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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : February 2001 : Javan rhinoceros remains at high risk

Javan rhinoceros remains at high risk

By Richel Dursin
Interpress Service
February 12, 2001

JAKARTA - Efforts to boost the numbers of threatened Javan rhinoceros are being thwarted by poorly designed habitats that force their already small population to compete for food, say environmentalists here.

Indeed, they say the unchanging population of the Javan rhinoceros carries with it a risk: an outbreak of a deadly disease would wipe out the few remaining protected animals in Indonesia.

"We are worried that a new strain of disease would kill the remaining Javan rhinoceros," says Nazir Foead, deputy director species conservation at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Indonesia.

"We have to be alert about any epidemic outbreak that would lead to the extinction of the Javan rhinoceros," says Samedi, head of the sub-directorate of trade and traffic wildlife control of the ministry of forestry.

There are only 50 to 60 Javan rhinoceros (rhinoceros sondaicus) left in Indonesia, found only at the 120,551-hectare Ujung Kulon National Park in West Java.

The number of the one-horned Javan rhinoceros, one of the rarest mammal species in the world, has remained unchanged in the last two decades in this country.

Historically, the Javan rhinoceros ranged widely from eastern India as far as north as China and throughout Southeast Asia. Today, there are less than 70 Javan rhinoceros in the world.

Apart from the Javan rhinoceros of Ujung Kulon park and the its small population in Vietnam, no other populations of the animal are known to exist.

Environmentalists say the stable number of Javan rhinoceros is due to factors such as apparent competition for food from wild cattle and lack of the right food, which impairs their breeding.

When the first census on the population of the Javan rhinoceros was carried out in 1967, 25 animals were recorded. In 1979, the population doubled to 50 but has remained the same until now.

Studies show that the Ujung Kulon National Park has a capacity of 80 Javan rhinoceros.

But in contrast to the Javan rhinoceros, the number of wild cattle at the Ujung Kulon park has increased to more than 800 today. They are competing with the Javan rhinoceros for food.

"The wild cattle are grazers while the Javan rhinoceros are browsers, but at the park, there are very few grasslands. So the wild cattle eat the food plants of the Javan rhinoceros," Foead says.

More than 62 plant species eaten by the Javan rhinoceros are also eaten by wild cattle, Sajudin says.

Experts are working to verify if consumption by wild cattle of the usual food of the Javan rhinoceros is curbing their population.

"If it is scientifically proven that the wild cattle are impeding the increase in the population of the Javan rhinoceros, we need to decrease the number of wild cattle at the park. That is the only way to increase the number of the Javan rhinoceros," Foead says.

Decreasing the wild cattle population could involve moving them to other conservation areas, including Baruran, East Java, and Pangandaran and Cikapuh in West Java where poaching has cut their numbers sharply in the last 25 years.

Experts add that the stable population of the Javan rhinoceros may be due to the existence of the arenga palm (arenga obtusifolia) at the Ujung Kulon park, which damages the plant usually eaten by the Javan rhinoceros.

"It is difficult for the Javan rhinoceros to find food because of the palm. As a result they cannot multiply easily," says Samedi.

Having a conducive natural habitat is important so the animals can reproduce naturally, since breeding is not the right way to preserve the Javan rhinoceros, says Foead.

Indeed, past breeding efforts have failed. In the 1980s, an attempt to breed 40 Sumatran rhinoceros in various zoos resulted in disaster: 22 died and none of the rest bore offspring. Only one rhinoceros gave birth to a calf, but it was already pregnant when captured in the wild.

"The best conservation method is to leave the Javan rhinoceros in their natural habitat and see to it that their ecosystem is not disturbed," Foead says.

The weakness of having a small Javan rhinoceros population has already been shown in the past.

At least five rhinoceros died from December 1981 to February 1982, when a viral infection that first hit water buffaloes in villages surrounding Ujung Kulon park spread to the population of the Javan rhinoceros there. Many Javan rhinoceros died in 1935 because of anthrax.

"The Javan rhinoceros are vulnerable to diseases. That's why the outbreak of a disease is always a threat to their population," says Haerudin Sajudin, former executive director of the non-governmental Mitra Rhino in Bogor, West Java.

Poaching remains a big threat at the Ujong Kulon national park, a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Poachers seek the Javan rhinoceros' horns for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Trading of the Javan rhinoceros is banned under Indonesian law.

To curb poaching, the forestry ministry has sent out anti-poaching rhino units at the Ujung Kulon park. Each consists of one officer from the special forestry police and four rangers from the local communities.



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