September 2, 2008
Male Rhino `in His Prime’ Delight
By Jaswinder Kaur
WILDLIFE experts in Sabah were caught off guard on Aug 5 when a Sumatran rhinoceros ventured out of its forest habitat and made its way into an oil palm estate.
Sabah Wildlife Department veterinarians and rangers, with field officers from SOS Rhino Borneo and WWF-Malaysia in tow, rushed to the estate to see an adult male in his prime roaming one corner of the plantation. It seemed like an answer to their prayers.
The animal's sudden appearance comes at a time when conservationists are pooling resources to start a captive breeding programme to boost Sabah's dwindling rhino population, estimated at 30 in number.
Sabah Wildlife Department director Laurentius Ambu said the state Rhino Task Force, which was set up after the Fourth Sumatran Rhino Conservation Workshop a year ago, was the government's way of showing its commitment to saving the species.
He said the "rescue" and translocation of the adult male to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve was timely as the state government was working on the breeding programme.
"We must do everything we can to prevent the remaining Sumatran rhino population from becoming extinct. It is a huge undertaking financially but we must do this."
Sabah is raising the RM20 million needed to set up the fully- fenced 1,000 hectare Bornean Sumatran Rhino sanctuary at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, its last chance to save the sub-species.
This is in line with the 18-year Sabah Development Corridor blueprint, which stresses growth and development alongside conservation of the state's diverse flora and fauna.
But a semi-captive breeding programme is not the only solution. Rhinoceroses, like other endangered species, need large forest areas to survive in, and conservationists are pushing for an improved network of protected areas.
A study by WWF-Malaysia has shown that the handful of rhinos in the Danum Valley feed on more than 72 plant species, including ginger, ginseng and tongkat ali, which are not found in oil palm estates at its fringes.
The Sumatran rhinoceros may be the smallest of all the rhino species, but an adult rhino consumes up to 50kg of leaves, twigs, bark, fruit and vines, and is also fond of salt licks.
While 21.8 per cent of Sabah's land mass is protected based on World Conservation Union guidelines, more than double the 10 per cent recommendation of the international body, the focus in coming years is to reconnect pockets of forests at areas once harvested for timber and now taken over mainly by cash crops.
Past land use policies were guided by the need to generate economic growth through oil palm, the nation's golden crop, resulting in about 15 per cent of the state being planted with oil palm.
But, with input and, perhaps, some pressure from the scientific community, the government maintained protected areas and even gazetted 26,000ha of the Kinabatangan floodplain as a wildlife sanctuary three years ago.
A number of non-governmental organisations are convincing international donors to fund programmes to replant trees at degraded zones and at river banks. This is to ensure that wildlife are not trapped in tiny jungles that may not be able to sustain them in the long run because of lack of food and in-breeding.
The Sabah Wildlife Department and NGOs are also reaching out to villagers and plantation owners to educate them on the importance of protecting habitats that rhinos and other wildlife depend on.
Some communities are today conducting their own conservation programmes, which they have tied in with eco-tourism.
A small number of plantation companies have started doing their own reforestation work but to make a difference, a long term commitment and large amounts of money are essential ingredients.
Getting more young Malaysians interested in studying the rhinos and other wildlife is another aspect that has to be looked into, a concerned foreign researcher who has been working in Sabah for many years said at a recent conference.
Perhaps, this is something which should be addressed by Universiti Malaysia Sabah, which has an established Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation and a recently-opened institute for primate studies.
The state-led Sabah Environmental Action Network, which covers environmental education in schools is another avenue of nurturing a pool of local experts in wildlife matters.
It has been a long and difficult journey, but Sabah is taking the right path in protecting rhinos, orang utans and elephants which, in turn, is expected to lead to better conservation of its remaining rich tropical forests.
The next step is for Sabah to sustain efforts to ensure that its unique wildlife is not consigned to history, only to be read in books or watched on video compact discs.
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