KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Rangers sighted tracks of a baby Sumatran rhino in the heart of Borneo's jungles, raising hopes for the survival of a species pushed to the brink of extinction by poaching and habitat destruction, conservationists said Wednesday.
An expedition by SOS Rhino, a Chicago-based wildlife foundation, found the offspring's small tracks accompanying those of a larger rhino earlier this month while researching the species in Malaysia's Sabah state, the foundation said in a statement.
"This finding suggests a healthy growing population of rhinos in the wild," it said. "It brings hope and re-ignites efforts to bring this shy, elusive creature back from the threat of immediate extinction."
Sumatran rhinos — considered among the rarest of large mammals — have rapidly vanished in recent decades as their rain forest habitat has been lost to logging, plantations and other development and poachers hunted them for horns used in aphrodisiacs and traditional medicines.
Sabah is the last preserve of the Borneo Sumatran rhino, a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino, a bristly, snub-nosed, smaller version of the African variety.
The subspecies has already become extinct in other parts of Borneo because of poaching. Borneo island is divided between Malaysia's Sabah and Sarawak states, Indonesia's Kalimantan province and the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei.
Fewer than 300 rhinos of the second subspecies, the western Sumatran rhino, are believed to be living on Indonesia's Sumatra island and mainland Malaysia.
"The Sumatran's biggest problem is that pockets of rhinos on reserves are too small and too far apart to create a productive population," SOS Rhino said. "Hindered by the vast land and human populations that separate individual rhinos, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to find each other."
Hopes for the Borneo subspecies were boosted after Malaysian government wildlife officials and World Wildlife Fund experts found evidence of at least 13 of them in May last year. Rhino protection units have since launched patrols to deter poaching.
Rhinos are solitary animals but the 2005 discovery seemed to indicate that the 13 rhinos were in an area untouched by poaching, WWF officials said. This meant the animals had a reasonable chance to meet each other and breed.