WAY KAMBAS NATIONAL PARK, Indonesia: Stiff after his more than 60-hour journey across the globe, a US-born Sumatran rhino set foot on his ancestral homeland for the first time on a mission to save the critically endangered species from extinction.
Five-year-old Andalas, the first of his species born in captivity in more than 100 years, slowly backed his way on 21 February into the sanctuary and was escorted to a netted quarantine pen in a lush forest. He walked around, apparently oblivious to the shutters of cameras, before lying down for a rest.
Rhino numbers in Indonesia over the past 50 years have been decimated by rampant poaching for horns used in traditional Chinese medicines and destruction of forests by farmers, illegal loggers and palm oil plantation companies.
There are thought to be around 300 Sumatran rhino still alive in isolated pockets in the forests of Malaysia and Sumatra island, and just 60 Javan rhino, which live in a park on the western tip of Java island.
Conservationists hope Andalas will breed with two females already in the sanctuary, Rosa and Ratu, but caution that it will be a long, difficult and expensive process. Some say preserving the animals in the wild, rather then breeding them in zoos or sanctuaries, should be the main plank of conservation efforts.
“There is no way we are going to save the Sumatran rhino as a species in a zoo. We need to save the forests where they live,” said Dr. Robin Radcliffe, who accompanied Andalas on his travels. “Combining this with a captive programme is a good insurance policy, but it should not draw resources from conservation in the field.”
Vets accompanying Andalas on his 63-hour plane, truck and ferry trip from the Los Angeles Zoo said he was a little stiff in his rear legs, but otherwise fit and healthy. He was lightly sedated during parts of the journey.
They said they were worried he would be susceptible to tick-born viruses after a lifetime in captivity. He was vaccinated before leaving Los Angeles, and will have his blood tested weekly before being slowly exposed to the females and the rest of the Sumatra park.
Populations of Sumatran and Javanese rhinos need to hit more than 2,500 to be considered out of immediate danger, experts say, and such a target is possible over the next half century if poaching and encroachment is stopped.
Sustained conservation efforts over the last 50 years in India and Africa have led to booming numbers of certain rhino species in those countries.
“To lose these animals would be a modern day disaster, it would shame us as humans,” Indonesian Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban told The Associated Press, admitting that the country faced “challenges” in protecting its forests.
Experts involved in the breeding programme in Way Kambas hope to see a pregnancy in under two years, and say Andalas could possibly sire up to eight calves in his lifetime, some of which could be returned to the wild.
A team of US rhino experts working in the park has been using ultrasound technology to establish the fertility cycles of Rosa and Ratu to speed up the breeding process, but say their lack of mating signals and solitary habits make matchmaking a difficult business.
“It’s a real guessing game,” said Monica Stoops, from Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, where Andalas was born in 2001. The first time a calf was bred and born in captivity since 1889, when a live birth was recorded at the Calcutta Zoo in India.
Indonesia is one the most species-rich countries in the world, and is also home to threatened populations of tigers, elephants and orangutans. In recent years its forests have been chopped down at ever increasing speed.
An often chaotic decentralization process designed to give local governments more power over their own resources that begun in 2001 has worsened the problem, conservationists say.
“Now local authorities need to find their own revenues and it is very easy to look at forests,” said Dr. Nico van Stien from the International Rhino Foundation, which helped fund Andalas’ trip. “All you need is a few chain saws and you get your wood. There is a sort of feeling you can get away with anything.”
Van Stien, who has been studying Indonesian rhinos for 30 years, says persuading people in China not to buy medicines made from rhino horns is also key to saving the species.
“The dangers of poaching will be not be over quickly,” he said. “Changing the mind-set of a billion people is a pretty big task, but things are moving pretty fast in China. With modernization, maybe there will be a new attitude.”