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To Save A Species The Last Of Javas Rhinos Poised To Be Split

illustration only
by Sebastien Blanc
Jakarta (AFP) Mar 15, 2006
The Javan rhinoceros is the rarest mammal in the world: just 50 of the one-horned beasts remain alive, almost all in a single Indonesian jungle. Now, to save them, scientists are preparing to divide them. Dozens of ecological experts met last week in Jakarta to agree on the old adage that you should not lay all your eggs in one basket.

Besides five of the one-horned beasts located in Vietnam, all of the surviving Javan rhinoceros roam in the Ujung Kulon park at the far western end of the densely-populated island and on the fringes of the Sunda Strait.

This reserve is better protected than other disappearing Indonesian forests, but experts still fear that a local event could wipe out the species: an epidemic, a massive raid by poachers or a natural catastrophe -- the park was affected by the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa nearby -- could all lead to disaster.

"Imagine if the tsunami had come through Ujung Kulon!" exclaimed Christy Williams, program coordinator for the WWF's Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy, adding that protection alone was not enough to ensure their survival.

"It's necessary to create other pockets" of safety for the animals, he said.

The magnificent Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) was once found across a huge swathe of Asia, from the north of India, through Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, peninsular Malaysia and into Indonesia. The species gradually grew rarer as its natural habitat was gnawed away by development.

The aim of the scientists is to move adults from Ujung Kulon to other forests in Southeast Asia, perhaps on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Like the reintroduction of wolves to the Alps or bears to the Pyrenees, the removal of the Javan rhinoceros cannot be done without enormous preparation. The operation is described by those involved as "extremely complex".

"We do not have any experience at all in translocating wild Javan rhino," explained Adi Susmianto, who heads the government's directorate of biodiversity conservation.

"If there is not good preparation, failure will occur," he warned, emphasising the need to find a "safe" site, where encroachment and illegal logging -- both rampant in Indonesia -- are least likely to be a threat.

"If the local people still depend on the forest or still do traditional hunting, forget about it," he said.

The Javan rhinoceros is threatened for the very virtue that makes it distinct: unlike its two-horned Sumatran cousin, it possesses a single curving horn, which is highly prized by poachers.

"People believe the rhino gives humans strength, that it can be used as an aphrodisiac, that it can cure skin diseases or TB (tuberculosis). They even smoke the dung," said Widodo Ramono, director of The Nature Conservancy's Indonesian program.

Capturing the rhinos, which move deeply in dense jungle, is likely to be a challenge in itself, with few access roads and the possibility of one of them being injured.

Determining how many males and females to select to ensure the survival of those being moved -- and those staying behind -- is another challenge.

"We do not want to relocate a rhino which is not fertile. That is why we need to do research beforehand," said the WWF's Desmarita Murni.

Several more years of meticulous research will be needed before the actual transplant of the rhinos will occur.

But the scientists are optimistic: the WWF's Williams points to the successful transfers of Indian rhinos from Kaziranga national park to the northeast of India to Dudhwa park in the northwest.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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