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Good News and Bad News for Rhinos

First the bad news: in the first two months of this year, 146 rhinos were poached in South Africa. If the carnage isn’t stopped, then the toll for this year could be as bad as last year’s terrible record of 1004.

 © Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK

© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK

And now for a change, we can share a little bit of good news on the rhino front. Two days ago we learned that park rangers in Ujung Kulon National Park (Indonesia) had used camera traps to count a total of 58 Javan rhinos, up from 51 in 2012. This is a staggeringly small number but still an increase of over ten per cent since 2012.

Once upon a time, the Javan rhino ranged throughout Southeast Asia and into India and China. Today the species is one of the most endangered mammals on the planet and is found only in Ujung Kulon National Park. The only other population, in Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam, was determined gone in 2011.

The news from Indonesia is good, but sadly this population has stagnated at around 40-60 animals since the 1980s. Some experts feel that the Javan rhino population in Ujung Kulon has been at or around carrying capacity for decades now. What this means is that the available habitat in the park cannot support more rhinos and that is preventing population growth. The rhinos of Ujung Kulon are also vulnerable to volcanic activity and tsunami destruction. Thus there is an urgent need to translocate some animals out of the existing population to establish a second wild population in a well-protected area where the population has room to grow. Reducing the population density in the existing population should also improve the conditions and breeding of the remaining animals.

Calls for establishing a second population have been expressed over the last three decades but have never successfully implemented.

Recently an assessment of potential habitat for a second population of Javan rhino has focused attention on an area of approximately 150km2 near the existing population. If established, this second population would be closely monitored and protected, with unpalatable invasive plants being controlled to improve habitat for the rhinos. While efforts to establish this second population is still at the planning stage, it does appear that a translocation exercise may finally occur.

I certainly hope so. If this latest plan is stalled, we are back to square one. And that could be devastating for the survival of the Javan rhino.