Devastating Tsunami Threatens Endangered Rhinos

As Indonesia takes stock, further seismic activity could wipe out a species.

javan rhino
Education Images/UIG via Getty ImagesGetty Images

On December 22nd, the Anak Krakatau volcano partially collapsed near Indonesia's Sunda Strait region. This collapse, in which much of Anak Krakatau's island fell into the ocean, triggered a deadly tsunami whose toll is staggering—over 400 dead, over 1,500 injured. The damage is widespread and according to animal experts in the area, another event like it could trigger an extinction event for endangered Javan rhinos.

Only five species of rhino still exist, and among them the Rhinoceros sondaicus, or Javan rhino, is the most endangered. Once roaming across southeastern Asia, years of poaching have seen their population dwindle to a grand total 63-67 animals, all of which are located within Indonesia’s . On the southwestern tip of the island Java, Ujung Kulon sits right next to Anak Krakatau.

According , the tsunami trigged by Anak Krakatau's collapse and eruption was devastating to the park—two employees were killed and buildings and ships belonging to the park were destroyed. However, the rhinos appear to be untouched.

There's no guarantee keeping the rhinos from surviving any other natural assaults like Anak Krakatau. Even with its partial collapse, the volcano is still active and smaller eruptions known as Strombolian eruptions, which can rain down lava fragments, are a threat. Forced by humans into a single location—the last Javan rhino in Vietnam was killed in 2010—they are sitting ducks.

"We understand that we cannot let the Javan rhinos live only in Ujung Julon," says Widodo Sukohadi Ramono, chairman of the Rhino Foundation of Indonesian (YABI) speaking to .

Amidst the massive rebuilding effort following the tsunami, diversifying the rhinos will be a difficult challenge. It's easy to kill off a species, harder to reintroduce it. Bringing wolves back to Yellowstone, for example, was a with political challenges.

But rhinos, as herbivores, would have different needs than wolves. An ecosystem stable enough to provide for an entire Javan rhino population, even a small one, would require over 200 species of plants, fertile soil, and lots of water.

Possible options have been found—the Cikepuh Wildlife Reserve in West Java is seen as a strong contender—but these present their own challenges. Near army training areas, Cikepuh could present sonic struggles to the new rhinos by placing them near live gunfire.

But advocates for the rhinos hope the recent tragedy will spur action on a long standing problem. If the rhinos are to have any hope of reaching their former numbers, they can't stay in one park forever.

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