Posted on Category:Wild Animal

Q and a with Sumatran Rhino Expert John Payne

In 2019, the last Sumatran rhinoceros died in Malaysia. Her name was Iman and since her capture in 2014, she had been in the custody of the Bornean Rhino Alliance (BORA), led by Managing director John Payne, in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

After his passed away, Payne, who had been working with Sumatran rhinos since 1979 (with a long Break in the middle due to “Frustration”), suddenly found herself without a Rhino to care for after years of trying to raise the last male and Female From Malaysia.

Disappointment did not slow him down. He is now working with other species – the Borneo orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), the Borneo Elephants (Elephas maximus) and the Banteng (BOS javanicus)-and he has written a book, the Hairy rhinoceros: history, ecology and some lessons for the management of the final megafauna, in which he argues that the strategy to save the Sumatran Rhinos from extinction

Among Sumatran Rhino experts, Payne has always been known for his frankness, his quick wit and his sometimes arguable positions. And he’s not pulling any punches in his recent Interview with Mongabay. He mauled both the growing bureaucracy of conservation organizations and what he thinks is the position of Indonesian officials for delays and inaction in protecting Sumatran rhinos.

“The problem was very Indonesian and the international framework did not work,” Payne said, adding: “It is surprising nowadays that Indonesia now has its forestry and its environment under one ministry.”

He also believes that Sumatran rhinos breed only in the Leuser ecosystem of the Indonesian province of Aceh, at the northern tip of the Island of Sumatra. And if he was in charge, he would catch rhinos from there for captive breeding; he would collect eggs from young Rhinos for In vitro fertilization; and he would consider maximizing the birth intervals by removing the Rhinos from their mother once weaned.

For years, Payne advocated for more wild rhino captures, even though it was a very unpopular idea. Today, his plea seems prescient. Not only did the Sumatran rhinoceros become extinct in Malaysia within a few decades, but it also almost disappeared in Indonesia, the only country where it is found today. According to recent estimates, the total number of rhinos is less than 50, distributed over three sites. And if the past is any indication, the actual number could be lower — note the recent news about potentially inflated numbers for Indonesia’s other endangered rhinoceros, the Java rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus).

Given the dire situation in the wild and the fact that there are only nine Sumatran rhinos in captivity, many of which are related, Indonesia announced in 2018—with numerous partners, including National Geographic — that it would capture more rhinos in the wild. A rhinoceros named Pahu was captured a few months after, but no attempt was ever made to breed with her.

Since then, not a single rhinoceros has been captured.

“I have this feeling: this will never happen. Actually, I think it’s just a speech,” Payne says of Indonesia’s Plan to catch and breed more wild rhinos.

Despite the loss of all Rhinos in Malaysia, Payne continues to work in conservation. He is working with many of the same colleagues, such as wildlife veterinarian Zainal Zainuddin, to create food habitats in Sabah for endangered species, including orangutans, elephants and Banteng, a species of wild cattle.

“With the Sumatran rhino, I’m pissed off; I’m not desperate, I’m just pissed off,” he says.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: How did you get started with the Sumatran rhinoceros in 1979?

John Payne: In the days before Margaret Thatcher, the British government was very strange: I got a scholarship from the British government in 1975 to study macaques in Malaysia. In the mid-1970s, I spent more than two years in peninsular Malaysia. WWF-Malaysia already existed, surprisingly. It was one of the first WWF outside Europe.

So it was a natural development of which I was very satisfied that when I got my doctorate in 1979, WWF was looking for people who could do field research in Malaysia. I must say that at that time, no well-thought-out Malaysian would want to do fieldwork in nature, it was a different time. It was wide open to young people like me in a way that certainly isn’t anymore. I was in the right place at the right time to find a job at WWF-Malaysia.

An investigation with the Sabah Forestry Department revealed two things. Number one that Sumatran Rhinos still existed. It was a debate. And it was threatened with extinction in 1979 and 1980: only a few remained.

This result came out after two and a half years of exploring various forests in Sabah to map the distribution of the largest mammals and the largest birds.

Mongabay: You were at the 1984 meeting that really got people interacting with the Sumatran rhino in a much more planned and sometimes unplanned way. What do you see today as the legacy of this meeting, both for Rhinos and in general?

John Payne: All the right people were there, but immediately there was a split. Rudolph Schenkel, [Rhinoceros expert at Basel Zoo], said: “Rhinos are part of the environment, we shouldn’t take them out.”

And [the conservation coordinator of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums] Tom Foose, whom I admired a lot — he was a real pioneer thinker — said: “No, they will disappear if you leave them there.”That was the essence of this meeting. As you know, the compromise was to capture only the “damned”, the least fertile Rhinos, as we learned after.

So, The inheritance? Nowadays, people are building… happy to find a consensus, but it means that you end up finding a compromise that satisfies everyone, but the bad result is because it does not achieve the goal.

There were many changes in the global conservation strategy around 1980. There has been a big change to move away from a small number of dedicated and passionate people – no matter where they come from – to work together. Unhindered by IUCN and unhindered by governments or other NGOs.

Starting in 1984, you can almost never get what you really need to do because of this [disorder]. There is a strange phenomenon where people are divided into two, right? It always comes out: there are two [opposite] groups. At the same time, you want to find a compromise that doesn’t really satisfy either. I saw that… again and again.

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