A devastating tsunami that killed more than 400 people in Indonesia has left the last surviving population of Javan Rhinos unscathed, but has highlighted once again the dire threats facing the critically endangered species.
The December 22 tsunami, caused by a landslide in the Sunda Strait following a massive eruption of the Anak Krakatau volcano, struck the western tip of Java and southern end of Sumatra. The confirmed death toll as of Dec. 27 was 429, with 154 people missing and feared dead.
The volcano, a remnant of the legendary 1883 Krakatau eruption, is also within sight of Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, home to the world’s last Javan rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus). The tsunami generated waves up to 5 meters (16 feet) high, some of which crashed ashore Ujung Kulon, killing two park agency officers and damaging office posts.
All of the rhinos, however, are believed to be safe, said Mamat Rahmat, the park chief. He said the animals tended to cluster along the southern coast of Ujung Kulon, sheltered from the impact of the waves coming from the northwest. The latest estimate of the park’s Javan rhinos puts the population at a minimum of 68 individuals.
Ridwan Setiawan, national rhino officer at WWF-Indonesia, said a joint team had been deployed to assess any damage, including checking camera traps installed near the coast.
Like Mamat, he said few rhinos were found in the affected northern stretch of the park, and credited the hilly terrain, peaking at an elevation of 500 meters (1,640 feet), with keeping the park’s wildlife safe from the waves.
“The area is pretty high. I think wildlife have a natural instinct to save themselves by going to a high ground,” Ridwan said.
Anak Krakatau has erupted hundreds of times in recent months, and has continued to do so since the Dec. 22 eruption that sheared off part of the southwestern flank of the volcano. Experts believe the collapse of the flank into the sea was what set off the tsunami. A series of eruptions from Dec. 26 have generated huge plumes of ash that have drifted over the land.
The Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) on Dec. 27 raised the alert for the volcano to the second-highest level on its four-point scale, indicating an escalation in volcanic activity and the increased possibility of a major eruption. Authorities have declared a 5-kilometer (3-mile) exclusion radius around the volcano.
Conservationists have long warned about the continuing threat of natural disaster to the Javan rhino, and have advocated for establishing a new population in a second site, to ensure the survival of the species.
“Noting how dangerous the area is, it’s best that the second habitat be immediately prepared, as has been planned for so long,” Sunarto, a wildlife expert at WWF-Indonesia, told Mongabay.