Javan rhinoceros situation is now irreversible?

Even the most optimistic estimates seem to indicate that fewer than 100 Javan rhinos remain in the wild

by Lorenzo Ciotti
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Javan rhinoceros situation is now irreversible?

The Javan rhinoceros can live to be around 30-45 years old in the wild. It formerly inhabited lowland rainforests, wet grasslands, and vast floodplains. It leads a mainly solitary life, with the exception of the period of courtship and of the breeding of the young, even if more specimens can occasionally aggregate near mud pools and salt outcrops.

Apart from man, the adults have no predators in their range. The Javan rhinoceros generally avoids humans, but may attack when threatened. Only rarely are scientists and conservationists able to study the animal directly, given its extreme rarity and the danger of interfering with such an endangered species.

Even the most optimistic estimates seem to indicate that fewer than 100 Javan rhinos remain in the wild. They are considered one of the most endangered species in the world. The Javan rhino now survives in only one location, Ujung Kulon National Park on the western tip of Java.

The species was once present in a territory extending from Assam and Bengal eastward to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and southward to the Malay peninsula and the islands of Sumatra, Java and, perhaps, Borneo.

The Javan rhinoceros primarily inhabits dense lowland rainforests, grasslands, and reed beds, where there are flowing rivers, large floodplains, or wetlands with many mud pools. Although historically it preferred lowland areas, the Vietnamese subspecies was forced to retreat towards much higher altitudes, probably forced by the advance of man and by poaching.

n the late 1980s, a small population was found in the Cat Tien area of Vietnam. However, the last representative of that population was shot in 2010. Perhaps in the past a population could also have existed on the island of Borneo, but it is however likely that the specimens in question were Sumatran rhinos, of which a small population still lives on the island.

The main cause of the continued decline in the Javan rhino population has been horn poaching, a problem that affects all rhino species. The horns have been traded for more than 2,000 years in China, where they are believed to have medicinal properties.

In historical times, rhino skin was used to make armor for Chinese soldiers, while some indigenous tribes of Vietnam believed that the skin could be used to create an antidote for snake venom. Habitat destruction to make way for agriculture has also contributed to the decline of the species, but this factor has long ceased to pose a threat, as rhinos now live only within the confines of a strictly protected national park.

Habitat deterioration has hampered the recovery of poached rhino populations. Despite all the efforts of conservationists, the prospects for the survival of the species are bleak. Since the entire population is confined to a small area, rhinos are highly susceptible to disease and inbreeding depression.

According to estimates by conservation geneticists, a population of at least 100 rhinos would be needed to preserve the genetic diversity of this species so closely dependent on conservation programs.