Colours of Wildlife: The Javan Rhinoceros

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Colours of Wildlife: The Javan Rhinoceros: At Last Its Name Fits

Here’s a painting of the so-called Javan Rhinoceros. The name used to be inappropriate; finally that is no longer so – which is actually a tragedy.

Let me explain. Today this rhino species, Rhinoceros sondaicus, is only found on the island of Java – part of Indonesia. But actually, over most of its history, this rhino also occurred on other islands, most particularly Sumatra, and also the southeast Asian mainland, from Bangladesh to China. A better name for it would have been the Lesser One-horned Rhinoceros. This points to the fact that it is one of only two one-horned rhinoceros species, and the smaller of the two. The other one is the Indian Rhinoceros, or, more appropriately, the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, Rhinoceros unicornis. Whereas the Indian Rhinoceros is about the same size as the African White Rhinoceros, the Javan Rhinoceros is about the size of the African Black Rhinoceros. This would be about 3m (10 ft) in length and 1.5 m (5 ft), or a tad more, at the shoulder.

The Javan Rhinoceros was hunted or otherwise exterminated over most of its range over the past couple of centuries. By the 20th century it was mostly confined to the island of Java.

But there was still a mainland population, in Vietnam. After the Vietnam War it was presumed extinct, but then in the nineties it was determined that there were still a few of them left. However, in this year (2011) the last one in Vietnam was killed. The species thus is now really restricted to Java.

And there are not many of them: perhaps somewhere between 40 and 50. This makes the Javan Rhino perhaps the most severely threatened of all large mammals.

Another thing is that we know very little about it. There are hardly any good pictures of it. Also we know little of its behaviour. In addition, while it has been kept in zoos a few times, it has never successfully reproduced in captivity – we don’t know why that is.

The Javan rhino is somewhat similar to the Indian rhino but apart from being smaller, there are differences in its overall proportions, in the pattern of its skin folds, and also the texture of its skin. Lastly it also has a much smaller horn, which rarely exceeds 25 cm/10" in length. Females can be virtually hornless. But it is still killed for the sake of those paltry horns.

While all Javan rhinos today are very similar – belonging to just a single subspecies – in the past there were three subspecies: the Sunda subspecies, which was on Java and Sumatra; the western subspecies which lived from Bengal to Burma, and the eastern subspecies, from Burma to China. So, now two of the subspecies are extinct, and the third has been reduced to a single, tiny population. Remember the Sunda subspecies in the past occurred both on Sumatra (a very large island) and the whole of Java. It is now confined to a small national park (Ujung Kulon) in the very west of the island. With the massive reduction of its numbers, one must assume that the rhinos remaining do not represent much of the genetic diversity that once existed even in this subspecies.

If this final population dies out, the legacy of this species will be restricted to a few poor photos and a few even poorer stuffed mounts. And perhaps a few bones. But let’s think back a couple of centuries again, and we would have had a thriving species with a very wide range, and three full subspecies. And a quite spectacular animal – the third largest Asian land mammal (after the Asian Elephant and the Indian Rhinoceros). WE have turned it from that into what it now is. But it is still there. For how much longer, I don’t know.

Addendum: to really help wildlife we also need to help people. Rhino poaching exists first of all because of a misconception, that rhino horn does something that its equivalent in other species (which is keratin: hair, fingernails and toenails) doesn’t. And then, because there are poor people desperate enough for money, to go and hunt those rhinos. We simply need to eradicate ignorance and poverty … and then not only will the rhinos have a chance, but humanity might also.

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