Run Rhino Run

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 37 No. 6, June 2017

By Vivek Menon

The rhinos are an ancient lot. If you spend any time looking at the few that survive today you are struck by their antiquity. Let your eyes wander over a rhino’s anatomy; its thick leathery skin, beady eyes, lumbering bulk and that epitome of being a rhinoceros, a horned nose, and you could sympathise with Ogden Nash when he wrote: “The rhino is a homely beast, for human eyes he’s not a feast. Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros, I’ll stare at something less prepoceros.”

Or else you could roam prehistory in their unflustered, unhurried company. I have done this through much of my life and have spent considerable time with three of the five species that survive today, marvelling at their 50 million-year-old model of mega-herbivory. 

Black, White and Woolly

Helping move black rhinos from Nairobi National Park to Tsavo in Kenya in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity of closely examining that hooked upper lip that makes them more browsers than grazers. Many an hour has also been spent in private holdings of white rhinos in southern Africa, watching the very opposite evolution that has happened to their upper lip – from pointy and hooked to a broad, wedge-like flange. And then, the couple of decades of familiarity with our own one-horned armoured tank of a rhino in the swamps of Kaziranga, which further clinched my feeling of Auld Lang Syne, for surely the armour-plated look of our beast makes it seem a few centuries older than any other. 

So all that was left for me to experience on the extant rhino platter was the Javan rhino (by all accounts a miniaturised version of the Indian rhino) and the very, very rare Sumatran two-horned rhino. Last month I managed to spend a few hours with the latter, the few that are held in captivity in the Way Kambas National Park in Indonesia. And they took me all the way back to the last woolly rhinos the world had seen 10,000 years ago in the Eurasian Steppe. 

Now, if you believe a certain lot of scientists, the ancestor of the Sumatran rhino split off from the ancestors of the other four living species of rhinos around 25 million years ago. That was almost 25 million years after the evolution of the first rhino-like animals; probably in that chunk of Africa that much later broke off and became India! These were the first tapir-like creatures, with affinities to pigs and to zebras. They were small and did not have a horn. Over the years, after the extinction of the dinosaurs, some of them grew distinctly huge and probably reached a climax in size in the now extinct gigantic Paraceratherium, a 4.5 m. high, 20-ton monster. These animals probably went extinct sometime after another giant started evolving: the elephant. 

Although the giant rhinos lost out to elephants (which won as they had evolved with a new adaptation that the rhinos did not have – a trunk!) other rhinos moved from being primarily forest animals to becoming adapted to grasslands. They did well around the time the woolly rhino evolved and there were more than a dozen species of rhinos living at that time. The woolly rhino may have evolved in Tibet in dry, open plains with a lot of shrubs to browse on, and resembled modern rhinos in having horns, in fact two of them, placed one behind the other (older models had tried placing both horns next to each other as well, but they died out). While most of the world was ice-free at that time, Tibet would still have had a lot of ice and the woolly rhino spread into Europe towards the west and Indonesia towards the south. Its contemporary elephantoid was the woolly mammoth and around 10,000 years ago both would have been common in a wide Eurasian swathe.

But then came an age when temperatures fluctuated wildly, the first age of global warming, and much of the rhinos’ food went extinct. With the pressure to find food, competition from elephants and predation from giant hyaenas, rhinos gradually started becoming rarer and rarer. The woolly rhino of Tibet was one that went extinct. The smaller woolly rhino that had evolved in tropical climes shed most of its hair and became the Sumatran rhino. But it remained a creature of the forest much like the black and the Javan rhinos.

These two Indonesian rhinos today number less than a hundred each. There are over 3,500 Indian and Nepalese greater one-horned rhinos and around 5,000 black rhinos. Only the southern population of the white rhino remains secure at over 30,000 individuals. Its northern subspecies teeters on the brink with two females and a male.

A pair of Sumatran rhinos at the Way Kambas National Park in Indonesia. Photo Courtesy: Vivek Menon

Rarest of the Rare

“This is Ratu,” whispered Zulfi as we approached a large enclosure, “and this is our hope, Andatu”. I was visiting Sumatra to understand the situation of the elephant and rhino in the wild in Indonesia. Ratu is a wild female that came out of the forest in 2005. She was captured to add wild genetic stock to the few rhinos that were being held captive at the Rhino Sanctuary, a 250 acre ex situ complex in Way Kambas being run by the Indonesian Rhino Foundation. She was mated with the American zoo-born Andalas and in June 2012, Andatu was born. Four years later, in 2016, one more calf, Delilah, was added. 

Two births in nearly a hundred years and finally some hope for the Sumatran rhino. Its northern subspecies, the one that extended all the way to India, is extinct in all probability. The Bornean one has a few left in Kalimantan in the wild and one or two in captivity in Sabah. So the only hope is the Sumatran subspecies, of which less than a hundred are present in the wild and only seven at the centre. Zulfi is a veterinarian employed by the Foundation and his briefing on the Sumatran rhino reminded me vividly of our Indian vets like Bhaskar Choudhury and Panjit Basumatary, and the fight they have on hand to save the Indian rhino from extinction. 

Further north, in the wildernesses of Aceh, I walked with Rudi Putra and his team in Gunung Leuser National Park. There was no chance of encountering a rhino; they live in extremely inaccessible montane terrain, perhaps the only reason they have survived. “But see our video camera recordings,” offered Rudi, a winner of the Future for Nature Awards of the Netherlands. And from the gloamy, black and white forests in Rudi’s cameras emerged a beautiful, hairy rhino. Not woolly really, but hairy. It had on its nose, loosely attached to the skull no doubt, a huge horn, bigger than even those on black rhinos, polished by rubbing against tall dipterocarps. So large that it hid its baby twin to its immediate posterior almost completely. With its appearance from the steamy mountains of Leuser, there sprang a hope. A teeny-weeny ray of hope that the cousin of the woolly rhino of Tibet, the second cousin of the Indian gainda, would yet survive the ravages of mankind.

join the conversation