Counting the last of the Javan rhinos

It will probably be the first mammal (ie one of us) to become extinct. The Javan rhino is critically endangered, found only in dwindling patches of jungle in Indonesia and Vietnam. The largest group is in western Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park, numbering in the scores. Nobody is really sure exactly how many of the shy and elusive creatures remain in their last Indonesian habitat, because the previous effort to count them in 2008 was problematic.

Hopefully, that will change this weekend. According to the International Rhino Foundation, researchers are due to finish the first official count since the flawed effort two years ago. A joint team from the National Park, the Indonesian Rhino Foundation and the Bogor Agriculture Institute has set camera traps and monitored animal tracks on known rhino paths in Ujung Kulon for several days. They hope to gain the most accurate picture to date of the size of the population.

The team wants to clarify not just the numbers, but also the age and sex of the surviving rhinos. In particular, they have tried to confirm the existence of four calves which researches believed they had found in 2008 on the basis of questionable track marks.

Either way, whether the numbers are down or marginally higher than expected, it probably won’t be good news for the rhinos. Habitat loss and poaching continue to be the mammals’ deadliest threats. Their horns are valued across Asia for their putative medicinal properties, but particularly by … you guessed it … the Chinese.

For centuries the Chinese have used rhino horns to treat all sorts of ailments, from gout to snake bites, fever to demon possession. Scientists say that while the keratin in the horns may have some use in detecting poison, and large doses had reduced fever in rats, the claims of Chinese medicine about the qualities of rhino horns are bogus.

Overall there isn’t much evidence to support the plethora of claims about the healing properties of the horns. In 1990, researchers at Chinese University in Hong Kong found that large doses of rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever in rats (as could extracts from Saiga antelope and water buffalo horn), but the concentration of horn given by a traditional Chinese medicine specialist are many many times lower than used in those experiments.In short … you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails.
So this precious animal, one of our closest companions on the evolutionary tree of life, is becoming extinct in large part due to completely baseless human beliefs about its medicinal properties. Beliefs which many continue to hold despite the lack of scientific evidence to back them up.

(Photo courtesy of Rhino Resource Centre via Wikimedia Commons)

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