The Elusive Badak Jawa

Forty-five years ago, aviator Charles Lindbergh wrote to the editors of Life magazine, urging that they launch an expedition to Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park to search for the Javan rhino. Indonesians call this animal badak jawa. Lindbergh had visited Ujung Kulon early in 1967, as he stated, “to deal with the critical situation of the one-horned Javan rhinoceros. There are only a few of them left … because they are widely hunted for their horns. It is widely believed in Asia that powdered horn from this rhinoceros will surely restore a man’s virility, and this superstition is enough to have reduced the herd to between 20 and 25.”

Lindbergh did not see any Javan rhinos during his visit to Ujung Kulon, but he had advice for anyone who might follow him in search of this rare and elusive creature. Any expedition should be self-sustaining, as no food supplies are available in the area, aside from catching fish. Water is available from wells and streams, but needs to be boiled for cooking and drinking. Anti-malaria medication is advised. Life ultimately sent writer/photographer Eliot Elisofon to Ujung Kulon, where he spent three months searching for rhinos and ultimately published a detailed account of his efforts in a book titled Java Diary.

When I made my own plans to seek Javan rhinos, I also hoped to come away with the quintessential photo, since so few images of this creature – arguably the rarest large mammal on the planet – exist. Nearly a half-century has passed since Java Diary was written, but you can essentially count the number of decent photos of Javan rhinos taken during that period on one hand, and no one has yet devised a reliable method for finding and observing these animals.

More importantly, however, I wanted to see firsthand what the International Rhino Foundation is doing to save this species from extinction. Charles Lindbergh understood the global importance of Ujung Kulon and its rhinos. In his words, “Here, as in other critical areas of wilderness on every continent, modern man is confronted by the startling values of nature his civilization so facilely destroys. And here will be decided to large degree whether man continues to exterminate his planet’s wildlife or preserve at least the seeds for future use.”

Join me in a trek through one of the world’s most treasured protected areas and a search for the elusive badak jawa. The journey begins shortly.

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