Sniffer dogs help survey Vietnam’s elusive rhino population

We’ve all observed the intensity with which dogs sniff poop, and how they often stick their noses into where poop is excreted. Apparently their powerfully sensitive noses gather much useful information from whatever fragrances exude from scat, and presumably this tells them a lot about the individual who dropped it.

Now conservationists are putting this canine talent to good use to locate the dung of what might be the rarest large mammal on the planet–the seldom-seen Javan rhino of Vietnam. Analysis of droppings enables scientists to determine how many individual rhinos survive in the deep forests, their overall health, and if they are breeding–but only if the researchers can find the droppings in the first place.


Drawing of a Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus). Only ten individuals of the Vietnam subspecies may survive.

© WWF-Canon/Helmut Diller

Two sniffer dogs from the United States are helping conservationists determine the population status of the Javan rhino in the Southeast Asian country, WWF-Vietnam said in a recent statement.

WWF researchers have teamed up with national park rangers to determine the population status of the rhinos in the forests of southern Vietnam, home to one of the world’s last two remaining populations of the species, the conservation charity said.


Poop Patrol: Simon Mahood, member of the WWF rhino project in Vietnam, with dog “Chevy,” who is trained  to detect dung of the rare Javan rhino in the forests of Vietnam.

© WWF Greater Mekong

The Javan rhino is Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Three different subspecies of Javan rhino are recognized.

The most abundant subspecies (R. sondaicus sondaicus) lives only in Ujung Kulon National Park, Java, with approximately 40 to 60 individuals remaining.

The subspecies once found in Bengal, Assam, and Myanmar (R. sondicus inermis) is now extinct.

The third subspecies (R. sondaicus annamiticus) survives only in Vietnam, and is the subject of this population survey.


Javan Vietnamese rhinoceros caught by a camera trap in the forests of southern Vietnam. Researchers need to get their hands on the rhino dung, however, in order to track different individuals, their gender, and reproductive status.

© WWF Greater Mekong

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus was thought to be extinct on mainland Southeast Asia until hunters in Vietnam killed an individual in 1988, WWF said. It is believed less than ten remain, but no conclusive survey has ever been conducted to verify this.

“The Javan rhino is possibly the rarest large mammal on Earth,” said Sarah Brook, leader of the WWF rhino project in Vietnam. “This field survey aims to reveal the secrets of Vietnam’s little known Javan rhino population in an effort to save it from extinction.”


Dung of a Javan Vietnamese rhinoceros sniffed out by dogs.The two dogs brought in to sniff out rhino dung in the forest found seven piles after only five days.

 © WWF Greater Mekong

Samples of rhino dung located by the dogs will be sent to Queen’s University in Canada where DNA analysis will detect the sex and number of animals. The Zoological Society of London will carry out a hormone analysis to show the animal’s breeding capability.

sniffer-dog-photo-2.jpgSniffer dog “‘Pepper,” who is trained  to detect dung of the rare Javan rhino in the forests of Vietnam as part of a WWF Greater Mekong rhino project.

© WWF Greater Mekong


Sniffer dog “Chevy.”

© WWF Greater Mekong

Dogs find dung

After just five days of surveying the area, seven rhino dung samples were found, WWF said. “These specimens have given the project team confidence that they will be able to gather all the necessary scientific information. The results of these analyses will be used to formulate an urgent rhino conservation plan.”

“If we lose the rhino the future does not look good for Vietnam’s other rare and endemic species.”

“The rhino is not only a rare animal unique to this country, but protecting the rhino is a flagship for conservation efforts in Vietnam,” said Hien Tran Minh, country director for WWF-Vietnam. “If we lose the rhino the future does not look good for Vietnam’s other rare and endemic species.”

The Javan rhino is a highly valued commodity in the illegal wildlife trade, with the rhino horn, skin and feces used for medicinal purposes, WWF said. “Habitat encroachment from agricultural expansion and planned hydropower development also pose increasing threats to this small population.”

Rhinomania, a blog written by the WWF team, is publishing updates on the rhino survey as well as on life in the national park. Check out the entries on leeches! 


Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn