One of the world’s most sought-after species, all international trade of the animal or its part is banned. Hunting, killing or capturing of rhinos is illegal. Within current forest limits, poaching is the single major threat to Sumatran rhinoceros in Sabah. Hunting and poaching of rhinos continue due to demand for the horns, priced at US$45,000 per kilogramme. Poaching remains the key threat to the species’ survival in Sabah, despite it being illegal and with heavy penalties for offenders. Very high prices of rhino horns and lack of opportunities for other lucrative sources of income in rural areas provide the incentive.
Protection against poaching is especially important in Sabah because the smaller the size of the remaining population, the less its chances of survival. Smaller populations are more susceptible to random fluctuations in numbers and have less genetic variability, thus removal of individuals due to poaching will quickly cause the extinction of the species. Furthermore, logging disturbance scares the animals away. The available habitat gets disrupted, creating unfavourable conditions for rhino reproduction.
Illegal hunting, isolation and reproductive problems cause of alarmingly low numbers
Distribution of the critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros in Sabah keeps shrinking and numbers have declined to an alarmingly low level. There are estimated to be less than 30 rhinoceros in the whole of Borneo. The small population is due to illegal hunting, and the fact that remaining rhinos are so isolated they rarely or never meet to breed. There is also evidence that a high proportion of females have reproductive tract problems. In addition, many of the remaining rhinos are old and possibly beyond reproductive age. Essentially, the death rate may be exceeding the birth rate.
Captive breeding programmes have been an abysmal failure in most cases. Of the over 30 Sumatran rhinos brought into captivity since 1987 to form an international captive breeding programme, most have died and only one female has given birth (two babies, in Cincinnati Zoo, USA). Therefore maintaining and protecting a viable population in the wild is the only option.
Challenges aplenty in other parts of the Heart of Borneo
Very small breeding populations still occur in the Heart of Borneo, and a very small number is known to survive in other areas within the state. The very few of the latter are doomed, as the numbers are too small to sustain breeding, and the habitat is too small, degraded and exposed to man. There have been reports since 2001 of a very small number (possibly only one or two in each area) at isolated pockets around the state.
Poaching continues to be the key threat to survival of the species in Sabah fuelled by very high prices of rhino horns and lack of other income sources in rural areas. In addition, it is rarely possible to detect rhino hunting in the extensive forest areas where the animals live, and almost impossible to prove that a particular person killed a rhino. Therefore, legislation relating to rhinos could be made more effective by providing the heaviest penalties against anyone in possession of any rhino part or product, and not just against poachers.