Critically Endangered Rhino Tragically Dies Just Weeks After Her Discovery

April 6, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Najaq, female Sumatran rhino
Photo credit: Ari Wibowo / WWF-Indonesia

Rest in peace, Najaq.

It was such an amazing and joyful moment for the conservation community: A near-extinct Sumatran rhino was spotted in Kutai Barat in East Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, for the first time in 40 years.

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) captured the rare female rhino, named Najaq, in a pit trap in March. The goal was to move her to a sanctuary away from the dangers of plantations, mines, and poachers. But sadly and with a heavy heart, we have learned Najaq has died.

Indonesia’s environment ministry told AFP News on Tuesday that the 4 or 5-year-old rhino succumbed to a leg infection caused by a snare from an earlier poaching attempt, before she was captured by conservationists.

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“The sad death of this rhino reminds us of the tremendous challenges associated with protecting the Sumatran rhino population in the Indonesian part of Borneo,” Arnold Sitompul, conservation director of WWF-Indonesia, told National Geographic. “[It] underscores why we need to continue our efforts with the strong support of the government and other experts to save the remaining population of Sumatran rhinos in the area.”

The International Rhino Foundation had this to say on their Facebook page:

“Our hearts are saddened by this devastating news from Kalimantan. There are many lessons to be learned from this event. It is our hope that the next rhino captured in Kalimantan will be sent to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary where it can be cared for in a permanent facility by experienced veterinarians and keepers. Most importantly, we hope that the next rhino captured will be part of the much-needed Sumatran rhino metapopulation management strategy, while concurrent surveys are conducted to accurately determine the population in Kalimantan and appropriate long-term plans made.”

The Sumatran rhino is the smallest living rhinoceros but still weighs between 1,100 and 2,200 pounds. It is nicknamed the “hairy rhino” because it is covered with long, dark red-brown hair. In fact, they are more closely related to the extinct woolly rhinos that any other rhino species alive today, according to WWF. They are usually solitary creatures that feed on fruit, twigs, and leaves, and they find one another by leaving scent trails.

For years, the Sumatran rhino was believed to have gone extinct in Borneo. However, in 2013, camera trap evidence suggested that there were at least a few of them left, a fact that was confirmed by Najaq’s capture in March of this year.

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Habitat destruction and poaching — predominantly for their horns for Chinese medicine which purports health benefits, despite scientific evidence proving that such treatments don't work — have dramatically reduced populations of the Sumatran rhino, a species that was once widespread in Asia. Today, fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos are believed to exist in the wild, and all of them are in Indonesia.

“The death of this Sumatran rhino proves they exist on Borneo so we will continue protecting them,” Tachrir Fathoni, a senior official at Indonesia’s environment ministry, told AFP.

The conservationists will continue to look for and catch more live Sumatran rhinos. The hope is that they can capture enough to start a breeding program and bring the rhino back from the brink of extinction.

Rest in peace, sweet Najaq.

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