Some rhino signs are subtle, others are striking. For example, I can’t describe the faint odor of rhino urine very well, but I can recognize it now, having gotten several whiffs in the field. Though invisible to the human eye, it verifies the animal’s presence. The trail of a rhino through the brush, by contrast, can be as unmistakable as the physical evidence left by someone who just drove a Jeep through your living room. A single rhino can carve a wide tunnel through the vegetation or bring down a small tree just to reach a tempting mouthful of leaves in the upper branches.
Rhino trails are not random pathways through the forest. They connect locations, such as streams, salt licks and wallows that have behavioral and ecological significance. Rhinos need to drink, they require trace minerals in their diet, and they routinely spend time coating themselves with mud to moderate body temperature and fend off external parasites.
Low-lying areas of the forest where water collects can become permanent wallows, which then become regular stops for resident rhinos. Part of our search strategy was to visit wallows at different times of the day in hopes of surprising a submerged, mud-covered animal. We did this for several days, each time adding to our knowledge of Javan rhino ecology. The mud in one of the first wallows we visited had dried and cracked. No rhino had used it for weeks. Another was filled with water and topped with foamy bubbles. It had been used earlier the same day or perhaps the night before. Its banks were also peppered with cone-shaped holes. These were made by the horn of a rhino intent on enlarging the area of its mud bath. Because the horns of female Javan rhinos are very small or even absent, we could tell that this wallow was last used by a male.
Recently-used wallows also provide clues regarding subsequent travels. Deep footprints along the edge identify where an animal has hauled itself out. And the wet mud on its body then generously slops nearby tree trunks or paints leaves along the trail. Conceivably, one could follow these signs and catch up to an elusive rhino. A sound theory perhaps, but one which didn’t pay off for our team. We spent many hours following these signs, but they never led to an unsuspecting rhino. Instead, they petered out deeper into the forest or brought us back to the coast, often close to where our journey inland had initially begun. Were the rhinos just messing with us?
No better luck resulted by using dung piles to track rhinos. Most that we found were probably more than a day old, which didn’t really provide any insight as to where their “depositor” might be. We did encounter one much fresher sample – still moist and almost steaming – but our efforts to find the rhino responsible again proved fruitless.
After days of tracking, we came to the conclusion that the Javan rhino absolutely deserves its reputation as an elusive species. And you also have to respect a creature that’s as big as a car and is able to remain hidden in plain sight. But our search is not over just yet. There’s one more site we need to visit and one final strategy to put in place before we admit defeat.
To be continued …