Featured Creature: Sumatran Rhino

Photo Credit:  Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry via Mongabay 

This week we ask: Which creature loves to wallow in mud, has two horns, and communicates through whistling and whining noises? 

The Sumatran Rhino! 

Photo Credit:  Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry via Mongabay 

I believe that the Sumatran Rhino is one of the most beautiful species on this planet. 

I adore rhinos. They are beautiful, majestic, and grand. Each rhino is literally a knight in shining armor, only the armor isn’t so shiny and it’s likely covered in mud. 

You may be thinking, “Abby, why on Earth are Sumatran Rhinos your favorite animal? What about them caused you to hold them in such high regard?” Well, if you’ll indulge me this fine Saturday morning, I would love to tell you all about why the Sumatran Rhino is such a special creature. 

A Mammoth Love Story 

When I was in middle school and began to understand the state of our biodiversity crisis, I spent much of my time researching endangered species and conservation efforts that I could support. My favorite website (bookmarked front and center on my old, clunky Dell computer) was the World Wildlife Fund. As I poured over the species page for the rhino, I came across a video of a Black Rhino being darted and airlifted to a safe area in an effort to protect them from poaching. 

I have watched this video many times since then, and I have never gotten to the end without crying. While I am incredibly grateful for the conservation efforts that organizations carry out, it is still heartbreaking to me to know that humans have caused ecological destruction to the point that such a magnificent species as the rhino must be transported, blindfolded and suspended by their feet in the air, to a place they did not choose to inhabit, just because it is the only safe option for their survival. 

Native to Indonesia, specifically the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, the Sumatran Rhino is sadly the most critically endangered rhino species. According to the International Rhino Foundation, “The species was declared extinct in the wild on mainland Malaysia in 2015 and Malaysian Borneo in 2019. Sumatran rhinos exist only in protected areas where they are physically guarded by Rhino Protection Units (southern Sumatra) and Wildlife Protection Units (northern Sumatra).” As I write this, there are only about 80 individuals left in the wild due to habitat loss and rampant poaching.

A Unique Family Member

Historically, rhino distribution reaches across Asia and Africa, with sub-species in various regions. All the way back in the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, there was also an ancestor of the current rhinoceros family called the Woolly Rhinoceros that roamed across Europe. There are even records of this species in prehistoric French cave art! 

Today, there are several different rhino species: the Sumatran Rhino, the Black Rhino, White Rhino, Javan Rhino, and Greater One-Horned Rhino. The Sumatran Rhino is a unique species out of this group for several reasons. 

Photo: Pexels

Weighing in at 1,300 – 2,000 pounds, this fine odd-toed ungulate (hoofed mammal) is the smallest rhino with an average height of 3-5 feet and a length of about 6-9 feet. It is also the only species with two horns. If you examine their scientific name closely (Dicerorhinus Sumatrensis), you’ll see that it translates exactly to say “two-horned rhino from Sumatra.” Another characteristic (and one of my personal favorites) that sets this lovely species apart from the rest is that they sport shaggy long hair! Our rhino friend loves to bathe in nice, sloshy mud pits, and the hair on their body enables the mud to stick longer. This serves two purposes: it has a cooling effect from the hot and humid weather (this is particularly helpful since the rhino doesn’t have sweat glands), and it also protects rhino skin from bothersome insects. Frankly, in this mid-July heat, I would also love to channel my inner rhino and go find a mud bath to cool down!

A Well-Rounded Creature

The Sumatran rhino is a solitary creature that enjoys perusing for food in the dense tropical forest. Their menu options include over 100 plants, and they specifically seek out fruit, twigs, leaves, and shrubs. According to National Geographic, rhinos have an affinity for mangoes, bamboo, and figs, with the occasional salt lick. Perhaps this healthy herbivorous lifestyle contributes to their long lifespan of up to 40 years! 

Communication occurs for this species through a series of whistling and whining noises, as well as through kicking up dung with their back legs. While they aren’t known for having great vision, Sumatran Rhinos make up for it with a strong sense of smell and hearing. These two strong points are beneficial, as they love to travel by night. They also like to inhabit shallow water, and can even swim! (Though, their primary means of transport is running and climbing.) 

Hope, In The Form of A Newborn Calf

You may have heard in the news back in March that a beautiful new Sumatran Rhino calf entered the world at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Sumatra’s Way Kambas National Park. Born to captive rhinos Rosa and Andatu, this calf is the result of successful captive breeding efforts to sustain the Sumatran Rhino population.

Photo Credit:  Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry via Mongabay 

Female rhinos tend to give birth every 4-5 years after a 15-16 month long gestation period. Calves weigh about 88-110 pounds at birth and grow at a rate of 2-4 pounds per day after birth. Once they’ve grown a bit into adolescence, calves sample plant leaves hanging from their mothers’ mouths as they feed to learn which plants are safe to eat, according to Save The Rhino International. 

Ecological Role

The Sumatran Rhino has a significant ecological role as a seed disperser. This past March, Mongabay released an article describing a new research study that identifies the importance of Sumatran Rhinos as a primary seed disperser for at least 79 plant species. As the Sumatran Rhino population declines, the plants also lose an important aid to their survival. Mongabay writes: 

Megafauna can swallow large fruits whole, carrying seeds in their guts for miles before depositing them intact in a nutrient-rich dung pile. When disperser extinction disrupts this plant-animal partnership, a tree’s offspring can become stranded and must compete with their parent and siblings to survive.

This issue underscores the importance of revitalizing rhino populations and preserving their habitats, as the extinction of this species would make the continuation of other plant species much more difficult. 

If you, like me, have been captured by this breathtaking creature and wish to aid in their survival, you can support the Sumatran Rhino by getting involved with either of the following organizations: 

International Rhino Foundation

Save The Rhino International

For all the mud-loving creatures,