It’s unlikely, when you think of a rhino, that you picture a hairy, reddish-brown, jungle-dwelling creature that can make a sound like a humpback whale

Think of a rhinoceros. You’re probably imagining a two-tonne armoured herbivore with a threatening horn at the tip of its nose, roaming somewhere in the African savannah. This would most likely be the white rhino, which has the dubious distinction of being the only one of the five rhino species that is not classified as either “vulnerable” or “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It’s unlikely, when you think of a rhino, that you picture a hairy, reddish-brown, jungle-dwelling creature that can make a sound like a humpback whale. This is the Sumatran rhinoceros. And the reason for its obscurity, apart from the fact that it’s less like the idea of a rhino that many of us will have formed from nature documentaries, is that the Sumatran rhino is on the verge of extinction. According to the International Rhino Foundation, there are only around 100 of these fascinating creatures still alive, nearly all of them in protected national parks in Sumatra, a large island in the Indonesian archipelago.

The story of how the Sumatran rhino reached this grim milestone is familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of animal conservation issues. A combination of habitat depletion and poaching has brought about a swift decline in its numbers to the extent that today, Sumatran rhinos only exist in places where they are physically guarded by protection units.

Hairy, vocal,
agile, hungry!

Hairy, vocal,
agile, hungry!

Fast facts about the Sumatran rhino:

Fast facts about the Sumatran rhino:

• Weight: between 500 and 960kg
• Size: up to 1.45 metres in height and 2.5 metres long
• Appearance: bristly hair, reddish-brown skin, two horns
• Characteristics: fast and agile, communicates with whistling and whining noises, wallows in mud for long periods to stay cool
• Habitat: dense tropical forest
• Diet: forest plants and fallen fruit, up to 60kg per day
• Lifespan: up to 45 years in the wild

Until recently the Sumatran rhino was thought to be extinct in Kalimantan, the Indonesian territory that makes up 73 per cent of the large island of Borneo. However, since traces of this critically endangered mammal were found there in 2013, hidden cameras have confirmed that 15 Sumatran rhinos were living in two small pockets of habitat. And in 2016, a live female was captured and transferred to a protected enclosure (although she subsequently died, apparently from the wound caused by a poacher’s snare). Removing wild creatures from their habitats might seem the wrong thing to do. But in the case of creatures like rhinos that are so vulnerable to poaching and human impacts on their habitats, conservationists see this as the best way to protect and save the species.

To create a home for Kalimantan’s endangered rhinos, Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment & Forestry is creating a 200-hectare rhino sanctuary on a rehabilitated mine site managed by PT Kelian Equatorial Mining (KEM), a Rio Tinto subsidiary (see sidebar).

It is hoped that the sanctuary, situated within the 4,561-hectare Kelian Protected Forest, will be officially designated a wildlife reserve and provide a safe haven for Kalimantan’s small and struggling Sumatran rhino population.

Experience with other rhino species shows that when populations are actively managed and protected, their decline can be reversed. All of the rhino species have been threatened with extinction, with the white rhino population down to below 100 animals in the 20th century and the black rhino reduced to just a few thousand animals in the 1990s. Today, although it is still threatened, the white rhino has bounced back thanks to conservation efforts, and black rhino populations are slowly increasing too.

Their new habitat at Kelian could provide the lifeline that Kalimantan’s remaining Sumatran rhinos need to begin their recovery.

Restoring the land:
commitment in action

Restoring the land:
commitment in action

Stories of gold have been passed down through generations of local people in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Rio Tinto began exploration in 1972 and, from 1992-2005, its subsidiary KEM (Rio Tinto 90 per cent) produced gold and silver from its Kelian gold mine.

Stories of gold have been passed down through generations of local people in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Rio Tinto began exploration in 1972 and, from 1992-2005, its subsidiary KEM (Rio Tinto 90 per cent) produced gold and silver from its Kelian gold mine.

KEM has now completed rehabilitating the 6,670-hectare site in accordance with its government-approved mine closure plan, including converting much of the site to “Protection Forest” status.

The work included remediating waste dumps and building dams to protect ground and surface water from mine tailings, and converting the alluvial gold mining areas that lay beneath the processing plant into a wetland.

KEM’s efforts have exceeded government standards for mine closure and remediation.

In 2015, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment & Forestry presented the Kelian project with the top “Caring Company Forest Reclamation” award. And according to Widodo Ramono, executive director of the Indonesia Rhino Foundation (YABI), KEM has “done a good job complying with regulations”.

The company plans to transfer the site back to the Indonesian government and has set up a trust fund to pay for its monitoring and maintenance in perpetuity.

Mark Hunter, Rio Tinto’s project lead at Kelian, said Rio Tinto was “committed to ensuring a positive, lasting legacy from our operations, and the Kelian project is a great example of that commitment in action.”