The Last Stand of the Javan Rhino

Javan Rhino
Image: Kloss, C. Boden/ Public Domain
A tsunami gave the Javan rhino its final home. After decades of poaching, another tsunami could spell the end of its story.

When Mount Krakatoa erupted in 1883, it was a blessing in disguise for the Javan rhinoceros. The volcano, located off the coast of Indonesia’s largest island, erupted with the loudest explosions ever heard. Giant waves wiped away hundreds of villages and settlements.

Once the smoke had cleared, new islands, mostly wastelands formed from the ash, had appeared. All of the erstwhile human settlements had been destroyed. The rhino recolonized these areas along with other flora and fauna; making it what environmentalist Bruce Sterling calls an ‘involuntary park’ – a formerly human area that’s been returned to nature.

It’s this area that is today the Ujong Kulon National Park (UKNP), home to the last 62 Javan rhinoceros on earth. It is the most endangered large mammal on earth after the Amul leopard. The factors threatening its existence include poaching, inbreeding and the threat of another volcanic eruption. In the wild, they can live 35-40 years. In captivity – half that. But none of the species surviving members currently live in captivity.

From Bengal to Vietnam, the Javan rhino once ranged across Asia. But in the last century, thousands have been killed for their horns. Under traditional Chinese medicine, it’s believed that the powder made from rhino horns can have medicinal properties. There’s no scientific basis to this at all, but it’s remained one of the world’s most damaging stories. In Vietnam, the rumour took wings after the addition to the tale – that a government official had used the powder to cure his cancer. It shot the price of rhino horn up to $60,000 a kilogramme. Poachers started hunting the rhino in helicopters.

Figuring out its conservation raises some of the biggest questions in the field today. Is banning effective? Should the trade in horns be legalized – or should poachers be dealt with lethal force?

A ban on hunting the Javan rhino was enacted as far back as 1909, when it was declared a protected species. Yet, famous big game hunters like A.R.W. Kerkhoven found it easy to get ‘special permissions’ to hunt the rhino – and are single-handedly responsible for killing nine in Udjung Kulon alone. Following his example, a Belgian big-game hunter called Baron Robert de Charcourt arrived in Sumatra – looking to kill his 300th rhinoceros. He ran into one in his vehicle, injuring both himself and the rhino. His final words were apparently to an aide, asking him to mark the beast as his 300th kill.

hunted, rhino, javan
(Image: Charles te Mechelen) A Dutch hunter with a dead Javan rhino, 1895

In 1931, its hunting was banned again by the Dutch Indies government in Sumatra. The politics of world wars and decolonization added to the complexities of conservation – and by the end of the century, only two populations of Javan rhino existed in the world.

Today, there’s only one. If the Javan rhinoceros goes extinct, the Indian rhinoceros will be its last living relative. The relative success of India’s rhino program can be held up as a contrast – which helped recover the rhino population from under 200 in the 1900s to over 2757 today. Methods have also been harsher in India – with forest officials given free license to shoot and kill poachers on sight, killing more than 20 a year

Colonization had the effect of creating a culture of indifference to some of these animals. Little is known about the Javan rhinoceros stint in India – only that it went extinct in the early twentieth century. One of the last recorded instances of it in captivity was in 1874 when a live rhino was transported to London, for sale to the Berlin Zoo. It died after ten years in captivity – and its remains were not preserved.

It wasn’t the first time a rhino was callously shipped off to Europe for exhibition. An article published in Mammalian Species describes one such incident in 1515 A.D., “…the shipment of an Indian rhinoceros to Lisbon, Portugal, caused much ado throughout the continent, although it died in a shipwreck a year later on route to Italy as a gift to Pope Leo X.”

Post-colonization had its own challenges. The rhino’s habitats tended to be in poorer areas, giving conservationists and governments the challenge of explaining the creature’s ‘usefulness’ to people who could make a much-needed break from hunting it.

Painting, javan, rhino, hunted
(Image: W.F.A. Zimmermann/ Public Domain) A painting of the Javan rhino being hunted, 1861

From Malaysia to Vietnam and Indonesia – the Javan rhino was hunted, displaced and poached into extinction. Rhinoceros populations across the world were also in decline – but other species have fared better with conservation than the Javan one. It’s no wonder that this sub-species is the shyest of its kind.

History had taught the rhino to be wary of humans – who began poaching it in the thousands around the 18th and 19th centuries. The outcome is that the Java rhino, unlike the Indian or Sumatran rhino, is notoriously human-shy. Researchers have long struggled to study it in the wild, not knowing until the 21st century whether female rhinos even had horns. It was only with the setup of over a hundred video cameras in the Ujung Kulon National Park that they were able to get an estimate. Earlier, researchers had to study dung deposits to get the same number.

Today, conservation programmes are exploring a range of options to save the rhino. One well-shared idea on the internet is a scheme by a San Francisco based company to manufacture bioengineered rhino horns – that are indistinguishable from the real ones in the Chinese medicine market. The idea is that Pembient (the company) can flood the market with fake horns, reducing the price of the horn and cutting down poacher’s incentive to hunt for it. As the company’s CEO said:

We’ll make money—the poaching syndicates won’t.

It’s disputed whether the effect will be so. Conservationists and NGOs have sent a petition to ban the trade of ‘fake’ rhino horns as well. They argue that this illegal trade makes it harder for law enforcement to distinguish between real and fake horns as well – giving poachers an easy alibi. Their worry also has to do with economics – lower prices will open the market to less-affluent customers; increasing, rather than decreasing, the demand.

It doesn’t help that the company seeks to use the product in beauty products, as well as in a beer.

Another project – one of relocation – has also emerged. But experts argue that it’s picked the wrong rhino. A plan to introduce the Southern White Rhino (endemic to South Africa) to settlements in Australia has met with opposition – primarily because the Southern White is among the least endangered of the Rhino species, numbering over 20,000 worldwide. As a report says:

This number stands in stark contrast to the number of northern white (three), black (4,880 and increasing), great Indian (2,575), Sumatran (275) and Javan (up to 66) rhinos. These latter three species are clearly of much greater conservation concern than southern white rhinos.

Captive breeding is also a less desirable approach – as it encourages  domicile behavior, preventing the animal’s successful reintroduction into the wild. At best,  it’s a last resort.

As humans tussle over the best way to save the Javan rhino, the large armoured mammal can only hope it doesn’t hear a rumbling again. The threat of another volcanic eruption from Krakatoa is real – as the last eruption created a smaller volcano called Arak Krakatoa (child of Krakatoa), that’s growing five metres in height every year.

Should Arak Krakatoa erupt, or earthquakes take place like those in 2004 and 2006, the potential tsunami waves could eradicate most of the surviving Javan populations. A 2017 study found that the UKNP was near its carrying capacity, i.e. the number of rhinos it can sustain without causing ecological damage. The study warns that within the century, tsunami waves of greater than 30 metres in height are probable – and could drown most of the population.

The Javan rhino is a case where bans failed to produce their desired effect in the face of human greed. Unless the trade in rhino horns can be stopped for good, Nature may end up having the final say on the mosaic-patterned Javan rhino.

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