn’t have happened without the Herculean efforts and collaboration of IRF, the Indonesia Ministry of Forestry and the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia.  Additionally, the Cincinnati Zoo provided the captive-born father of the new baby, and worked with other US-based zoos to uncover the husbandry techniques and biological needs for the species in order to keep a small captive population alive.

While this birth in Indonesia gives the world great reason for hope, it happens at the same time that the African rhino, cousin to the Sumatran rhino, are undergoing radically increased pressure from poaching for their horns. 

I have never been more proud, and understood the grave importance, of the demand reduction and anti-illegal wildlife trade training work that my organization, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, does in Africa and Asia.  I also can’t stress enough my appreciation for the vision of my friends and colleagues at the IRF and the Cincinnati Zoo, as well the inspiring men of the Indonesia Rhino-Patrol Units in Sumatra who risk their lives patrolling the forest each night, ensuring that one of the last refuges for this species remains secure.  Also worthy of recognition are the many foundations, sponsors and individuals who have donated time, resources and money in order to make sure that this species does not blink out of existence on our watch. 

The birth of this baby Sumatran rhino is hopefully just the first of more to come – injecting new genes, new life, and new hope into a species that many feared might never see another calf born again.

-- JF

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
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Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
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