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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Rhinos of Sumatra

For the past week or so Oll Lewis has been posting news announcements about Sumatran rhinoceroses and I have been going along posting against the comments at the end. It seems that we were having a failure to communicate. I finally asked Jon Downes the direct question asking should I just go on ahead and make a general posting on the matter.

DD to JD on 9-19-2011:
Look, do I really and seriously need to write a blog entry on Sumatran one-horned rhinos? I had done so in some point in the past, but I seem to keep sending Oll Lewis the information and he seems to keep on ignoring what I say. The whole thing is entirely a problem depending on which reference books you look at. It's exactly the same as looking up the Oriental variety of Huso sturgeon around China-several of the standard fish atlases seem completely unaware that genus exists in that area while several other local sources are not even aware there is supposed to be any kind of a problem about its existance, and they include photos of such large sturgeons in their articles.

Which elicited the reply:
JD to DD on  9-22-2011:
I thought Javan rhinos were extinct everywhere except Java, one place in Vietnam and possibly northern Burma. If not, maybe you do need to write a blog..

Range Map for Javan Rhinos, from an article
about the Vietnamese population.

I had made some mentions of the matter in the yahoo group Frontiers-of-Zoology as far back as the group's beginnings in 2006. A member back on Halloween  of that year queried my reference to rhinoceroses fighting with their tusks and not their horns and part of my response included the following information:

"Actually this matter of tusks was something I found out about in Sanderson's files, seems there were rumors of a 'Hippopotamus' in Sumatra for years until somebody connected up the teeth natives were selling with a reported rhinoceros with one horn. It evidently fights with its teeth, and the horn is small, not noticeable at all in some females"
The two rhinos are clearly distinctive from one another because of habitat and habits as well as the number of horns: the Sumatran one-horned rhinos are marsh and swamp dwellers and are largely lacking in body hair. The two-horned Sumatran rhinos are more highlands forest animals and they are hairy.

Sumatran One-horned "Water Rhino" photo ca 2006

Caption on last photo: "Sumatran Javan Rhino. This was an unknown animal to Willy Ley and so on into Eberhart's Mysterious Creatures : it was not to Sanderson in Living Mammals of the World"

Here is the full information as I gave it to Jon just before posting it here:

I genuinely don't know how this can continue to be a problem especially since the matter has been "On the books" at least since the 1950s.
The rhinos in general are predominantly one-horned in the Orient and two-horned in Africa. If a one-horned species exists in Africa, that would be unusual: conversely, the two-horned rhinos in the Orient are the ones that are rarer and exceptional. In the Orient, there are  two species of one-horned rhinos; the indian species and then the second species that lives in Burma and points East, including Indonesia. The second species is the one called the Javan rhino.
If you have a copy of Ivan T. Sanderson's Living Mammals of the World, the pertinent information is on page 241:
"There is another smaller species of this genus, known rather misleadingly as the Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sundaicus) Which is found in isolated patches throughout Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Java. This animal does not have the bosses in its hide and its pleats are differently arranged, and the surface of the skin usually forms a sort of crocodile pattern resulting from small cracks. There was once [In the 1920s and 1930s, I think-DD] a prolonged discussion in scientific literature as to whether there was both a one-horned and a two-horned rhinoceros in Sumatra, the presence of a one-horned species being doubted. However, it is still fairly numerous in the reed-filled bottoms, swamps, and estuaries of that island. On the mainland it is becoming exceedingly rare [This is as of the 1950s and 1960s-DD]"
There is also the larger, mainland subspecies of the Sumatran rhinoceros, now probably extinct. The species is a hairy rhinoceros and the description always sounded like a relic of the Ice-Age wooly rhinoceros to me.

--Best Wishes, Dale D.

Incidentally the Javan population and the Sumatran population of the Javan Rhinoceros are thought to be the same species. The Javan (Sunda) rhinoceros was the last of rhinoceros species to be identified by science and some amazement developed recently that some pockets of the species had survived undetected in parts of Vietnam despite the damage the war had taken on them as well as the rest of the ecosystem.

Sumatran hairy two-horned rhinoceros, Cinicinatti zoo, from Wikipedia.


  1. In my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), I devoted an entire chapter to mystery rhinos (which was an updated, expanded version of the chapter from my earlier book, Extraordinary Animals Worldwide, 1991). It contains the following section on the mysterious one-horned rhino of Sumatra, which is clearly Rhinoceros sondaicus, the Javan rhino.

  2. Here is what I wrote:
    In 1941, Willy Ley noted in The Lungfish and the Unicorn that at some stage during the middle portion of the 1920s, a Dr Vageler - regularly contacted by zoos wishing to replenish their animal collections - was seeking some specimens of the Asian rhinos when he met up with J.C. Hazewinkel, a noted big game hunter. After learning that Vageler required new rhinoceroses, Hazewinkel showed him some photos of eight that he had shot in Sumatra, and which appeared to be new in every sense of the word. For the type that they represented — although familiar to the natives, who called it badak tanggiling - seemed to differ greatly from the form familiar to Vageler on Sumatra.
    Unlike the known, two-horned Sumatran rhinoceros Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, the badak tanggiling bore just a single horn. If this had been the only difference, it could have been explained as a mere freak of nature. However, Hazewinkel stated that the female badak tanggiling was often totally hornless, and that the form as a whole attained a length of 10 ft. In contrast, the female Sumatran rhinoceros is rarely if ever hornless, and the species as a whole only attains a length of 8—9 ft.
    As Dr Vageler readily recognized, the Sumatran rhino thus became an unlikely candidate for the badak tanggiling’s identity. In his coverage of this episode, Willy Ley stated that Hazewinkel’s photos convinced Vageler that a second species of rhinoceros existed on Sumatra, and that in reply to his requests Vageler was promised living specimens of it to send on to various zoos worldwide, but they never arrived. Ley concluded his account by stating that the badak tanggiling therefore remains a shadow in our zoological encyclopedias, but: “ may, however, be rediscovered almost any day”.
    From all of this it would seem that Ley considered the badak tanggiling to be a wholly unknown, undescribed species. In fact, its identity is surely no mystery, for this enigmatic creature is clearly Rhinoceros sondaicus, the Javan rhinoceros. Not only is it of comparable size to the badak tanggiling, and a one-horned species whose females are indeed sometimes hornless, but at the time of Vageler and Hazewinkel it did exist on Sumatra (but this was not widely known outside scientific circles). Indeed, the last known Sumatran specimens of the Javan rhino did not die out until World War II.
    There is a further, more specific, piece of evidence confirming this identification. On 23 December 1933, the Illustrated London News published an article by Hazewinkel, in which he described his pursuit and shooting of the first of eight specimens of large, one-horned rhinoceros on Sumatra during the mid-1920s. The photos of the animal dispel any doubt as to its identity - one that Hazewinkel, moreover, freely announced. It was a Javan rhinoceros. Indeed, echoing the general unawareness concerning the existence of this species on Sumatra at that time, Hazewinkel had entitled his article ‘A One-Horned Javanese Rhinoceros Shot in Sumatra, Where It Was Not Thought to Exist’.
    Clearly, there can be no question that those eight Javan rhinos shot by Hazewinkel on Sumatra in the mid-1920s are one and the same as the eight Sumatran badak tanggiling shot by him and mentioned to Vageler by him during that same period.
    According to Joseph Belmont, another animal collector for zoos, a mysterious beast known as the scaled rhinoceros allegedly existed amidst the inhospitable, fever-ridden swamps of Java. Writing in Catching Wild Beasts Alive (1931), Delmont reported that this cryptic creature, supposedly distinct from the known species of Javan rhinoceros, had only been shot twice, with no living specimen ever having been obtained. However, as the ‘armour’ of the known Javan rhino is noticeably scale-like, quite different from that of its closest relative the great Indian rhinoceros, it would once again seem that the creature in question is Rhinoceros sondaicus after all."

  3. Thank you, Karl, it is quite marvellous for you to say so. This is in fact the exact situation both Sanderson and I were referring to, and as a matter of fact the same rhinos are still alive and being photographed up to the present day. There is no question of their being Javan rhinos, in fact, there is only the problem that some experts have never bothered to consult the references on the matter.

    I had not gone into all that extensive of detail in my original posting because as far as I am concerned, the entire matter is cut-and-dried. Thank you once again for adding that, and it is always a pleasure to have you here!

    Best Wishes, Dale D.


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