Encounters with the Javan rhino (commentary)

  • Relatively little is known about the behavior of the Javan rhinoceros, a famously elusive species with a global population of less than 70 individuals.
  • Understanding the rhinos’ behavior and how they interact with their environment is key to conservation efforts.
  • In this commentary, researcher Haeruddin Sadjudin looks back on four decades of work with rhinos to compile anecdotes that shed light on some characteristics of the species.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Early in the afternoon on Feb. 11, 1980, in the middle of the Citadahan forest, Ali Rahman, a ranger at Ujung Kulon National Park, was assigned to accompany researchers Hartman Amman and Tajudin Abdullah from Malaysia. “People say when we first meet a rhino, we will certainly run away in fear. But I won’t; I will dance with joy,” Ali said to his guests.

Not long after Ali spoke, they suddenly heard the sound of repeated snorting, accompanied by the cracking of a small tree trunk. The group, in the middle of a break near a permanent wallow, immediately fell silent. The atmosphere became even more tense when they saw a Javan rhino charging toward them.

Ali immediately began running aimlessly, while Hartmann and Tajudin took cover behind a cluster of nibung palm trees (Oncosperma tigillarium) growing not far from the wallow. The rhino became mired in the wallow, yet was able to free itself and ran off into the lush forest.

A different time, in the afternoon of March 5, 1981, along with Usman, another ranger, I walked along the cliffs from the direction of Mount Payung to the Cibunar River, whose waters ran only calf-high. Across the river, a male Javan rhino could be seen devouring the leaves of a Pacific rosewood tree (Thespesia populnea).

Growing impatient, Usman threw dirt he had spat on in the direction of the rhino, hoping the horned animal would leave. But the rhino came closer, and Usman ran as fast and as far as possible to avoid it. “Oops Mr. Eeng, our rice pot was ‘bitten’ by the rhino,” he said.

Rainforest creek in Ujung Kulon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

During a sunny morning on Sept. 22, 1983, while boating with Jasan and Abay in Cigenter, I saw a rhinoceros cooling itself in the water. We pulled over and took cover under a fig tree (Ficus sp.) that shaded the bank of the river just across from the resting rhino.

Jasan and Abay chatted, and it seemed the rhino was not bothered by our presence. Not long after, when a gust of air from our boat blew toward the rhino, a different scene emerged. The rhino immediately began to swim and attacked our boat. A crack! could be heard as our boat was crashed into and flipped over. Jasan and Abay were thrown out, while I was able to jump and hang on to the branch of a tree.

These were some of the experiences I recalled back in 1986 from five years of observation (1979 to 1983) of the reactions of Javan rhinos to direct encounters with humans, from a total of 29 incidents. These encounters included eight times when the rhino was feeding, three when it was wallowing, twice while it was bathing, and the remaining 16 encounters came as the rhinos fled before they could be observed. Only three incidents involved rhinos attacking aggressively.

Is it true that Javan rhinos are aggressive? The reaction of rhinos to humans in the past has been touched on by Evans (1905) and written about by Reynolds (1954): rhinos can be very aggressive in attacking humans. Even so, rhinos, like other animals, are very afraid of humans. However, if an encounter does occur, rhinos can be very dangerous. They will attack, especially if they are already agitated or injured, such as from a non-fatal wound from a hunter.

The reaction of rhinos to humans has also been described by Schenkel and Schenkel (1969) and Hoogerwerf (1970). They, too, found that rhinos most often avoided the humans they encountered, but sometimes attacked first and then ran away.

The historic range of the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) overlaps with that of the Javan rhino, but the species are not closely related. Sumatran rhinos, such as the one pictured here, belong to a separate genus. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Preferred habitats

In their original range, Javan rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus) once lived alongside the Indian rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis). They occupied nearly the same area at the foot of the Himalayas and in the valley of Brahmaputra (Blyth, 1862).

In Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Malay peninsula, Javan rhinos also once lived alongside Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), from the lowlands near cultivation areas to the valleys of large rivers. They also lived beside swift rivers in the mountains, sometimes up to 900 meters (3,000 feet) in hilly areas, as reported by Professor Reinhard (in Blyth, 1862), who stated that the Javan rhinos in Java could be encountered everywhere, especially in the hills and their surrounding lowlands, but also up to mountain summits.

Horsfield (also in Blyth, 1862) noted that Javan rhinos were found from coastal forests to mountain peaks. This vertical range was also recorded by Hoogerwerf; 18th-century Javan rhinos lived scattered across Java, from lowlands around Karawang and Jakarta, to high mountains such as Tangkuban Perahu, Slamet, Papandayan, Ceremai, and Mounts Gede and Pangrango,

Borner (1979) described the favored habitats of Javan rhinos and Sumatran rhinos. Javan rhinos prefer lowlands, whereas Sumatran rhinos prefer hilly areas. Javan rhinos in Ujung Kulon are rarely encountered roaming in steep hills. They only occasionally traverse the summit of Mount Payung (480 meters, or 1,575 feet) and have never lived in the area (Schenkel and Schenkel, 1969; Hoogerwerf, 1970; Sadjudin, 1986).

Javan rhinos have adapted to the transitional habitat between lowland and open vegetation. This usually consists of secondary and tropical forest. In accordance with their past habits, Javan rhinos are attracted to areas of secondary forest growth opened by humans (Schenkel et al, 1978).

Previous reports have indicated the existence of animal trails in Ujung Kulon often used by rhinos and wild cattle known as banteng. Only certain areas are used as foraging routes from location to location.

A Javan rhino immerses itself in the Cigenter River within Ujung Kulon National Park. Image by Stephen Belcher courtesy of BTNUK.

Javan rhinos enjoy roaming (Schenkel and Schenkel, 1969). Amman (1980) reported that the range of the female Javan rhino is estimated to be around 10 to 20 square kilometers (3.9 to 7.7 square miles) and around 30 square kilometers (11.6 square miles) for males. This home range can overlap with other individuals, as rhinos do not have a maintained territory. A rhino’s life is solitary, except for breeding and when mothers rear their children.

Javan rhinos also need certain areas, such as mud wallows and calm, shallow rivers for bathing. Shaded forests are preferred as shelters from the hot sun as well as from humans trying to kill them. Javan rhinos also have ways to recognize their home range by the smell of urine, which is more often reported than marking with the odor of feces.

Looking to the future, it is key that we increase our understanding of the behavior of the Javan rhino population in its habitat, which is currently constrained to Ujung Kulon. This is closely linked to the conservation efforts to save this critically endangered animal.

 

Haerudin R. Sadjudin is a senior rhino researcher who has been involved in rhino conservation programs for over 40 years in Indonesia.

This commentary was first published on our Indonesian sister site on Jan. 8, 2019.

CITATIONS:

  • Amman, H. (1980). Final report WWF project 1958/annex II home range and movement pattern of the javan rhinoceros. Basel, Switzerland, (unpublished).
  • Blyth, E (1862). A memoir on living Asiatic species of Rhinoceros. J. Asiatic Soc. 31.
  • Borner, M. (1979). A field of The Sumatran Rhinoceros Dicerorhius sumatrensis FISCHER 1814, Ecology and Behaviour Conservation Situation in Sumatra. Disertation Basel University. Zurich: J. Druck. V.
  • Evans, G.H. (1905). Notes on rhinoceros in Burma, R. sondaicus and sumatrensis. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 16: 555-561.
  • Hoogerwerf. A. (1970). Udjung Kulon The Land Of The Last Javan Rhinoceros. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
  • Reyonlds, R.J. (1960). Asian rhinos in captivity. Int. Zoo year book 2: 27-42.
  • Schenkel, R. And Schenkel, L.H. (1969) The javan rhinoceros (Rh. sondaicus Desm.) in Udjung Kulon Nature Reserve. Its ecology and behaviour, Field Study 1967-1968. Acta Trop. 26: 97.

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