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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Red-haired Beauty

A Greater One-Horned or Indian rhino (with ravishing locks of blond
hair on the ears only) at the Cincinnati Zoo. 
I recently made a promise to travel to Cincinnati, where a brown-eyed, red-haired beauty awaited, but probably not for long. The urgency to the pledge is that Harapan (“Harry” to his keepers) is currently the only Sumatran rhinoceros living outside of Indonesia. I believe he’ll soon join his kin and help freshen the DNA of the species.

Within Indonesia, only about 100 Sumatran rhinos thrive under heavy guard from passionately dedicated rangers. If only other people would leave them to it, the rhinos could thrive without the guard, but that’s the current state of the world.

A lovely black rhino at the Cincinnati Zoo. 
Sumatran rhinos are special beyond their rarity. They’re the only direct descendants of the extinct wooly rhinoceros, and they display that inheritance proudly with a unique coat of red hair. In contrast to their wooly ancestor, Sumatran rhinos are the smallest of the five remaining species, averaging a tidy half ton instead of an entire ton.

I’ve been the in presence of black, white, and Indian rhinos before and loved them all. I have a completist tendency, and when I heard about Harapan, his history as part of the success of Cincinnati’s breeding program made him all the more meaningful. When my day job slowed down, I asked my husband if he’d like to go on a road trip. We were concerned that we might drive nearly a thousand miles to arrive at an empty enclosure, so we wrote to the zoo to ask if there was any way we could be sure Harapan would be on public view on a given day. In the end, there was no way to be sure because of the Sumatran rhino’s “delicate” nature. Off we went, fueled by faith, through gorgeous fall colors and wind and rain. We stopped to see friends, but the rhino tension just kept mounting. Would we see this rarity or just go home?

When we awoke on the day, the rain was coming down so hard, I had the doom-and-gloom idea that Harapan wouldn’t even think about going outside to get pummeled by water and struck by lightning. Then my husband said the rain would keep the zoo from being very crowded, so we’d have him all to ourselves. I was a swirling yin-yang of hope and pessimism.

Coming in the zoo entrance, the Sumatran rhino area is tucked away where you have to be determined to see it, but if you are, it’s the first thing on the left. Visitors must go down a twisting ramp that keeps the exhibits tantalizingly out of direct view. I was running down the slope, holding my hood over my head against the rain, to see that the enclosure is covered by decorated tarps so no downpour can bother Harapan overmuch. All of a sudden, I saw him, coming out of his pool as if it were a day at the spa. I shouted back to my husband, and even to myself I sounded like Linus in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: “There he is!” I guess we had the appropriate amount of sincerity.

Harapan the Sumatran rhino. 
What a handsome young rhino!

My impression is that Sumatran rhinos don’t photograph well. Before I went to Cincinnati, I couldn’t get much sense of personality from the pictures I’d seen. The camera picks up wrinkles and hairiness before what we might think of as more positive traits and often darkens the russet-colored hair. But as Harapan moved about with the casual grace of someone who knows he’s loved, I could find no fault with him.

He daintily probed the mud hole, considering whether or not he’d like to have a good roll, until he did, slathering his entire left side.


He looked a little like the Phantom of the Opera at that point. He rubbed against a post, looking as if he were in Indonesia marking the trees with his mud. He may have the chance to do that soon! Some more investigating all over the enclosure led him to the conclusion that the only way to clear the mud out of his eye was to get back in the pool.


At :43 he swipes near his eye with his three-toed foot—not a typical move for a quadruped, I don’t think.

Soon after, Harapan had had enough of our adoration and “left the building.” 


“These ten minutes were worth the thousand miles—or more,” said my husband. I couldn’t have said it better. We are fortunate beyond words to have been able to make such a meaningful journey. We now number among the lucky few who have spent a little time with a rare and enchanting Sumatran rhinoceros.


The sad fact is that there is another rhino species with even fewer living individuals than the Sumatran: the Javan. More on those extraordinary creatures coming soon.