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Race against the clock to save critically endangered Javan rhinos

08/09/2010 08:52:01
world/Asia/Asia july 10/Javan_rhino_Alain_Compost

Over the next two years, the Javan rhinos' habitat at the Park will undergo improvements to help protect the species from extinct. Credit Alain Compost.

Operation Javan Rhino to help protect species from natural disaster and disease

September 2010. An international partnership is racing against the clock to ensure the survival of the last viable population 48 Javan rhinos by carving out a safe haven in the dense jungles of Indonesia's Ujung Kulon National Park. This entire viable population, living on the island of Java, is quite literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.

In 1883, Ujung Kulon and the surrounding areas were decimated by the eruption of Krakatau, one of the most violent volcanic events in modern times. Anak Krakatau ("son of Krakatau") remains active in the area causing great concern for conservationists.

Ujuong Kulon to be extended by 4000 hectares
Over the next two years, the Javan rhinos' habitat at the Park will undergo improvements to help protect the species from extinction caused by a single natural disaster or introduced disease. The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and its partners are creating 9,884 acres (4,000 ha) of expanded habitat for Javan rhinos in Ujung Kulon, which should encourage population growth.

"Having ‘all the eggs in one basket' isn't a good thing for any species," said Dr. Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation. "With the help of the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Save the Rhino, and the Indonesian government, we have committed to improving the available habitat for Javan rhinos to increase and spread out the population."

Late last year, the partners also commissioned a habitat assessment to evaluate potential translocation sites in Java. This assessment's first recommendation was to create a Javan Rhino Study and Conservation Area in Gunung Honje area (in the eastern part of the park) so that rhinos could fully utilize the Park's land.

As a result, IRF has launched Operation Javan Rhino to help raise the remaining $300,000 needed to complete this effort. Donations will be used to plant rhino food plants, create water sources and wallows, construct guard posts and patrol routes, and hire anti-poaching units to patrol the area. IRF will provide field updates of the on-the-ground efforts taking place in Ujung Kulon to make the new habitat suitable and safe for Javan rhinos.

Habitat improvements
"Our team on the ground is already beginning improvements to Gunung Honje's habitat to make more of the park suitable for the rhinos. We will construct an electric fence, small bridges, and new patrol routes," said Widodo Ramono, executive director of the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia. "We will also improve the habitat by removing invasive plants and providing an improved and reliable water supply."

Javan rhinos are difficult to find in their dense rainforest habitat, even for seasoned experts. Over the past 14 years, Rhino Protection Units have kept track of the rhino population daily, usually by following signs such as dung and footprints. This intense monitoring and protection has essentially eliminated losses from poaching. In collaboration with the Park, WWF Indonesia has set up a number of video-camera traps, which are providing important information about the population.

"We are in the process of expanding intensive management of the Gunung Honje area," said Agus Priambudi, director of Ujung Kulon National Park and active partner in the makeover. "A number of encroachers were moved from within the Park, and we are constructing new guard posts so that the Gunung Honje area is better protected."

Camera traps
Priambudi added that the Park will intensify the camera trap work with 60 cameras generously donated by the Aspinall Foundation in January. Even though poaching has been eradicated in Ujung Kulon, anti-poaching units remain watchful. Rhino poaching in Africa has reached a 16-year high, and the loss of a Javan rhino to poachers in Vietnam in May weighs heavily on the partners' minds.

No more than 47 Javan rhinos in Java
"The data provided by the camera traps are helping us to determine how many rhinos are left in Ujung Kulon," said Adhi Rachmat Hariyadi, site manager for WWF Indonesia's project in the Park. "So far, from the videos we have analyzed, we have identified 27 individual rhinos and extrapolated a maximum of 47 animals in the Park, which still needs to be confirmed by ground surveys."

Rhino poaching is a high-stakes endeavor undertaken by well-organized crime networks that sometimes include corrupt government officials and foreign diplomats.

"Rhinos are killed for the sole intention of selling their horns on the black market," said Cathy Dean, executive director of Save the Rhino. "By funding field projects and through education, our goal is to deliver widespread benefits to the rhinos, their ecosystems and the local communities that benefit from conservation activities."

Rhino experts agree that expanding the usable habitat in Ujung Kulon is the important first step in saving Javan rhinos. The next key step will be translocating animals from Ujung Kulon and establishing a second population elsewhere in Indonesia so that the species can be protected from natural and human-caused disasters, and ultimately extinction.


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