The Retreat of Southeast Asia’s Rhinoceros Species

The Sumatran and Javan rhinoceros of Southeast Asia are among the most critically endangered large mammals in Southeast Asia, hounded for their relatively small horns that are really just hardened hair. As few as 30 individuals remain in Sumatra, 68 in Java, a handful in Kalimantan, and possibly a few relic stragglers in the borderlands of Myanmar.

Although there is no scientific evidence of medicinal value, rhino horn now sells in Vietnam for as much as US$100,000 per kilo although Chinese demand is said to have dropped off sharply since the early 1990s by the removal of powder made from the horns from the Chinese pharmacopeia. While China has banned rhino horn powder, however, Vietnam has shown no such concern for these increasingly rare animals.

In her book Poached, Rachel Love Nuwer explains how “Rhino horn evolved alongside other traditional medicines in China, yet it has always been seen as something extra special, something exotic and even semi-magical…A fourth-century CE Chinese text describes rhino horn as useful for treating snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid fever, food poisoning, and more, while “unicorn horn” (likely also rhino horn) was said to detect the presence of poison. As such, emperors often received gorgeously carved rhino horn goblets—gifts that were meant to both impress and to defend against assassination by tainted beverages.”

Consequently, after centuries of slaughter, this cute, harmless, pointy-nosed denizen of the deep jungle has been reduced to a few precarious pockets in its former range, from China all the way down to Indonesia—a huge portion of Southeast Asia. For the past two decades, the International Rhino Foundation, the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia and the Javan Rhino Conservation Program have operated anti-poaching teams patrolling areas within Indonesia’s national parks in an effort to protect the beasts against poachers and illegal intruders. But although the programs have been successful in protecting the herd, according to the foundation “protection in itself isn’t going to be enough to save the species from extinction. Over the long-term, the population needs to be spread out, with a second viable population established elsewhere in Indonesia.” Without additional habitat, the animals may be doomed.

How did this situation come about?

By the middle of the 15th Century, deforestation and hunting were already putting pressure on wildlife populations in China, yet Southeast Asia was practically one boundless forest teeming with tigers, elephants, and rhinoceros. Historian Anthony Reid tells us that at the turn of the 16th Century “the impact of man was largely limited to shifting cultivation in isolated hillside patches and gathering the varied products of the forest for export.”

For hundreds of years, the horns have been listed as export products from Southeast Asia. They are mentioned In the oldest text written about Cambodia, Chinese Admiral Chou Tak-Kuan’s The Customs of Cambodia, written in 1297. It is not difficult to imagine that the rhino horn trade that was taking place in Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and Cambodia, was also taking place in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Peninsular Malaysia—in other words, the rest of Southeast Asia.

These “varied products of the forest,” the most valuable, the sought-after, were camphor, tortoiseshell, swiftlet nests, elephant ivory and most prized of all, rhinoceros horn, something that the Han were rapidly depleting in China itself. “The Age of Commerce” in Southeast Asia kicked off in the mid-15th Century (though evidence of Chinese mercantile activity in the region dates back to the first century BC) with Chinese fleets setting sail for “The Land Below the Winds,” meaning Southeast Asia, in search of something.

A scene described in G. Schlegel’s “The Old States in the Island of Sumatra,” written in 1416, sheds some light on this, for when a Chinese trade mission washed up on the shore of an inland village, a representative described forests containing “immense quantities of wild rhinoceroses, which the king lets catch by men. They came together with Samŭdra to bring tribute to China.”

In describing ancient trade between Sumatra and China, scholar John N. Miksic in a chapter titled “Traditional Sumatran Trade” notes that “Some of the less expensive of Sumatra’s early exports were relatively evenly distributed, including rhinoceros horn, ivory, and rattan.” And as trade increased, the Sultans of Palembang, for instance, formed a monopoly on these items, having them systematically brought down from the highlands and afar. These “luxury” items made for excellent barter and “tribute” with the Chinese.

In Borneo, according to Daniel Chew in his book Chinese Pioneers on the Sarawak Frontier 1841-1941 “Contact with Chinese traders linked the Ibans with market forces, entrenching them within a regional economy stretching from Singapore to Kuching, the up-river bazaar, and finally to the longhouse.”

Chew tells us that Tang Dynasty earthenware jars have been found in Sarawak’s interior communities, having been acquired from the Chinese through bartering. What type of “exotic products” could the Chinese have wanted in return? Almost certainly rhino horn and, very likely helmeted hornbill “ivory.” This was also all part of the “tributary relations” that Sarawak, and Brunei, and also supposedly Sumatra, maintained with the Celestial Empire in China, and the Emperor wasn’t after bananas, mangoes, or women—he had plenty of all of those, he wanted rhino horn.

Chew wraps up his chapter on the “Traditional Patterns of Trade in Borneo” with this: “From the Chinese, the natives obtained ceramics, luxury items, and foodstuffs. Chinese traders came to collect the assorted jungle products of Borneo, such as bird’s nest, bezoar stones (gallbladder stones in langur monkeys), rhinoceros horns, damar, and rattan.

The Javan rhino is said to be more aggressive than its Sumatran cousin and will charge humans. Better defended in its final holdout of Ujung Kulon National Park at the southwestern tip of Java, this rhino once swarmed across Java in habitats ranging from coastal forests to mountain ridges. Indonesian rhino expert Haerudin R. Sadjudin provides historical perspective: “The British researcher Blyth (1862) wrote about the trade in Javan rhino horns, as many as 2,500 of which were exported to China every year. That would have meant seven rhinos were killed each day.” And in addition to being persecuted for its horn, the Javan rhino is also threatened with instant obliteration from the Anak Krakatoa volcano, the “baby” of the monster Krakatoa eruption of 1883, and it has recently been active.

The furry Sumatran rhino (found on Sumatra and Borneo) is more closely related to the Woolly Rhinoceros of the Pleistocene era than it is to its much larger cousins in Africa, and as such it forms a link between the long gone ancient world and the present. It is found only in four Sumatran parks today, including a kind of “safe house” in Way Kambas National Park down at the island’s southern tip, as well as Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park where they are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Whatever Sumatran rhinos continue to roam East Kalimantan are in big trouble. To lose them to extinction because of some quack belief in the magical curative powers of its ground horn is simply unacceptable, and yet the World Health Organization recently decided that Traditional Chinese Medicine is legitimate medicine.

Old habits are very hard break, they always are. In this case we are dealing with rhino horn users and collectors in China and Vietnam, two countries with rising disposable incomes and where enough citizens are happy to flaunt their status by purchasing rarities like rhino horn, ivory, helmeted hornbill casques, etc.

We can see now the big picture in regards to how the rhinoceros of Southeast Asia got into the pathetic situation they now find themselves in, constrained to a handful of shaky “strongholds” where they are hunted by humans and haunted by volcano-triggered tsunamis. The story started long ago, perhaps a thousand years ago, when steaming jungles writhed and ruled Southeast Asia, at a time when all fauna was present. “Extinction” wasn’t even in the lexicon at that time in the region. But all that changed when Chinese mercantilists washed up on Southeast Asian shores looking for exotic jungle products, looking for magical items, looking for rhinoceros horn.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.