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Meet the National Geographic Fellow Working to Save the Sumatran Rhino

As part of the Society’s efforts to help save the Sumatran rhino before it’s too late, we’re working with conservationists like Rudi Putra, a National Geographic Fellow working in Indonesia to protect this critically endangered species. We caught up with Putra to learn more about this project, what inspires him, and what people can do to help save the Sumatran rhino.

With fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos left in the world, the species faces a crisis point. Just last week, Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhino, Tam, passed away. This leaves Iman, a female, as the only Sumatran rhino left in Malaysia. After decades of poaching and habitat loss, Sumatran rhinos in the wild are separated into small populations and are unable to easily find mates. In their current fragmented and dispersed pockets across two vast Indonesian islands, hope for their survival depends on conservationists’ ability to find and safely relocate them to specialized facilities designed for their care.

Last year, a group of leading international conservation organizations, including the National Geographic Society, formed an alliance to support the government of Indonesia’s national Sumatran rhino conservation breeding effort. Sumatran Rhino Rescue will relocate rhinos and build facilities for their care and breeding to help bring the species back from the brink of extinction.

As part of the Society’s efforts to help save the Sumatran rhino before it’s too late, we’re working with conservationists like Rudi Putra, a National Geographic Fellow working in Indonesia to protect this critically endangered species. We caught up with Putra to learn more about this project, what inspires him, and what people can do to help save the Sumatran rhino.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Rudi Putra. I am the leader of the Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL), a local NGO in Aceh, Indonesia, that focuses on protecting the Leuser Ecosystem, a 2.6 million hectare tropical rainforest landscape in Aceh and North Sumatra. The Leuser Ecosystem is the last place on Earth where Sumatran rhinos, elephants, orangutans, and tigers coexist in the wild. It is perhaps the last hope for the survival of the critically endangered Sumatran rhino.

I have worked for the rhino protection program in Leuser since 2000. Initially, we only had a small number of ranger patrols protecting the rhino population from poaching but now our organization has developed into an institution that also restores rhino habitat and protects their habitat all over Leuser from illegal logging, encroachment, and destructive infrastructure development. One core area that we focused heavily on because the rhino population had been reduced by 50 percent in 1990 has now recovered and the rhino numbers there are growing. We operate 26 Wildlife Protection Teams, which are tasked with the daily patrolling of forest to destroy wildlife snares and traps, intercept hunters, prevent forest damage, and monitor wildlife signs in the Leuser Ecosystem. We have maintained a zero-poaching rate for rhinos but we know we must remain as vigilant as ever, and continually work to add more boots on the ground.

What inspired you to work in your field?

The Leuser Ecosystem is a source of life for our people. Four million people depend on the clean water and air created by Leuser. Without Leuser, we cannot live. This is my biggest inspiration.

I remember reading an article in my undergraduate biology days about the magnificence and global significance of the Leuser Ecosystem and realizing this important landscape is in my home—I should know more about it and help protect it. One of the animals that really inspired me from the beginning was the Sumatran rhino. These animals are very different from elephants, tigers, or orangutans. Rhinos cannot live in locations close to humans. They live far from us in the middle of the forest. I hope that for the rest of my life I can help the rhino population continue to grow and ensure they avoid extinction. I hope that my young daughter and son will grow up in a world where the Sumatran rhino still thrives in the wild, and not be another extinct species they read about in books.

Tell us what’s important/exciting about the Sumatran Rhino Rescue project.

In the Leuser Ecosystem there are four pockets of rhino populations, but only one pocket where they continue to breed well. In the other three places their numbers are dangerously low and there are no signs of them expanding. We are running out of time, and simply protecting these three groups from poaching is no longer enough to ensure their survival if they are not breeding. We are planning an ambitious program to place individual rhinos from these three pockets in the breeding center so that they can mate and give birth to as many rhinos as possible. This program is ambitious and radical, but must be done considering there is no hope of them breeding in the wild. They will go extinct without bold interventions at this point. It will be a highly challenging and expensive project but we must try it if the Sumatran rhino is to have any hope of survival.

What are a couple of the most surprising facts you’ve learned about the Sumatran rhino?

The extreme drop in the rhino population over 20 years really shocked me. Of the more than 400 individuals in the 1990s how could only 80 rhinos remain? In some places historically, rhinos were very easy to find but were disappearing from these strongholds.

I also find it fascinating that rhinos are such shy animals. They do not live in places that are open and do not want to be disturbed by other animals. This animal really needs a high degree of privacy.

Why should people care about the Sumatran rhino?

We must take responsibility for the extinction of every species on Earth and do what we can to prevent it. One of the causes of the rhinos’ risk of extinction is our overconsumption—for example, of oil palm, rubber, cocoa, coffee, and mining materials. These commodities are planted or extracted at the expense of rhinoceros habitats, and without their habitats they cannot survive.

What can people do to help?

People who don’t work directly in conservation can still contribute, for example, by fundraising and raising awareness. The costs needed to save rhinos are huge and it will also take a long time to succeed. Spreading campaign messages to save the Sumatran rhinos and their habitats to other people also helps raise the issue with and get the attention of decision-makers. Educating other people on the importance of reducing excessive consumption would certainly be very helpful as well.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We are at a critical point in time to save rhinos. The issue has been carefully debated and discussed for many years. Now is the time to act. If we delay even a few more years, it’s possible subpopulations of rhinos will disappear. We must act now, even though it is challenging and we cannot guarantee success—the alternative is simply to stand back and witness the extinction of the wonderful Sumatran rhino.

Learn more about the ways we’re working to help save the Sumatran rhino at the 2019 National Geographic Explorers Festival. You can watch the festival via livestream June 11-13 at natgeo.org/watchfestival. Support National Geographic’s efforts to stem the decline and ensure a future for the Sumatran rhino by donating here.

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