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Insider guide to Indonesia: Sumatran rhinos

While traveling throughout Southeast Asia experiencing the foods, the customs, the different ways of life, it's easy to overlook the wildlife. One inhabitant that deserves attention – the good kind – is the Sumatran rhino.

Nobody could describe the Sumatran rhino as ‘a looker’. In fact, the stocky, stumpy monster mammal with reddish-brown skin is spectacularly ugly. One Sumatran rhino hallmark – shaggy hair sprouting from its ears – raises the specter of an ageing human male in need of ‘manscaping’.

Unfortunately, unless we wise up, the Sumatran Rhino could be doomed to go the way of the recently discovered Tibetan woolly rhino species [http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/02/science/la-sci-woolly-rhino-20110903]. Only some 270 Sumatran rhinos survive – speckling Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam.

Horn hoax

The Sumatran rhino’s most striking feature is its twin horns that hunters covet for alleged medicinal properties. Highly valued as a supposed cancer cure rhino horn fetches more than gold [www.skynews.com.au/eco/article.aspx?id=650547&vId] – as much as US$30,000 per kilogram on the black market. Yet no evidence actually exists to back the assumption that rhino horn helps your health.

Under 300

Still, humans keep hunting the stunningly clunky species, whose armor-style plating offers little protection against attack. No wonder the species is now ranked critically endangered [www.edgeofexistence.org/mammals/species_info.php?id=6].

Just to make the rhino’s prospects more precarious, it is a loner, which makes breeding tricky. So too does the female’s unwillingness. She's only 'in the mood' once every three or four years. And then you know about it.

Tough love

The Sumatran rhino courtship dance is violent. It starts with a male multitude fighting over who just gets to chase the female. Then, the winning alpha rhino marks his territory with dung. Then, underlining the herbivorous mammal’s unromantic outlook, further fighting erupts between the male and female before they finally get down to it. No wonder the females are normally in no hurry to breed – doubtless, they would rather just wallow in mud.


The low reproduction rate is tragic, because the horned hermit cuts one of the most imposing figures in the Asian animal kingdom. Also far from dumb, it makes three distinct noises: ‘eeps’, ‘whales’, and ‘whistle-blows’.

The eep – a one-second yelp – is the most common sound. The whale, which echoes the humpback whale’s call, is the most song-like sound and the second most common. The whistle-blow consists of a two-second whistle then a burst of air. The whistle-blow is the loudest call the hairy rhino makes – loud enough to rattle a zoo cage’s iron bars.

Crack the code

Mystery shrouds what the calls mean. Perhaps they convey danger, sexual readiness (a long shot for females), or geo co-ordinates. Or who knows? Perhaps the Sumatran rhino lacks the proverbial rhino hide it needs and is begging: “Please, stop hunting us! It’s not worth the effort. Our horns are made of keratin — the stuff your hair and nails are made of!"

See them in Indonesia

The Way Kambas National Park in Indonesia houses the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary and gives travelers the opportunity to see other native species such as Sumatran tigers, Sumatran elephants, and the white-winged wood duck, plus myriad Southeast Asian species such as the leopard cat, gibbons, macaques and more. Guided tours are offered, bookable from eco-lodges and hotels in Bandar Lampung, a two-hour drive from the park. (http://www.agoda.com/asia/indonesia/bandar_lampung.html). 

More info: www.savingrhinos.org/Sumatran-Rhino.html, www.rhinos-irf.org/asrsg/

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