I know it is extremely unlikely you will bump into one of these in your travels around Portugal but it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist – for now.
In the past, I had never really thought much about rhinos – I have been to a lot of zoos in my lifetime, and more often than not, I would have wandered past their enclosures, only vaguely registering their presence -they would be mud-wallowing or doing something equally uninteresting like eating, and I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if they had one horn or two.
But the Javan rhinoceros, also known as the Sunda rhino or Lesser One-Horned rhino, is a very rare member of the family Rhinocerotidae, and one of five rhinoceroses still existing. They were hunted and killed by trophy hunters during colonial times, their horn being a highly prized commodity in traditional Asian medicine. Some were also killed for being agricultural pests – they are herbivores that graze across shrubs, bushes, and saplings - regardless of who planted them - and browse the densely vegetated sub-tropical forest for leaves, flowers, buds, fruits, berries, and roots which they would dig up from the ground using their horns. Crop raiding, property damage, livestock depredation, and human casualties are the most common forms of impacts from conflicts with wildlife, and these rhinos are no exception.
Built like tanks
The Javan rhino is probably the rarest large mammal on the planet, with apparently only 63 left in the wild and none in captivity. And apparently, every single Javan rhino lives within the confines of the Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia, making the species even more vulnerable to extinction, but happily there is light at the end of their tunnel, as their population has been inching up over the past five years and the creation of a second population could provide the species with some much-needed extra breathing - and breeding - space.
Javan rhinos are the most threatened of the five rhino species, and once lived throughout northeast India and Southeast Asia, with Vietnam’s last Javan rhino being poached in 2010. They are a dusky grey colour with a single horn measuring about 25cm, which actually isn’t a horn at all, but is composed of keratin, a fibrous protein found in hair, and is primarily used as defence against predators or to challenge other rhinos. The rhino can reach upto 4m in length and 1.7m in height and weigh as much as 2.3 tonnes. Despite being built like tanks, their powerful hind legs propel them forward, and they will actually run on their toes when they reach top speed (around 48 km/h) – so you wouldn’t want to be in their way!
A rhino's skin can be up to 5cm thick, and has a number of loose folds, giving the appearance of armour plating, but strangely they are susceptible to sunburn – and if you are ever lucky enough to spot one, you might see them rolling around using mud as sunscreen. The Javan rhino is very similar in appearance to the closely-related Greater One-Horned rhinoceros but has a much smaller head and less apparent skin folds.
Additional rhino information if you want to read on - three of the five species of rhino existing—Black, Javan, and Sumatran—are all listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. So phew, lucky for the fourth, the White Rhino – not considered endangered, but despite larger numbers, is sadly Near Threatened, with less than 16,000 individuals left. The fifth, the Greater One-Horned rhino is currently listed as Vulnerable with 4,014 individuals in the wild, but close on the heels of the Javan, is the Sumatran with an estimate of under 80 left - which makes them truly under threat of extinction in the wild too.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.
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