Brian Gerber drawn to study of rare species, unique biodiversity

Footage of a Javan rhino and calf in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park. Video: World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia

Colorado State University’s Brian Gerber was studying Madagascar carnivores at Virginia Tech when he met Sunarto, a fellow graduate student from Indonesia. Gerber, a wildlife biologist, said he was fascinated by the biodiversity in Indonesia, including rainforests, and endangered orangutans, Sumatran tigers and rhinos.

The two became friends, which led to research collaborations. Sunarto invited Gerber to Indonesia to help with a workshop in November 2013.

“They were using some of the best camera trap data I’d seen for a rare animal (Javan rhinos),” said Gerber, now a postdoctoral fellow at CSU. Cameras are used in this type of research to “capture” wild animals on film when people are not present.

The two researchers are now co-authors on a study on the rhinos, recently published in Conservation Letters. The animals could go extinct in the future due to natural disasters, including volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

(Read more about Gerber’s research, and the challenges of counting small wildlife populations, in The Conversation.)

Javan rhinos are “gray armor-plated gentle beasts of the rain forest,” said Gerber. They live in Ujung Kulon National Park, within sight of volcanic Mount Krakatoa and close to the Indonesian Sunda Arc, an area of converging tectonic plates that commonly cause earthquakes, triggering tsunamis. A tsunami as high as 10 meters, or about 33 feet, which is projected to occur within the next 100 years, could threaten 80 percent of the area in the national park with the highest density of rhinos.

In the study, the international research team found that the 2013 global population of Javan rhinos was 62 animals, which is likely near the site’s current capacity. This compares with an estimate of 25 animals, at most, in 1937.

Migration of the cranes

During his time at CSU, Gerber has studied sandhill cranes and migration patterns. There are only two crane species in North America, the whooping crane and sandhill, the most prolific crane in the world, he said.

“There are more than 500,000 sandhill cranes,” Gerber said. “They migrate through Colorado and Nebraska in a way that is similar to the pronghorn migration in Montana.”

He’s been fortunate enough to see thousands of these birds at once, as they migrate from Russia and Alaska. “it’s incredible,” he said.

Establish additional populations

Gerber and his co- authors said additional rhino populations need to be established away from the reach of potential natural disasters. To accomplish that major task, park officials, conservation biologists and advocacy groups will need to identify and secure new sites, and work to secure the agreement of numerous stakeholders, including local authorities and the public. It will also require intensive monitoring in Ujung Kulon National Park to determine which rhinos may be suitable for translocation.

color photo of CSU researcher Brian Gerber
Brian Gerber is part of an international research team studying the Javan rhino, one of the most threatened mammals on Earth.

“The Javan rhino is the most endangered land mammal in the world,” Gerber said. “Now, we need the social and political will to move things forward and establish additional populations.”

The team continues to pore over data related to the rhinos. “We want to see what we can learn about changes in the locations where the rhinos live by season and across years,” he said. Researchers also want to document characteristics of the areas in which the rhinos are currently living, to better replicate the setting in a new area.

Conservation is a challenge because there are so many negative things — such as poaching — going on, said Gerber. It can also be a challenge for researchers to find groups who have had major successes, given those challenges. But Gerber said he’s found these kindred spirits through this international research project.

“I want to know people are fighting for the ecosystems and animals,” he said. “That’s why I want to keep working with this group. They’re really passionate about doing good things.”

The research team included experts from Ujung Kulon National Park Authority, World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia, Indonesian Rhino Foundation, Global Wildlife Conservation and Colorado State University.

Gerber will start a new job this fall as an assistant professor in Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island.