Between a rock and a hard place

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn: Autumn 2010.
Author: Cath Lawson, Office & Communications Manager, Save The Rhino)

There is just one viable population of the Critically Endangered Javan rhinoceros left. This population is confined to Ujung Kulon National Park on the island of Java, Indonesia and these animals are, quite literally, stuck between a rock and a hard place and extremely vulnerable to extinction. In partnership with the International Rhino Foundation, Save the Rhino is launching an appeal to raise funds for the creation of 4,000 hectares of expanded habitat for Javan rhinos to ultimately allow for the establishment of a second population and hopefully save this species from the brink of extinction.

Ujung Kulon National Park MapCredit: Save The Rhino

Endangered species are, by definition, rare. As a consequence, many endangered species face the problems associated with small population sizes. These problems include a heightened vulnerability to extinction due to natural catastrophes, diseases, poaching and political disturbances; an increased chance of stochastic variation in reproductive and mortality rates leading to extinction; and reduced genetic health as a result of the effects of inbreeding and genetic drift. Unfortunately, because the only viable population is confined to one location, the problems associated with small population sizes are amplified for the Javan rhino.

Kratatau volcano eruptingCredit: Rana Bayrakci

Of particular concern is the proximity of Ujung Kulon to the active volcano Anak Krakatau. The 1883 eruption of Krakatau decimated Ujung Kulon and its surrounding area and today the Strombolian eruptions of Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatoa) provide a reminder of the very real threat of another eruption and the possibility of a resulting tsunami. There is also an ever-present risk of a disease outbreak; indeed, in 1980 there was an outbreak of a disease, possibly anthrax or an anthrax-like disease, which killed at least five animals. With fewer than 50 of the species surviving, that’s a major blow.

These risks aside, although the Ujung Kulon population of Javan rhinos is believed to be stable, population growth has stagnated in recent years and the population is suspected to have reached its carrying capacity in the current habitat. Human encroachment and illegal extraction of forest products may, in part, be responsible for this, as may competition with banteng (a species of wild cattle found in Southeast Asia) and reduced availability of suitable food plants, because of the invasion of Arenga palm. The culminating effect is that the population probably cannot grow any larger without intervention.

RPUs measuring a Javan Rhino footprint in Ujung Kulon National ParkCredit: Rana Bayrakci

The International Rhino Foundation, working with Yayasan Badak Indonesia (YABI), WWF-Indonesia, the Government of Indonesia and other partners, aims to expand the habitat available to Javan rhinos in Ujung Kulon, thus allowing the population to increase, which in turn would allow for the eventual translocation of some of animals to establish a second population at a separate site. Associated activities include the creation of the necessary infrastructure, staffing and support services to protect and monitor the expanded population, and establishing routine RPU (Rhino Protection Unit) patrolling and monitoring within the extended range to ensure survival of the rhinos and the safety of the overall habitat. Initial steps in this impressive plan include: clearing the site for an electric fence and adjacent patrol road, constructing small bridges and the electric fence, habitat management such as clearing invasive species and planting rhino food plants, providing for a reliable water supply for wallows, saltlicks, constructing new guard posts, hiring guards and other staff, and socialization work with local communities.

IRF and its partners have already raised $350,000 of the $600,000 needed for this ambitious effort. Now we’re asking for your help to raise the remaining funds and save the Javan rhino from extinction.