Demand Protection for the Javan Rhino
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A painting from 1861 depicts the hunting of R. s. sondaicus
The main factor in the continued decline of the Javan rhinoceros population has been poaching for horns, a problem that affects all rhino species. The horns have been a traded commodity for more than 2,000 years in China, where they are believed to have healing properties. Historically, the rhinoceros' hide was used to make armor for Chinese soldiers, and some local tribes in Vietnam believed the hide could be used to make an antidote for snake venom. Because the rhinoceros' range encompasses many areas of poverty, it has been difficult to convince local people not to kill a seemingly (otherwise) useless animal which could be sold for a large sum of money. When the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora first went into effect in 1975, the Javan rhinoceros was placed under complete Appendix 1 protection; all international trade in the Javan rhinoceros and products derived from it is illegal. Surveys of the rhinoceros horn black market have determined that Asian rhinoceros horn fetches a price as high as $30,000 per kg, three times the value of African rhinoceros horn.:31
As with many types Asian and African megafauna, the Javan rhino was relentlessly hunted by trophy and big-game hunters for decades following the arrival of Europeans in its range. The rhinos being easy targets, this was as severe a contributor to its decline as was poaching for its horns. Such was the toll of big-game hunting that by the time the rhino's plight was made known to the world, only the Javan and the (then unknown) Vietnamese populations remained.
Loss of habitat because of agriculture has also contributed to its decline, though this is no longer as significant a factor because the rhinoceros only lives in one nationally protected park. Deteriorating habitats have hindered the recovery of rhino populations that fell victim to poaching. Even with all the conservation efforts, the prospects for their survival are grim. Because the population is restricted to one small area, they are very susceptible to disease and inbreeding depression. Conservation geneticists estimate a population of 100 rhinos would be needed to preserve the genetic diversity of this conservation-reliant species.
The Ujung Kulon peninsula of Java was devastated by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. The Javan rhinoceros recolonized the peninsula after the event, but humans never returned in large numbers, thus creating a haven for wildlife. In 1931, as the Javan rhinoceros was on the brink of extinction in Sumatra, the government of the Dutch Indies declared the rhino a legally protected species, which it has remained ever since. A census of the rhinos in Ujung Kulon was first conducted in 1967; only 25 animals were recorded. By 1980, that population had doubled, and has remained steady, at about 50, ever since. Although the rhinos in Ujung Kulon have no natural predators, they have to compete for scarce resources with wild cattle, which may keep their numbers below the peninsula's carrying capacity. Ujung Kulon is managed by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. Evidence of at least four baby rhinos was discovered in 2006, the most ever documented for the species.
In March 2011, hidden-camera video was published showing adults and juveniles, indicating recent matings and breeding. During the period from January to October 2011, the cameras had captured images of 35 rhinos. As of December 2011, a rhino breeding sanctuary in an area of 38,000 hectares is being finalized to help reach the target of 70 to 80 Javan rhinos by 2015.
In April 2012, the WWF and International Rhino Foundation added 120 video cameras to the existing 40 to better monitor rhino movements and judge the size of the animals' population. A recent survey has found far fewer females than males. Only four females among 17 rhinos were recorded in the eastern half of Ujung Kulon, which is a potential setback in efforts to save the species.
With Ujung Kulon as the last resort of this species, all the Javan rhinos are in one location, an advantage over the Sumatran rhino which is dispersed in different, unconnected areas. However, this may also be disadvantageous to the Javan rhino population, because any catastrophic diseases or tsunamis could wipe them all out at once. Poaching for their horns is no longer as serious a threat as in the past, due to stricter international regulations on rhino horn, active protection efforts by local authorities, the rhinos' elusiveness and Ujung Kulon's remoteness. However, there are still obstacles to the species recovery. In 2012, the Asian Rhino Project was working out the best eradication programme for the arenga palm, which was blanketing the park and crowding out the rhinos' food sources. The banteng cattle also compete with the rhinos for food, so the authorities were considering plans to fence off the western part of the park to keep the livestock out.
Once widespread in Southeast Asia, the Javan rhinoceros was presumed extinct in Vietnam in the mid-1970s, at the end of the Vietnam War. The combat wrought havoc on the ecosystems of the region through use of napalm, extensive defoliation from Agent Orange, aerial bombing, use of landmines, and overhunting by local poachers.
In 1988, the assumption of the subspecies' extinction was challenged when a hunter shot an adult female, proving the species had somehow survived the war. In 1989, scientists surveyed Vietnam's southern forests to search for evidence of other survivors. Fresh tracks belonging to up to 15 rhinos were found along the Dong Nai River. Largely because of the rhinoceros, the region they inhabited became part of the Cat Tien National Park in 1992.
By the early 2000s, their population was feared to have declined past the point of recovery in Vietnam, with some conservationists estimating as few as three to eight rhinos, and possibly no males, survived. Conservationists debated whether or not the Vietnamese rhinoceros had any chance of survival, with some arguing that rhinos from Indonesia should be introduced in an attempt to save the population, with others arguing that the population could recover.
Genetic analysis of dung samples collected in Cat Tien National Park in a survey from October 2009 to March 2010 showed only a single individual Javan rhinoceros remained in the park. In early May 2010, the body of a Javan rhino was found in the park. The animal had been shot and its horn removed by poachers. In October 2011, the International Rhino Foundation confirmed the Javan rhinoceros was extinct in Vietnam, leaving only the rhinos in Ujung Kulon.
A Javan rhinoceros has not been exhibited in a zoo for over a century. In the 19th century, at least four rhinos were exhibited in Adelaide, Calcutta, and London. At least 22 Javan rhinos have been documented as having been kept in captivity; the true number is possibly greater, as the species was sometimes confused with the Indian rhinoceros.
The Javan rhinoceros never fared well in captivity. The oldest lived to be 20, about half the age that the rhinos can reach in the wild. No records are known of a captive rhino giving birth. The last captive Javan rhino died at the Adelaide Zoo in Australia in 1907, where the species was so little known that it had been exhibited as an Indian rhinoceros.
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