How Did We Fail to Save the Last Male Sumatran Rhino in Malaysia?

This is what an extinction crisis looks like.

LATEST UPDATE: The last female Sumatran rhino Iman died of cancer on Saturday morning (23 Nov) – just five months after the last male of the species passed on in May. This would make Iman the last of her kind to have existed in Malaysia.

As you’re reading this, I’ll assume that you already care about nature and wildlife. Or maybe you’ve seen the many recent news articles about the ‘biodiversity extinction crisis’ or the ‘6th mass extinction’, or you want to know why thousands of school children across the globe are going on strike for planetary health, and in trying to find out more you landed here.

Let’s get one thing cleared up – biodiversity, nature, wildlife, call it what you will is in rapid decline across the whole planet. The recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) makes this very clear.

So do the thousands of scientific journal papers that are reporting species loss, population declines, habitat destruction, and chronic overfishing across the world.

A walk through a silent forest, peering into a bleached coral reef, a night-time drive through a countryside emptied of flying insects. You might also come across articles written by commentators who are distinctly unqualified in this area, but who claim that biodiversity is not declining—it’s a comforting thought in difficult times, but alas for us all, they’re wrong.

Many scientists, including the 450 or so who wrote the IPBES report, say that lots of the species we are losing haven’t even been discovered (by people that is) and named yet! Their extinctions are predicted on the confirmed declines and extinctions of species that we DO know about.

Does that really matter? How are we going to miss them if we don’t know them?

Just leave nature and wildlife alone

Well, each and every one us is dependent on nature, whether we realise it or not, and losing it means losing the many benefits it brings. Nature comprises the food we eat (it even has its own name, agrobiodiversity), purifies our water, pollinates our crops, eats our agricultural pests, forms soil for crops to grow in, is the fish we eat, maintains our climate, and makes us feel good. All for free…and all we have to do is not destroy it. But destroying it we most certainly are.

But what does extinction actually look like? Yesterday we heard the news that the last male Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia has died in Sabah. A sad day indeed, but what does this actually mean?

What it means is that here is a species that used to live throughout much of Southeast Asia but has now become restricted to tiny, imperiled fragments of its former range and captive populations. It means that largely due to habitat destruction and poaching, this species has been reduced to a few tens of individuals anywhere in the world.

It means that humanity is failing to conserve Sumatran rhino. But it’s just one species, right?

If such a large and charismatic species is allowed to disappear due to lack of funds, lack of efforts and lack of political will – what about the non-photogenic species, the species that are not yet classified or named, the species that drive the ecological processes upon which we depend?

Poor stewards of the world’s richest treasures: Southeast Asia

The Indochinese tiger can only be found in the Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia.
© Connie Lemperle / WWF-Greater Mekong

Here in Southeast Asia, we are particularly blessed with nature. Several of the most biodiverse countries in the world are situated here, supporting the significant populations of wildlife species. Indonesia is third only to Brazil and Colombia, with the highest proportion of endemic bird and mammal species of any tropical region, and new species are being discovered whenever scientists look for them.

All this shows that Southeast Asia is one of the most incredible ‘hotspots’ of nature and wildlife in the world. This brings significant benefit for people in the region.

Two fishermen with a day’s catch of flying fishes, who are benefitting from protecting Philippine waters.

An example would be this incredibly important marine environment in Northern Palawan, Philippines.

It has one of the richest coral reefs in the Southeast Asian region and used to be important fishing grounds that provides food to people living there.

Communities living in this area are reaping the benefits from protecting 1 million hectares of oceans that helped secure food security for future generations and improve livelihoods for more than 5000 fishermen living in 112 villages.

However, Southeast Asia is also a hotspot of decline and extinction, and is an epicenter of threats and negative human impacts on wildlife.

Emergency over threats to wildlife, nature and people

Not to scare you, but here is just a small selection:

In Southeast Asia alone, annual forest cover has decreased by 1.45 million hectares from 2000-2010 due to huge rates of deforestation and habitat loss.

113 mammal species threatened by hunting in Southeast Asia alone. 109,217 wildlife snares found in a single park in Cambodia. Yet, rampant illegal hunting and wildlife trade continues to thrive.

Patrolling, uncovering and dismantling a snare intended to catch wildlife in a protected woodland in Cambodia.
© Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden

The population of Southeast Asia has grown by approximately 24%, from 525 to 649 million, between 2000-2017. While we are overexploiting nature to its limits, how much longer can we support the rapid population growth from 2019 to beyond?

With an issue most of us are familiar with (read: waste and plastic pollution) – five of the top ten contributors of global marine plastic debris are Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia).

Serious lack of funding to protect the planet’s richest biodiversity

So, with all of this, why is Southeast Asia often overlooked in discussions, policies and funding about the most important areas for conservation? Malaysia was ranked in the top 10 and Indonesia in the top 40 of the most underfunded countries in the world for biodiversity conservation relative to conservation needs. In addition, the effectiveness of protected areas in the region for actually conserving biodiversity is repeatedly being questioned.

The lack of funds translates to limited research that could lead to better government policies, responsible business practices. Southeast Asia is poorly represented in biodiversity research science publications, despite the region supporting high biodiversity that is under threat. Moreover, regional governments have placed biodiversity research in low priority.

Under current rates of decline, it is anticipated that many species will become extinct in the region.

The solutions are as many as the threats, but among these need to be i) a rethink of how conservation funds are prioritised to regions of high biodiversity and critical threats, ii) policy change and increased enforcement for illegal land clearing and poaching and illegal wildlife trade, and iii) fundamentally raising the profile of biodiversity and alerting all stakeholders (governments, businesses, the general public, the media) to its importance, uniqueness and the benefits that it provides to us all.

As you’re reading this, I’ll assume that you already care about nature and wildlife. Under current rates of decline, it is anticipated that many species will become extinct in the region. But the clock is ticking, we all have to act and there is no time to waste.

If you like reading this, find out why the haze could be much worse it is, how collaring wild elephants could save their lives, and how we helped disrupt wildlife crime by closing down 4 Golden Triangle shops in Asia.

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  • Ian, May 30, 2019 @ 11:55 am Reply

    Just wanted to point out that Indochinese tigers can also be found in Western Thailand, which is in fact one of their last strongholds. Compared to the Mekong region, where they could already be locally extinct.

  • Dr Simon Attwood, June 6, 2019 @ 2:15 pm Reply

    Thanks Ian – good point, and WWF and partners and communities working on their conservation (and their habitat, as that supports lots of other species) in that region.

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