By Richel Dursin
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
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
"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
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