Sticker design by Kallie Goetz for The International Rhino Foundation
Sticker design by Kallie Goetz for The International Rhino Foundation

COVID Crashes into Rhino Conservation

This blog was written by Justin Birkhoff, Development Manager-Conservation Specialist at Cheetah Conservation Fund, with contributions from the Sumatran Rhino Team Members.


There is a saying about the best-laid plans that come to mind as we sit and reflect on the project we embarked on in March of 2019. It is now 2021, and the project has gone through several changes and challenges. The global pandemic was a variable we had not accounted for, and we find ourselves adjusting to a new normal with a new vocabulary. It has been said before, but conservation does not stop because the world is socially isolated, so we press forward and modify our plans.

Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL) is a skill-building program for early-career professionals across different conservation sectors. Every two years, a cohort of 25 international participants is selected. The program provides networking opportunities and professional training but ultimately culminates in the implementation of several new conservation campaigns in collaboration with established NGOs.

Each Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL) class is presented with four project briefs, and then the cohort self-selects into teams to tackle each project. Our class projects had a unique wrinkle. We would all be working on separate species, but all of those species would belong to the same taxon—rhinoceros. As a result, we were branded Crash 8 of EWCL (crash is the collective noun for a group of rhinos).

There we all stood; Class 8/Crash 8 had just finished subdividing into project groups, and our group was excited to have a call with our project partners, the International Rhino Foundation (IRF). Our project felt like it would be pretty straightforward from our project brief. We would be collaborating with IRF and their partners to design and implement a campaign to help with the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) conservation efforts in Indonesia. Sumatran rhinos are critically endangered, experiencing a dramatic drop in their population in the last two decades. With less than 80 individuals left, they are scattered across the island of Sumatra. Our project was deemed “Rhino University” early in the process, with the goal of designing, organizing, and implementing a community workshop. Our objective was to increase the knowledge and will of regional leadership to support conservation initiatives for the Sumatran rhino. Like all of the EWCL groups, we had a group conversation with our project partners and outlined the work that was going to come. 

Sumatran Rhino Team- Alex Goetz, Jenna Duarte, Justin Birkhoff, Indah Sartika Sari, Robyn Johnson, and T’Noya Thompson at White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida. During the last couple of days of our in-person training, we carved out as much time as we could as a group to start laying down the initial framework for our project. We created a rotation for who would lead throughout our project’s project timeline and made a WhatsApp group for communication. The thread has since become an excellent resource for us through the process. It has allowed the Sumatran Rhino team to stay connected, share ideas, thoughts, memes, triumphs, and the occasional morale boost or hype video. All of this planning has proven to be invaluable as the project has grown and metamorphosed. 

As mentioned above, we started with the idea of creating a workshop framed around the Indonesian National Recovery plan for the Sumatran Rhino. The hope was to create buy-in at the local level, highlight the remaining rhinos’ meta-population dynamic (geographically and partially isolated), and how the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) factored into this iconic long-term recovery species. The SRS was built in 1996 and houses the only captive population of Sumatran rhinos anywhere in the world, playing an essential role in research and breeding. The two key stakeholder populations that IRF had identified in our project briefing were the local village leaders and the Bupati (director regents/local politicians). Not only do their lives and livelihoods connect with rhino habitat, but the Bupati are the representatives of the regions that would be the source of translocated individuals. These stakeholders were identified early because their support of the program would create significant traction to the long-range recovery plan and facilitate isolated individuals’ movement into favorable reproductive conditions. At this stage, we determined that using the videographer skills of group member Alex Goetz was a natural avenue to deliver this message. 

As this plan started to mature and we started to coordinate with IRF’s in-country rhino program manager, it became clear that our straightforward project was getting a little muddier. We were looking at a much larger workshop (greater scope and more participants) than we had initially anticipated, which would complicate the location. Originally the hope was to host the workshop in the new educational facilities at the SRS that at the time were nearing completion. We wanted to use the new teaching space and showcase the fantastic work that IRF and their on-the-ground partner Yayasan Badak Indonesia (YABI) were doing at the SRS. Additionally, and maybe even more importantly, we wanted to create a way to connect all of the participants with the Sumatran rhinos living at the center. We decided that the best way to deal with this curveball was to host the workshop at a local village center and have a field trip to the center.

Photo credited to the International Rhino Foundation- Andatu climbing on Ratu at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Upon more consultation with our project partners, it was concluded that the Bupati was not going to be our primary target as a stakeholder. There proved to be overwhelming support from them already, and therefore our focus needed to shift more towards the farmers and families in the local communities. We wanted to demonstrate the value that the SRS brought to local communities, especially as the National Recovery plan included the potential for a secondary site in northern Sumatra. The SRS utilizes a vast amount of browse (whole plant material) for the rhinos they care for—some of it is harvested from the forest itself, and some is grown locally for harvest. Both of these activities create an income for community members. The propagation of plants explicitly grown for harvest would improve efficiency and reduce any local forest pressures. We figured we had our new direction, and then we got back to planning.

Our group started to focus on our new direction, designing a workshop for community members and leaders from around Way Kambas National Park, where the SRS is located. We wanted to create a curriculum that conveyed the importance of conserving the rhino and its habitat across Sumatra and the positive impact these actions would have on their community in a more tangible way. It was decided that this would be best articulated by community members already deeply involved with rhino support activities. We had started to nail down a rough agenda, identifying a location and a potential invite list for our “new” workshop. We had begun to plan how the video series would go and how we would capture footage of the workshop along with the rhino residents of the SRS. Our group started to think about how we would evaluate the workshop’s outcome and effectiveness while we planned the toolkit that we would produce in the lead-up to the workshop.

Here, we learned more about the reforestation project that IRF had been undertaking adjacent to several of Way Kambas and the SRS communities. They had started to restore part of the forest that had been removed previously with native saplings. The project helped reforest this critical habitat and provide additional opportunities for the communities to participate in the National Park and SRS operations. Tragically, a fire had wiped out a section of the replanted area, setting the project back significantly. We decided to bring this vital component of habitat restoration to the workshop.

Photo collage poster created by the team to support The International Rhino Foundation's (full photo credit) seedling project. Translation- Feed what feeds you, join the seedling project today. And then the world changed. Just as our project started to feel like it was moving forward with momentum, the world learned about a newly emerging infectious disease, a coronavirus that came to be known as SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19. All planning ground to a halt. We were not going to host an in-person workshop in Indonesia; in fact, none of the meetings/training we had planned for 2020 would be happening.

COVID-19 has stalled our project in many ways, meetings were canceled, and our workshop has been delayed until 2021 (we hope). We have experienced one of the most unprecedented challenges for a conservation project, and we learned and adapted on the fly through it all (including changes to our funding). All of us have other jobs and, in one case a new graduate program, all being impacted by this global pandemic. It has been a learning experience like no other, but our group has been able to stay the course, changing deadlines and priorities to make sure that we feel good about what we can accomplish in 2020 and with an eye towards the future. Conservation has never stopped. COVID-19 has required us to adapt and overcome, and we are looking forward to continuing to assist with our piece of the puzzle.