Long, broad leaves eclipse the intense sunlight that shines over the Indonesian island, preserving the comfortably cool temperatures of a shallow pit of mud covering a patch of the lowland forest floor. Deep within the wilderness, dense vegetation covers almost the entire scene. In the foreground, branches appear trampled or bent, while a cluster of upright plants further back provides a sizable area of shade for the mud pit. In this otherwise undisturbed serenity, the splashing and churning of murky water interrupts the steady sound of a gentle breeze. Restlessly rustling around, a Rhinoceros calf abandons any attempt to stay still, rolling over from its side and onto its feet. If the noise bothers its mother - who lays sprawled out and napping, well camouflaged in the shade - she only indicates it by lazily readjusting bulky body on the bed of thick brush.
Rhinoceros researchers strategically scattered hidden cameras throughout these forests, recording countless hours of futile footage just to capture rare moments like this one. While the digitally connected public is only privy to selected video clips, rarely lasting more than thirty seconds, even the leading scientists studying the Javan Rhinoceros have never experienced an encounter closer than through a computer screen.
With no more than 70 individuals surviving in the wild, and none living in captivity, the Javan Rhinoceros is one of the world's most critically endangered animals, and the rarest extant large mammal. Once the most widespread Rhinoceros in Asia - thriving throughout Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and even into India and China - the species has been almost entirely decimated over the past three millennia, leaving only two surviving populations in a pair of isolated regions: Ujung Kulon National Park on the Indonesian island of Java, and Cat Tien National Park in the Dong Nai province of Vietnam.
With the enormous eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, the entire chain of Indonesian islands along the Sunda Strait were utterly devastated with seismically induced catastrophes. On the nearby tiny western peninsular tip of Java, earthquakes and tsunamis wiped out entire coastal villages and farmed fields, forcing the complete evacuation of humans as a thick layer of volcanic ash smothered once hospitable land. What mankind lost from Krakatoa, however, the Javan Rhinoceros gained. Even as living conditions improved over the subsequent months and years, humans never recolonized the peninsula. With its only predator eliminated, Javan Rhinoceroses resettled the vacant territory and rebuilt their lives unthreatened.
While the Indonesian subspecies, Rhinoceros sondaicus sondaicus, began to bolster its numbers at the turn of the twentieth century, its relatives on the Asian continent met widespread extinctions. Within a matter of decades, the Indian subspecies, Rhinoceros sondaicus inermis, was entirely exterminated. Throughout Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia, the once plentiful beast disappeared, as well. As long as the Javan Rhinoceros survived somewhere, so did man's insatiable demand for its horns and hide.
Exceeding the equivalent of $30,000 per kilogram on the black market, the tremendously valuable 25-centimeter (10-inch) protruding piece of keratin - the smallest horn of the five extant Rhinoceros species - may ultimately cost the Javan Rhinoceros its very existence. For thousands of years, these horns have held significant value in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, prescribed to reduce fevers and convulsions, in addition to serving as an aphrodisiac in powdered form. Humans have also placed a high premium on the animal's gray-brown hairless hide, viewed as an essential ingredient in concocting antidotes for snake venom. Given these firmly held traditional beliefs, professional poachers and otherwise impoverished villagers have brutally hunted the Javan Rhinoceros for centuries. Only the recent institution of protective laws has halted rapidly declining numbers at the brink of zero - but even these conservationist measures may not deter an imminent fate of nevermore.
In 1992, more than a half-century after the Dutch Indies government decreed the Javan Rhinoceros a legally protected species, Indonesia established the country's first national park in Ujung Kulon - protecting the entire expanse of land on the western Javan peninsula. Of the estimated 60 individuals that represent the last of the Javan Rhinoceroses, up to 50 are believed to survive within the confines of Ujung Kulon National Park. Given these relatively larger numbers - and because the last specimen to be held in captivity died at Australia's Adelaide Zoo in 1907 - the little amounts of successful research scientists have conducted on the species have taken place in these lowland rainforests and wet grasslands.
Using concealed cameras, researchers have collected invaluable videos and images. These pictures portray an imposing beast, whose mosaic skin creates the illusion of armor. Unique from its two-horned relatives, the species only possesses a small, singular horn - an essential tool to pave paths through thick vegetation, tear down saplings for feeding, and scrape away mud in wallows. Despite its potential appearance as a weapon, males primarily rely on their sharp lower incisors during competitive conflicts over a potential mate.
Courtship is one of the few instances when the Javan Rhinoceros is not a solitary creature. Adults spend the majority of their days browsing the forests alone, consuming 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of shoots, twigs, fruit, and other foliage on a daily basis. The occasional congregation of individuals almost always occurs during wallowing sessions in a mud pit or salt lick - both essential to the health of a Javan Rhinoceros. In addition to controlling a cool body temperature, mud baths also prove pivotal in preventing parasites and disease. Meanwhile, salt licks provide numerous important nutrients, and some adults have even been observed drinking salt water.
Since calves are not weaned for up to two years, children and mothers form the only extended bonds for Javan Rhinoceroses. Between courtship, a gestation period that lasts anywhere between 16 and 19 months, and two years of nursing, mothers will only give birth every 4 to 5 years, producing just one calf each time. Unfortunately, even with the threat of humans completely eliminated, this slow birth rate may jeopardize the species' survival as inbreeding depression becomes an increasingly more serious problem.
The prospective lack of genetic diversity represents an even graver reality for the few Javan Rhinoceroses remaining deep within the forests of southern Vietnam. Immediately following the end of the Vietnam War, scientists presumed the Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus extinct after nearly two decades of jungle warfare and widespread deployment of napalm, Agent Orange, bombs, and landmines. In 1988, a villager in the Dong Nai province unknowingly dispelled this theory when he shot a female in the local forests. A scientific survey the following year predicted barely a dozen individuals surviving near the Dong Nai River.
In the time that has elapsed since that survey, this number has shown no signs of increasing; some researchers fear that there may be no remaining males, while others believe that, even if males do exist, the females may have all exceeded a viable age to reproduce. In either scenario, the subspecies is beyond hope, leaving only the individuals surviving on the species' namesake island to avoid the ever-increasing probability of extinction.
An adult Javan Rhino is walking through Primary forest in the Ujung Kulon National Park refuge. Climbing Rattan palms with their hook-edged leaf tips are visible behind the individual, while the distinctly-shaped Fan palms in the Licuala family form a clump at the left side of the painting.
1.4-1.7 meters (4.6-5.8 feet)
3.2 meters (10.5 feet)
900-2,300 kilograms (2,000-5,000 pounds)
30-45 years in wild; 20 years in captivity
Lowland rainforest, wet grasslands, large floodplains
Shoots, twigs, foliage, and fruit
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In Greek, the word rhino means "nose" and ceros means "horn," which combine to give the Rhinoceros its common English name.
While the Javan Rhinoceros most closely resembles the Black Rhinoceros in size, its closest relative is the Indian Rhinoceros - the only other species classified in the Rhinoceros genus.
The two surviving Javan Rhinoceros subspecies last shared a common ancestor between 300,000 and 2 million years ago.
Females of the extinct Indian Javan Rhinoceros subspecies lacked horns entirely.
Like all its relatives, the Javan Rhinoceros boasts keen smelling and hearing, but a particularly poor sense of vision.