March 2, 2011- Nick Engelfried
This week the World Wide Fund for Nature (once called the World Wildlife Fund and abbreviated WWF) released footage of what may be the world’s rarest mammal, captured on film late last year. Camera traps set up in by WWF in the Javan rainforest managed to film four individual Javan rhinoceroses, providing hope that this critically endangered species is breeding successfully in the wild. The camera trap operation was part of an ongoing effort by WWF-Java to non-invasively monitor the last confirmed population of Javan rhinoceroses, and educate the world about the plight of this imperiled and ancient-looking animal.
The Javan rhino, one of five living rhinoceros species in the world, was originally widespread throughout the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Habitat destruction and hunting have greatly reduced the species’ distribution, until there is only one confirmed population on the island of Java, probably consisting of about forty individuals. An even smaller population may exist in the rainforest of Vietnam, but the continued survival of this group in unverified and conservationists fear the last members may have been killed by poachers. Like other rhinoceros species, Javan rhinos are a sought-after target for the international poaching trade because their horns are considered to have mythic medicinal properties in China.
The WWF film from 2010 shows two mother rhinos foraging for food in the Javan rainforest, each one accompanied by a calf. The presence of calves is particularly encouraging because it shows the rhino population is breeding. The footage was taken in Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park, where the last Javan rhinos live. Though wildlife is officially protected inside the park, poaching is still a problem and threatens the continued existence of the species.
Conservationists also worry that because the population of forty or so rhinos in Ujung Kulon Park is so small, a single natural disaster could wipe out the entire species. Java is part of the Indonesian archipelago—a geologically active area where large volcanic eruptions are not uncommon. An ill-timed eruption near the habitat of the last Javan rhinos could destroy years of conservation work and push the species over the brink of extinction.
These worries aside, all is not necessarily lost for the Javan rhino—and with careful protection and monitoring of the last population it may be possible to restore the species. With perhaps less than forty individuals in the wild and none in captivity, the Javan rhino is critically endangered and in need of all the help it can get. However other species have recovered from similarly tiny populations in the past, with the help of conservationists. In the US for example the black-footed ferret was once reduced to a population of eighteen individuals. Though still highly endangered, black-footed ferrets have recovered to where there are now hundreds living in the wild.
Replicating this success story with the Javan rhinoceros will mean not only protecting the last confirmed population, but also conserving the tropical rainforests that make up its habitat. Conservationists hope that if the population in Ujung Kulon Park is allowed to grow, some of these rhinos can one day be re-introduced to other parts of their former range. This means large swaths of rainforest in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries must be left intact. Currently the biggest threat to these forests is the expansion of palm oil and timber plantations, fueled by demand for snack food ingredients and cheap paper pulp in countries like the US and China. Environmental groups including Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network have launched campaigns that pressure international companies to stop buying products that destroy Indonesia’s rainforest.
Javan rhinos may be confined to single population on an island in Indonesia, but their conservation is a global affair. While international groups such as WWF work to conserve the last population in Java, consumers around the world can help the species by avoiding products with palm oil or paper pulp sourced from endangered rainforests. With help from the global community the Javan rhinoceros may once again roam in forests throughout Southeast Asia.
Photo credit: viajar24h.com