With a population reduced to less than 50 individuals, the Critically Endangered Javan Rhino may be the world's rarest large land mammal. Now confined to the Ujung Kulon National Park (UKNP), it is especially vulnerable to changes affecting its habitat and in particular to the intensification of human pressures observed in Indonesia's protected areas, such as farming encroachment, poaching, illegal logging and non-timber forest product collection.
Poaching is a direct threat for Javan Rhinos, whose horn is widely valued in China and Vietnam as an ingredient for traditional medicine and as a status symbol, commanding a very high price on the black market.
Meanwhile, areas suitable for the Javan Rhinos have been disappearing fast as lowland tropical forests are cut and converted to rice paddies, oil palm plantations and other types of agricultural lands. More discreet but as serious a threat, is the Arenga palm (Arenga obtusifolia), an invasive species that inhibits the growth of suitable rhino food plants. As it also prevents the growth of grass, it forces Bantengs, an Endangered bovid species that normally grazes, to browse and compete with Javan Rhinos for food. The Arenga palm is rampant in UKNP, covering an estimated 60% of park.
The SOS grant will support round-the-clock protection for the last remaining Javan Rhinos. Understanding that law enforcement alone will not solve all conservation problems, the project team from the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), working in partnership with Yayasan Badak Indonesia (YABI), Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry and UKNP authorities, will also collaborate with local communities to reduce ecosystem pressure by ensuring that conservation generates benefits for them.
Four Rhino Protection Units (RPUs), composed of 1 wildlife ranger and 3 local recruits, will patrol and survey UKNP. RPUs typically remove traps and snares, apprehend poachers as well as other illegal intruders and investigate crime scenes. RPUs also record signs of rhino presence, including footprints, feces, wallows, browsing or direct sightings. The project team will also set up regular joint patrols with UKNP guards to help improve the overall effectiveness of conservation efforts in the area.
Another key activity of the project will be the control of Arenga palm and its removal in areas totaling 25 hectares to restore a suitable habitat for Javan Rhinos. This activity will take place within the National Park's Javan Rhino Study and Conservation Area (JRSCA). At least 50 local workers will be hired for approximately 5 months to carry out the initial work then conservationists will monitor the evolution of biodiversity and use of the area by Javan Rhinos.
Patrols are expected to prevent rhino poaching, while reducing other illegal human activities in UKNP by over 60%.
The habitat restoration activities should lead to a significant increase in both distribution and numbers of Javan Rhinos as well as benefit the Banteng. Prior experiments removing Arenga palm in selected areas within the JRSCA have indeed produced very encouraging results, as at least six rhinos were observed utilizing the newly restored areas, compared to only two prior to the pilot project's onset.
Monitoring activities will also provide wildlife conservationists with a better understanding of the species' ecology and behaviour.