Captured Sumatran rhino dies, raising conservation alarms

The female Sumatran rhino, named Najaq, was one of a rare breed and the first to be found on Indonesian Borneo in 40 years. Her untimely death has prompted review of conservation efforts. 

A female Sumatran rhino named Ratu (r.) rested with her newly born calf at Way Kambas National Park on the Indonesian island Sumatra in June 2012. This week another Sumatran rhino died shortly after being captured, raising questions about rhino conservation efforts.

The death of a single, recently captured Sumatran rhino has devastated the conservation community and highlighted concerns around saving this hairy, two-horned, highly endangered mammal. 

Researchers thought the Sumatran rhino was extinct until 2013, when they found rhino tracks and eventually determined that 100 Sumatran rhinos are alive in the wild.

They had to wait until March 12 of this year, however, to make contact with a wild Sumatran. The female rhino, named Najaq, was the first to be found alive on Indonesian Borneo in 40 years, and researchers had hoped she could be the start a breeding program.

Najaq's death led to discussion among rhino enthusiasts about her care, however. The Jakarta Post reported that the animal died of leg wounds sustained in the poaching pit where researchers found her. Some suggested she should have been taken to an official rhino sanctuary, not helicoptered 90 miles away to a "protected forest."

Her keepers, however, insisted that even finding her was a conservation milestone. 

"The death of this Sumatran rhino proves they exist on Borneo, so we will continue protecting them," Tachrir Fathoni from the Indonesian environment ministry told Agence France-Presse.

An estimated 100 Sumatran rhinos remain and the loss of just one raises concerns for the well being of the population. Sumatran and Javan rhinos are considered the most threatened rhino species, with poaching a constant concern. 

Even if a female rhino is successfully captured for conservation efforts breeding rhinos in captivity have proven to be exceedingly difficult as the large mammals have a lengthy gestation periods of 16 months. Females reach sexual maturity at six years and deliver calves one at a time, every three to four years, according to the World Wildlife Fund. 

In addition to the breeding programs and active protection for rhinos in the wild, conservationists are trying innovative tactics to reduce demand for poached rhino horn in China and Vietnam, where many locals believe the horn possesses medicinal qualities, as The Christian Science Monitor's Lonnie Shekhtman wrote in January:

In a campaign called "Nail Biters" celebrities featured on billboards, magazine ads, documentaries and public service announcements ... explain that rhino horn is primarily made of keratin, a protein also found in human nails and hair. But contrary to local myth, it has no medicinal or recreational drug value. 

A company in Seattle is even trying to manufacture fake rhino horns that mimic the original enough to drive down its demand, The Christian Science Monitor reported. 

"Advertisers will tell you that you win the heart and the mind follows," Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, told The Christian Science Monitor. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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