The Sumatran Rhino Is Now Extinct in Malaysia

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Sumatran rhinos, which can be seen at the Cincinnati Zoo, have gone extinct in the wild, except in Indonesia. Cincinnati Zoo

A group of scientists who study wildlife populations believe that the Sumatran rhinoceros, the most endangered large mammal in the world, is now extinct in the wild in one of its primary homelands, Malaysia. According to a press release on a new population study put out Wednesday August 19 by the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the species has not been spotted in Malaysia since 2007, except for two instances where individuals were captured for breeding purposes.

The Sumatran rhino—often called the "hairy rhino" because of its unique reddish-brown fur—is one of Asia's most unusual animal treasures. It is the smallest rhino species and a holdover from prehistoric times; it's the last representative of the mostly extinct Wooly Rhino family.

The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of five extant rhinoceros species. Michelle Curley/Cincinnati Zoo

But it's also been driven to near-extinction by loss of habitat and poaching. Illegal rhino horns continue to be in high demand in Asia; the new study, published in the conservation journal Oryx, says that current protections for wild rhinos, like undermanned anti-poaching units, are inadequate.

In addition, construction of roads through forests in Indonesia leaves rhino populations isolated from each other. Fragmented groups in the wild, says Terri Roth, a rhino expert and biologist at the Cincinnati Zoo, are as incapable of breeding as individuals isolated in different zoos. If the solitary animals are too far away from potential mates, or are separated by developed land, they die and leave no one to replace them. And according to the new study's principal author, Rasmus Gren Havmøller of the University of Copenhagen, local populations of the animal have continued to go extinct in spite of current efforts to create protected ranges.

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Habitat loss is one of the primary threats to the Sumatran rhino, which tends to be solitary except when breeding. Michelle Curley/Cincinnati Zoo

Now, with fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos surviving in the wild in Indonesia, and just nine in captivity, the species is on the brink of extinction.

The best bet for recovery, Roth says, is to relocate captive individuals back into the wild, in order to increase their chances of breeding. The Cincinnati Zoo, where several Sumatran rhinos have been born, is currently involved in an effort to send a breeding male named Harapan (also known as "Harry") back to the wild in Indonesia. Harapan's brother, who was born in captivity at the zoo, became a success story when he fathered a calf in the wild.

Roth says that these efforts, to date, have been hampered by government bureaucracy. Only recently has the Indonesian government started to greenlight efforts to return animals to the country, over growing concerns that they cannot survive and breed in captivity.

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A portrait of "Harry," one of the few Sumatran rhinos surviving in captivity, illustrates some of the animal's unique features.. Michelle Curley/Cincinnati Zoo

Ultimately, the actions of the Indonesian government will effectively determine whether Sumatran rhinos survive, says Roth. But U.S. conservation policy may also be able to play a small part in saving the Sumatran Rhino from extinction; for example, the Tropical Forest Population Act of 1998 offers developing nations debt forgiveness in exchange for funding conservation activities and preserving ecosystems.

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Unlike other Asian rhinoceros species, the Sumatran rhino has two horns. It shares this trait with black and white rhinos, both native to Africa. Michelle Curley/Cincinnati Zoo

Although many people are unaware that rhinos exist outside Africa, of the five living species of rhino, three (the Indian, Javan and Sumatran rhinos) are native to Asia. Globally, all rhino species are in danger: Earlier this year, conservationists lamented the death of one of the few remaining northern white rhinos, a sub-species in Africa, which left only four surviving individuals, all in captivity.

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In the wild, Sumatran rhinos browse for tree saplings, leaves and shoots with their beak-like mouths. Michelle Curley/Cincinnati Zoo

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