Earlier this year, when I received the results of DNA analysis of rhino dung and tissue samples gathered from the Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam, it confirmed our worst fears. The last Javan rhino in the country had been poached in early 2010. It’s an event that could be the first milestone on a potentially inexorable slide towards the extinction of several large mammals in south east Asia.
In the 1990s, as the region opened up after years of war, there was a real feeling of joy and optimism amongst conservationists, when several large mammals were either re-discovered (the Javan rhinos in Cat Tien) or newly discovered (the Saola, Giant Muntjac in Laos and Vietnam) and protected areas, on paper at least, were being set up at a rapid pace. Non-government organisations (NGOs), with support from government aid agencies, moved quickly to support these protected areas, creating much needed infrastructure, capacity building and helping to develop management plans for some of the parks. Cat Tien was one of the early beneficiaries of this work largely due to the rediscovery of the Javan rhino, and as a result of the wider conservation efforts that followed, many other species have also been allowed to thrive.
However, while most governments in the region are happy to set aside parks on paper, little investment has gone into practically protecting many of them from hunting and forest loss. Local hunting combined with the unfounded rumour that rhino horn can cure cancer is what most likely sealed the fate of the last Javan rhino in Cat Tien, and this same problem is now threatening other rhino populations across Africa and South Asia. With rhino horn prices spiralling on the illegal market, over 1150 rhinos have been poached in the last five years in southern Africa to meet increasing demand. And as this battle goes on, a population of less than 50 rhinos in Ujung Kulon National Park on the Indonesian Island of Java are the last remaining hope for Javan rhinos on this planet.
Lacking the cute appeal of a panda or the magnetic charisma and cultural associations of the tiger, the fate of the Javan rhino has not received the government attention it deserves until this recent extinction event in Vietnam. In 1986, in the face of strong opposition from certain sections of the conservation community, the US Government decided to trap and move all the remaining condors into captivity because they could not establish what was killing them in the wild and therefore offer them protection in their natural habitat. This single step most likely saved the condor from extinction and today they have been successfully reintroduced to the wild.
While not advocating removing the remaining Javan rhinos and placing them in captivity, the species faces a similar ‘Californian Condor moment’. Unless the Indonesian Government moves quickly to address the problem, whether by improving habitat or translocating a few individuals to secure site to improve breeding performance, the Javan rhinos in Indonesia surely faces a bleak future. And they are not alone. Asian elephants and the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey in Vietnam, the Saola (also known as the Asian unicorn) one of the world's rarest mammals, which is found only in Vietnam and Laos, and the Sumatran rhino in Sumatra and Borneo, all face a similar fate. It is vital that something is done now to safeguard the future of all of these species - before it is simply too late.
A. Christy Williams is the leader of the WWF Asian elephant and Rhino Conservation Programme Leader. To find out more about WWF’s work to protect the Javan Rhino in Indonesia and our efforts to prevent further extinctions in the region please go to www.wwf.panda.org
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