Five species of rhinoceros survive today. The smallest in number is the Javan rhino.
It is often said that the Sumatran is the most endangered species of rhino, even though at least three times as many of them live in the wild. Javans may be considered less under attack partially because of their elusiveness: in order to poach a rhinoceros, you have to be able to find it. No Javan rhino has survived more than a year in captivity since a male at the London Zoo, which passed away in 1885. Many recent expeditions have spent weeks on the trail only to come back without a single camera-trap photo. About 35 of these rhinos are estimated to live today in the jungles of the Ujung Kulon Peninsula. This is a geographical area of 1206 km2 on the western tip of Java, in stark contrast to their former range all over Southeast Asia.
Here’s where the story gets crazy: Ujung Kulon is in the path of destruction if/when the Krakatau volcano erupts again. This is the reason the area has been mostly abandoned by humans, allowing extraordinary flora and fauna to flourish in their absence. It also creates the terrible possibility that entire species—including the Javan rhino—will be utterly wiped out. My flash fiction “The Last Ultrasound” originally included a breakneck plot in which Krakatau erupts, but I abandoned it as too unwieldy for such a short story. Plantations of invasive palm trees that the rhinos can’t use further jeopardize their modest habitat.
To say that it’s unlikely I will ever see a Javan rhino in person is an understatement. Until recently, grainy low-res camera-trap photos were the only glimpse anyone ever got of these mysterious beings. The wonders of crowdfunding recently permitted professional photographer Steve Belcher to spend unprecedented patience floating along the rivers of Ujung Kulon in search of these rhinos—and he’s returned with some gorgeous treasures.
Also known as the lesser one-horned rhino, Javans have the same basic shape and coloring as Indian rhinos, but tend to be much smaller. Their skin lacks the bumpy quality of the Indian rhino and their features look softer, perhaps more juvenile. Unique among the species, it appears that females never grow the trademark rhino horn. Javans are also the best swimmers of all the rhinos. Rather than just standing in shallow water, they appear to be able to stay afloat and travel with purpose through the waterways of Ujung Kulon.
These pictures allow us to appreciate the finer details and perhaps some of the life force behind Javan rhinos even though we will never be in their presence. Let’s hope human beings and the massive volcano can leave these lovely creatures to flourish for much time to come.