Young Indian rhinoceros, Royal Chitwan National Park. / ©: WWF / Michel GUNTHER

Asian rhinos

There are three Asian rhino species, all of which have been pushed to the brink of extinction. The greater one-horned is slowly recovering thanks to years of succesful conservation efforts but the Sumatran and Javan rhinos remain at great risk.

Having once roamed across most of Asia, they’re now found in just five countries - India, Nepal, Bhutan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Poaching for their horns and habitat loss are the two greatest threats to the survival of Asia's remaining rhinos.

 / ©: National Geographic Stock / Michael Nichols / WWF
© National Geographic Stock / Michael Nichols / WWF

Role in their ecosystem

Rhinos have been around for millions of years and have a major impact on the structure of their habitat and the health of their ecosystem.

For example, the greater one-horned rhino helps to maintain close-cropped grasslands near rivers, which are preferable feeding spots for small herbivores. Asian rhinos also disperse the seeds of plants and fruit they’ve eaten, through their faeces.

Many other animals – and people – depend on healthy rhino habitats, so protecting the rhino and its habitat helps other wildlife and people.
 

Physical description

All the folds in their skin give Asian rhinos a more armoured look than their counterparts in Africa. The greater one-horned rhino and Javan rhino have one horn, while the Sumatran rhino has two.

Despite their hefty appearance, Asian rhinos are excellent swimmers and can easily swim across rivers. They’re vegetarians, grazing on tall grasses, shrubs, leaves and some fruits.
 / ©: 2015 Stephen Belcher Photography All Rights Reserved
Javan rhino in Ujung Kulon National park in Indonesia
© 2015 Stephen Belcher Photography All Rights Reserved

Key Facts

  • Species

    Greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis), Javan rhino (R. sondaicus), Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis)

  • Habitat

    Tropical and subtropical grasslands and savannahs, to tropical moist forests

  • Status

    Vulnerable to Critically Endangered

  • Population

    Over 3000

 / ©: naturepl.com/Mark Carwardine / WWF
Sumatran rhino, Way Kambas National Park, Indonesia.
© naturepl.com/Mark Carwardine / WWF

Greater one-horned rhino

Its original range extended from Pakistan all the way through India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar. However in 1975, only 600 remained.

Decades of conservation efforts saw the population of the greater one-horned rhino rise to over 3,000 and a reclassification from endangered to vulnerable.
The species is found in the Terai Arc Landscape of India and Nepal and the grasslands of Assam and north Bengal, northeast India. - See more at: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/rhinoceros/asian_rhinos/#sthash.iqoPUkkn.dpuf
Greater one-horned or Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) / ©: WWF / Helmut Diller
Greater one-horned or Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis)
© WWF / Helmut Diller

Javan rhino

The critically endangered rhino is probably the rarest large mammal species in the world.

Also known as the lesser one-horned rhino, the species historically roamed from north-eastern India through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Today, there are just 57 Javan rhinos left in the wild.
Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) / ©: WWF / Helmut Diller
Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus)
© WWF / Helmut Diller

Sumatran rhino

The Critically Endangered Sumatran rhino is the smallest rhino species and the only Asian rhino with two horns.

The species once ranged from north-eastern India through Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, the population is estimated at fewer than 200 individuals, located in a few small pockets of Sumatra and Malaysia.
Sumatran rhinoceros / ©: WWF / Helmut Diller
Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis).
© WWF / Helmut Diller

Major threats

The greatest threat to Asian rhino populations is poaching. For centuries, powdered horn has been used in traditional Asian medicine in the belief that it can treat ailments ranging from hangovers and fevers to cancer.

Horns are also purchased and consumed purely as a symbol of wealth and social status. The current demand for rhino horn is primarily in Vietnam. As a result, poachers continue to kill the animals to take the horn, despite increased surveillance and protection.

Asian rhinos are also threatened by habitat loss and the degradation of their forest, grassland and marshland habitat – mainly due to human settlements, logging and agriculture. They now survive mainly in small, isolated areas – in small populations that can be prone to inbreeding.

The growing human population is putting more pressure on rhino habitat. As their living space contracts, rhinos increasingly come into contact - and conflict - with people. Rhinos have destroyed crops and caused some human casualties, and humans have retaliated.

Habitat loss not only reduces the available living space for rhinos, but also isolates and fragments rhino herds, making reproduction and genetic mixing more difficult.

Habitat loss

Greater one-horned rhino

Conservation efforts have seen the number of greater one-horned (or Indian) rhinos grow from 600 to 2,575 since 1975. At the same time, tree growth has reduced the rhinos’ grassland habitat, and the human population has also grown. This has led to conflict between rhinos and people over the remaining available non-forest areas.

In this reduced living space, rhinos have destroyed farm crops and caused some human casualties, and humans have retaliated against the animals.

Sumatran & Javan rhinos
The same problem exists for the other 2 Asian rhino species, with slightly different parameters.

The issue leading to conflict with humans is not that trees are reducing grassland, but that land-clearing is reducing the rhinos’ tropical forest habitat.

This habitat loss not only reduces the available living space for rhinos, but also isolates and fragments rhino herds, making reproduction and genetic mixing difficult to impossible

- See more at: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/rhinoceros/asian_rhinos/asianrhinos_threats/#sthash.taH5JyxX.dpuf

The greatest threat by far to Asian rhino populations is poaching. Although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, where it is ground into a fine powder or manufactured into tablets as a treatment for a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes, convulsions, and fevers. As a result, poachers continue to kill the animals to take the horn, despite increased surveillance and protection. - See more at: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/rhinoceros/asian_rhinos/asianrhinos_threats/#sthash.taH5JyxX.dpuf

Poaching

The greatest threat by far to Asian rhino populations is poaching.

Although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, where it is ground into a fine powder or manufactured into tablets as a treatment for a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes, convulsions, and fevers.

As a result, poachers continue to kill the animals to take the horn, despite increased surveillance and protection.
 

Habitat loss

Greater one-horned rhino

Conservation efforts have seen the number of greater one-horned (or Indian) rhinos grow from 600 to 2,575 since 1975. At the same time, tree growth has reduced the rhinos’ grassland habitat, and the human population has also grown. This has led to conflict between rhinos and people over the remaining available non-forest areas.

In this reduced living space, rhinos have destroyed farm crops and caused some human casualties, and humans have retaliated against the animals.

Sumatran & Javan rhinos
The same problem exists for the other 2 Asian rhino species, with slightly different parameters.

The issue leading to conflict with humans is not that trees are reducing grassland, but that land-clearing is reducing the rhinos’ tropical forest habitat.

This habitat loss not only reduces the available living space for rhinos, but also isolates and fragments rhino herds, making reproduction and genetic mixing difficult to impossible.

- See more at: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/rhinoceros/asian_rhinos/asianrhinos_threats/#sthash.taH5JyxX.dpuf

Poaching

The greatest threat by far to Asian rhino populations is poaching.

Although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, where it is ground into a fine powder or manufactured into tablets as a treatment for a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes, convulsions, and fevers.

As a result, poachers continue to kill the animals to take the horn, despite increased surveillance and protection.
 

Habitat loss

Greater one-horned rhino

Conservation efforts have seen the number of greater one-horned (or Indian) rhinos grow from 600 to 2,575 since 1975. At the same time, tree growth has reduced the rhinos’ grassland habitat, and the human population has also grown. This has led to conflict between rhinos and people over the remaining available non-forest areas.

In this reduced living space, rhinos have destroyed farm crops and caused some human casualties, and humans have retaliated against the animals.

Sumatran & Javan rhinos
The same problem exists for the other 2 Asian rhino species, with slightly different parameters.

The issue leading to conflict with humans is not that trees are reducing grassland, but that land-clearing is reducing the rhinos’ tropical forest habitat.

This habitat loss not only reduces the available living space for rhinos, but also isolates and fragments rhino herds, making reproduction and genetic mixing difficult to impossible.

- See more at: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/rhinoceros/asian_rhinos/asianrhinos_threats/#sthash.taH5JyxX.dpuf

Poaching

The greatest threat by far to Asian rhino populations is poaching.

Although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, where it is ground into a fine powder or manufactured into tablets as a treatment for a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes, convulsions, and fevers.

As a result, poachers continue to kill the animals to take the horn, despite increased surveillance and protection.
 

Habitat loss

Greater one-horned rhino

Conservation efforts have seen the number of greater one-horned (or Indian) rhinos grow from 600 to 2,575 since 1975. At the same time, tree growth has reduced the rhinos’ grassland habitat, and the human population has also grown. This has led to conflict between rhinos and people over the remaining available non-forest areas.

In this reduced living space, rhinos have destroyed farm crops and caused some human casualties, and humans have retaliated against the animals.

Sumatran & Javan rhinos
The same problem exists for the other 2 Asian rhino species, with slightly different parameters.

The issue leading to conflict with humans is not that trees are reducing grassland, but that land-clearing is reducing the rhinos’ tropical forest habitat.

This habitat loss not only reduces the available living space for rhinos, but also isolates and fragments rhino herds, making reproduction and genetic mixing difficult to impossible.

- See more at: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/rhinoceros/asian_rhinos/asianrhinos_threats/#sthash.taH5JyxX.dpuf

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Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), Chitwan National Park, Nepal. © Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon / ©: Michel Gunther / WWF
Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
© Michel Gunther / WWF

Solutions

In 1998, WWF created the Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) in recognition of the fact that conservation success will only be possible through a wide-ranging approach that goes beyond protecting isolated areas and addresses issues of land-use practices.
 
  • Stopping poachers: We are supporting law-enforcement agencies to patrol rhino habitats, and to capture and prosecute poachers.
     
  • Protecting habitat and reducing human-rhino conflict: We are working with communities to protect forested corridors used by rhinos and other species to move between habitats, and create buffer zones around protected areas and between forests and human settlements and farms.
     
  • Reducing consumer demand for rhino horn: With TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and through community outreach efforts, we are working to change consumer behaviour and so end demand for rhino horn.
     
Examples of current work:
 
  • In the Terai Arc Landscape in India and Nepal, conservation efforts for the greater one-horned rhino have enjoyed success, including translocating rhinos to new areas, and working with communities to conserve rhino habitat and promote alternative livelihoods.
     
  • In Assam, WWF and the International Rhino Foundation are supporting the 'Indian Rhino Vision 2020', which aims to increase the rhino population from around 2000 to 3000 by 2020, and to ensure that they are distributed over at least seven protected areas.
     
  • In Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, on Sumatra, Indonesia, the small population of Sumatran rhinos is increasing threatened by the conversion of forest to cash crops. WWF is working with park officials to collect population data on the rhinos, and with local communities to halt deforestation and restore natural habitat.
     
  • In Ujung Kulon National Park, on Java, Indonesia, anti-poaching patrols funded by WWF, IRF, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have ensured that no rhino poaching has occurred in recent years. WWF and its partners also help the park’s staff monitor the rhinos through camera traps and faecal DNA analysis.
     
  • Throughout all rhino habitats, WWF and TRAFFIC monitor the illegal trade in rhino horn, fund anti-poaching patrols, and support intelligence networks in strategic locations to prevent over-exploitation of rhinos for international trade. Work is also ongoing with practitioners of traditional Asian medicine to find and promote alternatives to rhino horn.

Examples of current work

  • In the Terai Arc Landscape in India and Nepal, at the base of the Himalayas, various conservation efforts for the greater one-horned rhino have enjoyed success. These include translocating rhinos to new areas, and working with local communities to conserve rhino habitat and promote alternative livelihoods.
     
  • In Assam, India, WWF AREAS and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) are supporting a project, 'Indian Rhino Vision 2020', aiming to increase the rhino population from around 2000 today to 3000 by 2020, and to ensure that they are distributed over at least seven protected areas. WWF is also working with local stakeholders to secure a habitat corridor between Kaziranga National Park - home to the largest population of greater one-horned rhinos - and Karbi Anglong so that the rhinos have access to higher areas during floods.
     
  • In Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, WWF and the Vietnamese government are working together to preserve the remaining population of eight Javan rhinos. Thanks to WWF’s efforts, the park is now benefiting from increased management and protection, biological monitoring and research, redrawn park boundaries, and the involvement of the local community in understanding and recognising their unique environmental inheritance.
     
  • In the Heart of Borneo, straddling Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, surveys by WWF, Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and Sabah Foundation (SF) found the largest-known Sumatran rhino population in Borneo. The three organizations are now running rhino monitoring units to prevent poaching. WWF is also working with local landholders, agri-businesses, and the government to stop the conversion of more than 20,000km2 of forest to oil palm and timber plantations between Kinabatangan and Sebuku Sembakung. The destruction of this forest would very probably lead to poaching of the remaining Sumatran rhinos in the area.
     
  • In Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, the critically endangered population of 60–80 Sumatran rhinos faces increasing threat from the conversion of forest to cash crops on both the eastern and western sides of the island’s central mountain range. WWF is operating with park officials to collect population data on the rhinos, and with local communities to halt deforestation and preserve and restore natural habitat.
     
  • In  Ujung Kulon National Park, on the island of Java, Indonesia, anti-poaching patrols funded by WWF, IRF, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have ensured that no rhino poaching has occurred in the last five years. WWF and its partners also help the park’s staff monitor the rhinos through camera traps and faecal DNA analysis. Such monitoring indicates that the population is still breeding and producing calves. WWF is also working with local communities to create awareness and generate alternative livelihoods.
          
  • Throughout all rhino habitats, WWF and TRAFFIC monitor the illegal trade in rhino horn, fund anti-poaching patrols, and support intelligence networks in strategic locations to prevent over-exploitation of rhinos for international trade. Work is also ongoing with practitioners of traditional Asian medicine to find and promote alternatives to rhino horn.
- See more at: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/rhinoceros/asian_rhinos/ourwork/#sthash.kUwqBap8.dpuf

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 / ©: Michel Gunther / WWF
Darted and radio-collared greater one-horned rhinoceros, to be translocated from Royal Chitwan Nationnal Park to Royal Bardia National Park.
© Michel Gunther / WWF
 / ©: 2015 Stephen Belcher Photography All Rights Reserved
Javan rhino in Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia. There are only 57 left on earth, making it the rarest of the world's 5 rhino species
© 2015 Stephen Belcher Photography All Rights Reserved
 / ©: Jeff FOOTT / WWF
Indian rhinoceros; Chitwan National Park, Terai Arc Landscape
© Jeff FOOTT / WWF

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