WWF researchers have made the first human contact with a Sumatran rhino in 40 years in Borneo where it was thought to be extinct. It is the smallest and most threatened of all rhino species, mostly because of hunting and habitat loss. Conservationists estimate that there are less than 100 individuals left. The last known wild populations are in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) and on the island of Sumatra, where most Sumatran rhinos are thought to live.

The groundwork for this major conservation milestone began in 2013 when a WWF survey team found evidence that the species was not extinct in Indonesian Borneo after all. Footprints and photos from camera traps clearly showed that Sumatran rhinos were still in the area, reviving hope for a breeding population. In the following years, 15 individuals were identified across three different populations. But Sumatran rhinos are hard to find and approach, because where they live is so remote and densely forested, and because they are a secretive species that stays far away from humans.

The female rhino is thought to be four or five years old. she might help save her species.The female rhino is thought to be 4 or 5 years old. She might help save her species. (Photo: Ari Wibowo/WWF-Indonesia)

The captured individual is a female that is about 4 or 5. The animal was caught in a pit trap in Katai Barat in East Kalimantan on March 12, according to WWF. For now, she's being held in a temporary enclosure, but she will be relocated by helicopter to a protected forest that will become a Sumatran rhino sanctuary, about 90 miles from where she was captured. The exact location of the sanctuary is being kept secret to better protect the rare animals from poachers.

Conservationists want to relocate at least three rhinos to the new sanctuary in hopes of creating a breeding population that could help save this threatened species. However, it’s not yet clear if there are enough Sumatran rhinos left in the wild to allow overall numbers to rebound.

“This is a race against time for rhino conservation. Providing a safe home is the only hope for the the survival of the Sumatran rhino for many generations to come,” said Dr. Efransjah, CEO of WWF-Indonesia. “WWF will work continuously with the Sumatran rhino conservation team for the protection of the Sumatran rhino population in Kalimantan.”

The Sumatran rhino is the smallest rhino, as well as the most endangered.The Sumatran rhino is the smallest rhino, as well as the most endangered. (Photo: Ari Wibowo/WWF-Indonesia)

Michael Graham Richard ( @Michael_GR ) Michael writes for MNN and TreeHugger about science, space and technology and more.