The Javan rhinoceros is slightly smaller than the Indian rhino and a little bit larger than the Sumatran rhino. Like the closely related Indian rhinoceros, the Javan rhinoceros has a single horn. Its distinguishing features are its 26-centimeters horn and a prominent fold in the hide of its front shoulder. More than almost any other creature living today it resembles the prehistoric mammals which dominated the earth millions of years ago. [Source: Diter and Mary Plage, National Geographic, June 1985]

The Javan rhino may be the rarest large mammal on Earth. There are thought to be only around 50 of the animals left in existence, all living in the wild in Ujung Kulon National Park. There are none in captivity.

Reporting from Ujung Kulon, Arlina Arshad of AFP wrote: “The shy creature, whose folds of loose skin give it the appearance of wearing armour plating, once numbered in the thousands and roamed across Southeast Asia. Officials in Ujung Kulon believe there were 51 of the rhinos in 2012, including eight calves, basing their estimate on images captured by hidden cameras. They hope the true figure may be in the 70s and will have a new estimate once data for 2013 has been collated. [Source: Arlina Arshad, AFP, December 23, 2013]

The Javan rhinoceros’s hairless, hazy gray skin falls into folds into the shoulder, back, and rump giving it an armored-like appearance. The Javan rhino's body length reaches up 3.2 meters (10 feet), including its head and stands 1.5 to 1.7 meters (4 feet, 10 inches to 5 feet 7 inches) at the shoulder. Adults are variously reported to weigh between 900 to 1,400 kilograms or 1,360 to 2,000 kilograms. Only males have true horns. Females have knobs or nothing that is visible.

Javan rhinoceros are relatively hairless except for their ears. The thick gray skin is divided into deep folds, making a saddle over the neck, with lumps or nodules, giving an armor-plated effect. The horn is relatively short.

Of all the rhino species, the least is known of the Javan Rhino. These animals prefer dense lowland rain forest, tall grass and reed beds that are plentiful with large floodplains and mud wallows. Javanese rhinos are very shy. They will flee their normal browsing grounds if they sense humans or animals such as oxen or deer coming near. Females give birth and raise their calves near the coast. The gestation period is 16 months. One calf is born and it is thought to saty with the mother for around two years. Sections of males home ranges usually extend to the coast. They are thought to be territorial, marking their territory with piles of dung and urine pools.

Largely nocturnal, Javan rhinos it eats a variety of plant but seem to prefer the shoots of young trees. If they can't reach the shoots on small trees they will often knock the tree down to get at them. The presence of rhino tracks on the beach led some scientists to speculate that the rhinos also eat salt-water mangroves.

Endangered Javan Rhinos

Javan rhino range

Javan rhinoceroses are among the rarest animals on earth. According to 2002 estimates, only about 60 remain, in Java (Indonesia) and Vietnam. Their original range included Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. By the 1930s the rhinoceros was nearly hunted to extinction in India, Burma, Peninsular Malaysia, and Sumatra for the supposed medical powers of its horn and blood. As of 2009, there are only 40 of them remaining in Ujung Kulon Conservation, Java, Indonesia. The last rhinoceros in Vietnam was reportedly killed in 2010. The are no Javanese rhino in any zoo, let alone a breeding pair.

Ujung Kulong Park is thought to be the only place where Javanese rhinoceros are found in Java. There they live in two isolated populations in areas of dense jungle, mangroves swamps and bamboo thickets. A 1993 World Wildlife Fund census found 47 rhinoceros in Ujung Kulon Park. In the 1980s there were around 60 of them. Dieter and Mary Plage spent a year in Ujong Kulon National Park trying to photograph the Java rhinoceros for National Geographic in the early 1980s. It took six months to get a clear a shot of a rhino. They had spotted the animal before but only tantalizing glimpses of an ear here or a tail there.

Java was thought to be the only place where the Javanese rhinos lived until they were discovered at Cat Loc Nature Reserve in Vietnam. In 1999, an extremely rare Javan rhinoceros was photographed in a swamp in Lam Dong Province southern Vietnam. At that time it was thought there were about 10 of these animals in Vietnam. In the 1990s the The World Wildlife Fund printed up bumper stickers encouraging people to save "our" rhino, but at that time few people had cars especially in regions where the animals were hunted.

Reasons for Endangered Javan Rhinos

Overhunting, poaching for the the rhino horn trade and encroachment from people have all been factors in the decline of the Javan rhinoceros. There are a large number of people living in the Ujung Kulon Park. In the old days people that lived around the park believed that no feast was complete unless some rhino delicacies were present. The rhinos are also suffering from a lack of food as Arenga palm have spread rapidly and crowded out plants the rhinos normally eat.

In 19th century there were tens of thousands of Javanese rhinoceros roaming Java. They were so numerous and caused so much damage to crops that rewards were offered by the government to kill them. Over 526 were killed in one two year period. In 1900 one hunter alone killed nine.

Ironically it may have been a tiger may have saved the Javanese rhino from extinction. After World War II a group of poachers went to Ujong Kulon with a plan to wipe out all of the park's rhino. When the poachers entered the peninsula one of them was killed by a tiger. Since local villagers wouldn't help them to kill the tiger (although would have helped with the rhinos) the poachers gave up and went back home.

Javan Rhino Clings to Survival in Last Forest Stronghold

The main threats to the Javan rhino is no longer poaching but food scarcity, illness and the risk of natural disasters in an archipelago where earthquakes and landslides are common, according to WWF Indonesia.

Oliver Milman wrote in The Guardian: “For most people in south-east Asia, the Javan rhino is effectively already a relic from the past. The stocky herbivore, that once roamed across Burma, Vietnam and Indonesia, is now a rarely glimpsed inhabitant of a single patch of thick forest on the island which gives it its name. No zoo in the world – even through captive breeding programmes – boasts a Javan rhino. Even people dedicated to protecting the world's rarest large mammal seldom catch sight of the species. "I've been to its habitat three times and got very excited just to see its footprints," says Kerry Crosbie, project director at the Asian Rhino Project, which funds the efforts of Indonesian rhino NGOs. "You have to be incredibly lucky to see one." [Source: Oliver Milman, The Guardian, September 7, 2012 ]

“Camera traps and footprints in the Ujung Kulon national park, on western tip of Java, confirm that the rhino does still exist, albeit in perilously low numbers. There are 35 confirmed Javan rhinos in its last bastion – 22 males, 13 females and five juveniles. However, NGOs in the region estimate the total number could, in fact, be as high as 47. Australian conservationist Tim Flannery, who is a patron of the rhino project, adds: "They are majestic animals, they play a vital role in dispersing fruit and maintaining a healthy ecosystem and we are bloody lucky to have them. We once had a dozen rhino species and we're now down to five, so every last one should be treasured."

“What is not in doubt is sharp decline the species has suffered in the past century due to habitat loss and poaching. The cornered animal is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, was confirmed extinct in Vietnam last year and some conservationists privately fret the species is doomed. Unlike their African cousins, poaching isn't considered an imminent threat to the Javan rhinos, with a combination of park rangers, who clear snares from the forest, and the sheer inaccessibility of the creatures ensuring no incidents of hunting in the last decade.

Challenges Saving the Javan Rhino

"There is potentially a low genetic pool as there are so few of them left," says Crosbie. "Generally, they produce just one calf every three years, and that's in prime breeding conditions. They have a 16-month gestation, which is an issue with raising their numbers." "The fact they are all in one place is better for breeding, unlike the Sumatran rhino, which is in fragmented pieces of forest. But it does mean all our eggs are in one basket. A catastrophic event, be it a disease or a tsunami, could wipe all of them out." Such a disaster in the region isn't merely theoretical. The 1883 eruption of nearby Krakatoa devastated the area, but with humans displaced and new vegetation blooming, the incident provided an ideal staging ground for the Javan rhino's last stand. [Source: Oliver Milman, The Guardian, September 7, 2012 ]

“A second catastrophe won't be quite so helpful to the species. And there are further threats. The vegetation is changing, with the arenga palm tree spreading across the park, crowding out the rhino's food source. "We are currently working out the best eradication programme for the palm, because it is blanketing the forest," says Crosbie. "There's also a problem with banteng – a type of local cattle – which is increasing in number and in food competition with the rhino. We are looking to fence off the western portion of the park to keep out the livestock."

However, the continuation of such a tiny population hardly seems viable. Numbers on Java have risen from 25 animals in 1967, but it's a slow increase.Conservationists say they will have to decide whether to split the remaining animals to create another group elsewhere. Adhi Hariyadi, of WWF Indonesia, says: "Having one single population is not ideal from a conservation point of view. We will have to borrow some of the animals to create a second population somewhere, either in Sumatra or Java."

"But the numbers are so low that we will have to be very careful in doing this. If you get it wrong, you've badly damaged the species." "We are hopeful that we can get the numbers up. What gives us hope is the example of the Indian and white rhinos. The Indian rhino was down to 35 individuals and now there are several thousand. The white rhino had just four left in the wild and now they are up to tens of thousands. It can be done." "If a number of factors work out, I imagine we can get the numbers up by 20 percent in the next 30 to 40 years. But the increase won't be dramatic and it will require the next generation to take responsibility for the species."

Indonesia Builds Sanctuary to Save the Javan Rhino

Reporting from Ujung Kulon, Arlina Arshad of AFP wrote: “On a leaf-covered dirt path overlooking lush paddy fields in western Indonesia, the world's rarest rhino had left a trail of hoofprints in the soft mud and bite marks on foliage. For people seeking a glimpse of the Javan rhino -- revered in local folklore as Abah Gede, or the Great Father -- such small signs are likely to be the closest they get. But now conservationists are hoping that the country's first ever Javan rhino sanctuary can pull the animal back from the brink of extinction. [Source: Arlina Arshad, AFP, December 23, 2013]

The new sanctuary will encompass 5,100 hectares (12,600 acres) of lush rainforest, freshwater streams and mudholes in the park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park opened in March 2013. Park officials say that from hoofprints and bite marks, they believe nine rhinos have already wandered into new areas set aside for them. "It means our scheme to turn this sanctuary into a comfortable home for them is working," the park's habitat manager Rusdianto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.

The rhinos were already living mainly in one corner of the park. But the new sanctuary has expanded the area suitable for them and relocated farmers who were living there to reduce the chances of animal-human conflict. An electric fence is also being constructed -- the final piece of work that needs to be completed -- to mark the boundary and prevent the rhinos from straying out of the sanctuary and humans from coming in. Park officials, who are government employees, have also been planting suitable food for the rhinos. During a recent visit by AFP, workers were seen clearing palm trees from the area and replacing them with shrubs and small trees. "We hope this sanctuary will hasten breeding and lead to more births of this treasured rare animal," park chief Moh Haryono told AFP. "In a more enclosed space, the male and female rhino will have more opportunities to frolic and mate freely."

Setting up the sanctuary, which is government-run but fully funded by US-based charity the International Rhino Foundation, has been no easy task. It was originally due to open in 2011 but was held up due to red tape, a common problem in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, which has a huge and often inefficient bureaucracy. Work also stalled for a year due to protests from residents demanding compensation for farmland they had to give up, as well as from local animal activists who felt the use of heavy machinery to build the fence threatened the environment.

Despite the myriad threats, wildlife officials are hopeful the new sanctuary is a step in the right direction. They have also been heartened by strong support from the local community. Any effort to save the Great Father is applauded in an area where centuries-old beliefs persist and intertwine with the vast majority's Muslim faith. "We must do all we can to prevent the Javan rhino from becoming extinct," Suhaya, a 67-year-old farmer who goes by one name, told AFP. "Locals here believe that Abah Gede must not vanish from the face of the Earth, or disaster will befall us."

Rare Javan Rhino Found in Vietnam

In 1999, an extremely rare Javan rhinoceros was photographed in a swamp in Lam Dong Province southern Vietnam. At the time it was believed that there were fewer than 10 of these animals left in Vietnam if that many. In the late 1990s a rhinoceros horn could be sold for about $5,000 (a lifetime income in Vietnam) across the border in China. As part of an effort to save the animal the World Wildlife Fund printed up bumper sticker encouraging people to save "our" rhino,” but at that time most people didn't have cars especially in regions where the animals were hunted.

In July 1999, Reuters reported: “Automatic cameras have taken the first photographs of a critically endangered rhinoceros in Vietnam, the World Wide Fund for Nature said. The WWF said only five to eight of the one-horned rhinos, a sub-species of the Javan rhinoceros, were thought to survive in Vietnam, making it probably Asia's rarest mammal. All the rhinos roamed in the Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam's southern central highlands, it said in a statement. So little is known about the mammals that researchers are not sure whether the seven photographs taken are of the same Javan rhino, or if it is male or female. Scientists have never seen a live Javan rhino in Vietnam, relying on droppings, footprints and sightings by local villagers to document information on the mammals. [Source: Reuters, July 15, 1999 ***]

“Indeed, some scientists considered the Javan rhino in Vietnam extinct until a hunter was caught in 1989 trying to sell the skin and horn from one of the mammals. The WWF statement said the pictures were taken in May 1999 during a survey by the WWF and the Cat Tien National Park as part of a $6 million conservation project in the park. Automatic cameras were set up in the park and took pictures when objects disturbed a laser beam connected to the camera. Between 50-60 Javan rhinos are believed to exist in Indonesia's Ujung Kulon National Part in West Java, the WWF added. ***

Vietnam’s Rare Javan Rhinoceroses

In 2004, AFP reported: “No one knows how many Java rhinoceroses remain in southern Vietnam. It could be six or seven, perhaps even eight. However many there are, they are the last of a sub-species that is threatened with extinction and is rarely seen by humans. At the end of June the WWF wound up a six-year programme to protect the shy animals in Vietnam's southern Cat Tien National Park. [Source: Agence France Presse, July 4, 2004 \\]

“The rhinos, known scientifically as Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus, are a slightly smaller sub-species of the 40 to 60 Java rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus sondaicus) that live on Indonesia's Java island. "They are the last few individuals in the world of this sub-species," said Gert Polet, the WWF project's chief technical advisor. Until 15 years ago, it was widely thought the Vietnam rhinos were already extinct. \\

The Vietnam rhino was last of the Javan rhino species on mainland Asia and the last known surviving member of the Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus subspecies - one of three recognised groups of Javan rhino populations. Another is already extinct. R. sondaicus inermis was formerly found in north-eastern India, Bangladesh and Burma. The remaining subspecies, R. sondaicus sondaicus, is now found on Java, Indonesia. However, since the 1930s, the animals - now estimated to number no more than 50 - have been restricted to the westernmost parts of the island. [Source: Mark Kinver, BBC News, October 25, 2011]

Javan rhinoceros: A) Scientific name: Rhinoceros sondaicus. B) The species is listed as Critically Endangered because fewer than 50 individuals remain. C) Weight: 900kg - 2,300kg. D) Height: 1.5m - 1.7m; Length: 2.0m - 4.0m. E) Male Javan rhinos possess a single horn about 25cm long. F) It is estimated that they can live for 30-40 years. Females reach sexual maturity between 5-7 years, and then give birth to a calf about once every three years. (Source: IUCN/IRF).

Efforts to Count and Save Vietnam’s Last Javan Rhinoceroses

In 2004, AFP reported: ““After facing French hunters during the colonial times, the animals saw their habitat significantly reduced and disturbed by the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975, and during which vast swathes of forest were destroyed. Some Vietnamese scientists believed however the shy animals may still be around after accounts from villagers in the area, WWF conservation biologist David Murphy said. "But the rest of the world, the big scientific community around the world, thought that it was extinct," Murphy said. [Source: Agence France Presse, July 4, 2004 \\]

“A study at the end of the 1980s confirmed that the villagers had been correct: there were still a few rhinos in the area. In 1999 the WWF launched its programme to save them with the assistance of the Vietnam government, the World Conservation Union and the International Rhino Foundation. They spent 6.5 million dollars on the Cat Tien park, with the project also covering conservation of the area, promotion of tourism, education and security for the animals. About 300,000 dollars was spent on the rhinoceroses only, Polet said. \\

“The experts had to be patient: far from being the stereotypically aggressive rhino ready to charge at any intruder, these one-horned creatures are shy and flee at the slightest disturbance. The first known photograph of one of them was only taken in 1999. The conservationists working on the project had to content themselves most of the time with tracking the animals' spoor. And the only information currently available about the group is that there is at least one female and no young. The WWF was able to guess the number of the animals in the park from DNA analysis of their droppings, carried out by an American laboratory. \\

rhino sizes

“But it is still not certain how many exist. "The only thing we're sure of is that they are not enough," Polet said. While winding down the project, the WWF has appealed to donors to maintain interest in the species. The rhinos appear to be safe from poachers, but their habitat is being encroached on by farmers looking for new land. They are easily upset by any disturbance and this probably accounts for their lack of reproduction. "It is a terrible situation. Rhinos can live maybe 40 years. The last reproduction was in 1997. We might have 10 years, maximum 20 left," said Polet. The WWF has bought land for the animals to protect them from the farmers around Cat Tien park and hope the authorities will keep doing so in the years to come. "The key thing for the future is to really work into securing that habitat and reducing disturbance," said Murphy. \\

“In Hanoi the authorities promise they will not abandon the Java rhinoceros. "We want to pursue research as well as preservation activities with competent international agencies," said Nguyen Xuan Dang from the Institute of Ecology and Biological resources. And in time, even if the process is slow, sensitive and complicated, man might have to move over for the animal. "We are thinking about moving four or five villages before 2010," he said. \\

Javan Rhino 'Now Extinct in Vietnam'

In October 2011, Mark Kinver of BBC News wrote: “A critically endangered species of rhino is now extinct in Vietnam, according to a report by conservation groups. The WWF and the International Rhino Foundation said the country's last Javan rhino was probably killed by poachers, as its horn had been cut off. Experts said the news was not a surprise, as only one sighting had been recorded in Vietnam since 2008. "It is painful that despite significant investment in Vietnamese rhino conservation, efforts failed to save this unique animal, " said WWF's Vietnam director Tran Thi Minh Hien. "Vietnam has lost part of its natural heritage." [Source: Mark Kinver, BBC News, October 25, 2011 +++]

“The authors of the report, Extinction of the Javan Rhino from Vietnam, said genetic analysis of dung samples collected between 2009-2010 in the Cat Tien National Park showed that they all belonged to just one individual. Shortly after the survey was completed, conservationists found out that the rhino had been killed. They say it was likely to have been the work of poachers because it had been shot in a leg and its horn had been cut off. +++

“Globally, there has been a sharp increase in the number of rhino poaching cases. Earlier this year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published a report that said rhino populations in Africa were facing their worst poaching crisis for decades. An assessment carried out by Traffic, the global wildlife trade monitoring network, said the surge in the illegal trade in rhino horns was being driven by demands from Asian medicinal markets. +++

“Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, chairman of the IUCN's Asian Rhino Specialist Group, said the demise of the Javan rhino in Vietnam was "definitely a blow". "We all must learn from this and need to ensure that the fate of the Javan rhino in [Indonesia] won't be like that of Cat Tien in near future," he told BBC News. "Threats to rhinos for their horn is definitely a major problem. But in Indonesia, due to active work done by rhino protection units and national park authorities, no Javan rhino poaching has been recorded in Indonesia for past decade." Dr Talukdar observed: "What is key to the success of the species is appropriate habitat management as the Javan rhinos are browser and it needs secondary growing forests." He warned that the habitat within the national park on Java serving as the final refuge for the species was being degraded by an invasive species of palm. "As such, control of arenga palm and habitat management for Javan rhinos in Ujung Kulon National Park is now become important for future of the species." +++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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