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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 07:34 GMT
Sumatran rhino tracks spark hopes
By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Sumatran rhino
The rhinos have fallen prey to poachers
A wildlife expedition in Malaysia has found evidence that there may be hope for the endangered Sumatran rhino.

A search of an area known as the Heart of Borneo last May found the tracks of at least 13 animals in a confined area - though no rhino was actually seen.

Environmentalists say the area may be home to a viable breeding population.

The Sumatran rhino, the smallest of the world's rhino species, is threatened by extinction. Only 300 of the animals are thought to remain.

On the Malay peninsula, only a handful survive, as many have fallen prey to poachers or have died in poorly maintained captive breeding centres.

They are also thought to be extinct across most of Borneo island.

However, this latest survey offers a glimmer of hope.

Scattered population

Malaysian scientists based in Sabah state on Borneo believe they have found a substantial group in a small area untouched by poachers.

Map of Borneo
"Poaching has decimated Borneo's once-healthy rhino population, but we were heartened to find that a few individuals have managed to cling to survival," said Raymond Alfred, of the Malaysian branch of the conservation group WWF.

Previous estimates had put the total number of Sumatran rhinos in Sabah at between 30 and 70.

However, many are thought to be scattered over wide distances.

In 2001, there were about 300 Sumatran rhinos
They live in dense tropical forest, mainly in the Malay Peninsula and Borneo
They weigh 600-950kg (1,300-2,000 lbs)
They stand at 1-1.5 metres (3-5 ft)
Source: International Rhino Foundation

This latest discovery has excited scientists because there are so many animals in one small area, meaning they stand a better chance of breeding.

"We believe this population may be viable and could recover if their habitat is protected and the threat of poaching is eliminated," said Dr Christy Williams, head of the WWF's Asian rhino programme.

The WWF and the state authorities have now launched rhino protection patrols in the area where the creatures were found.

Their horns are said to be worth kilogram for kilogram almost as much as gold, and are prized for their use in traditional Asian medicine.

Malaysian rhino centre criticised
24 Nov 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysian centre's last rhino dies
17 Nov 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Asian rhinos face new threat
14 Aug 02 |  Science/Nature

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