The Chinese believe that rhino blood, urine, and horn (which is not a true horn at all, but is composed of hair-like material) have medicinal and aphrodisiacal powers. This superstition has resulted in heavy poaching of rhinos, placing them in grave danger.
Among the better-known snakes of southeastern Asia are the Indian and king cobras and the pythons. A king cobra can measure 3.5 m (12 ft) or more. It feeds mainly on other snakes. The closely related Indian, or Asian, cobra is appreciably smaller. The pythons are non-venomous constrictors. Contrary to popular belief they do not crush their victims to death but, through constriction, cause death through suffocation.
Southeastern Asia is the home of some of the showiest of all birds - the pheasants. Although native to Asia, they have been introduced elsewhere and now are among the most widely distributed of birds. One of the most widespread is the ringneck pheasant. An old legend claims that ringnecks were introduced into Greece by Jason, famous for his quest of the golden fleece. Ringnecks were brought to the United States in the mid-1800's and are now game birds. Several species of pheasants are exhibited at the Zoo, two of them roaming freely on the grounds.
The first is the blue peafowl. The male, called a peacock, is thetraditional symbol of vanity and false pride because of its almost constant displaying and strutting. The peafowl has been semi-domesticated for ages. A Greek myth relates how the bird got the eye-like spots on its tail. The peacock was a favored pet of Juno, wife of Jupiter. She became angry at her one-hundred-eyed servant, Argus, because of a misdeed on his part. To punish him and to make sure the world remembered his offense, she snatched out his hundred eyes and scattered them on the tail of her pet peacock. There they remain to this day.
The other pheasant that wanders the Zoo grounds is the junglefowl. It looks much like a domestic chicken - understandably since it is the chicken's ancestor.
Anthropologists think the chicken was first domesticated about 4000 B.C. as a fighting bird. Evidence suggests that the first chickens in the New World came with Polynesian sailors. The most ornamental of all domestic chickens are the long-tailed birds bred by the Japanese, some having tail feathers 6 m (20 ft) long.
The hot, humid rain forests of southeastern Asia hold a profusion of wildlife, much of it arboreal. Among these tree dwellers, primates reign, and within this group, the anthropoid - manlike - apes are royalty. Two of earth's four kinds of manlike apes live in southeastern Asia.
The smallest and most agile of these are the gibbons and siamangs. These apes are light-bodied, long-armed and have long, slender hands. Their generic name, Hylobates, means "tree dweller." They are truly champion acrobats, swinging hand over hand and leaping more than 9 m (30 ft) from one branch to the next. On large branches they usually walk upright, holding their arms aloft for balance. Gibbons live in family groups of two to six animals within well defined territories. Their morning whooping, often heard at the Zoo, is a territorial call to warn off other gibbons. The second anthropoid of southeastern Asia is the slow, retiring orangutan. Its name means "old man of the forest," and the orang does seem the most human of the apes. Unlike the gibbon, it is a loner. The species used to be widespread throughout the islands of southeastern Asia but extinction came early on all but Borneo and Sumatra. If we read the evidence correctly, prehistoric man hunted orangutans for food and could have been partly responsible for their disappearance from most of the range. Today fewer than 5,000 individuals remain, and despite strenuous efforts to save them, their numbers continue to drop. The forests they need are falling to the ax, so if the species survives, it will be in zoos and wildlife reserves.
Among the rain forest's arboreal creatures, there are a number of interesting "flying" animals - snakes, frogs and lizards. None of these animals actually flies. They glide with varying degrees of aerodynamic facility. The snake spreads its ribs and arches its body to produce a crude airfoil that allows it to glide at a steep angle. The other animals have folds and strips of skin which, when stretched, produce taut membranes that slow descent.
The second largest of all land animals, the Asian elephant, lives in the tropical forest. A bull can weigh 5,000 kg (11,000 Ib) and stand 2.5 to 3 m (8 to 10 ft) tall at the shoulders. Asian elephants have been domesticated for centuries - for riding, war, and as beasts of burden.
The Asian elephant's only natural enemy is the tiger. Although this cat attacks elephants, especially calves, it also preys on just about anything it can catch, including the crocodiles that live in the forest's sluggish rivers. One of its chief prey is the Malay tapir.
Tapirs originated in the New World, crossed on the land bridge into Asia and now exist on both continents. The obvious difference between Old World and New World tapirs is the large, white saddle-shaped patch of hair on the Malay tapir's body. American tapirs are a solid brown color.
Of the many species of birds in the tropical forest, among the most bizarre are the hornbills. There are 45 species, distributed throughout tropical and subtropical Africa and Asia. One of the bird's more fascinating behavioral habits is the manner of nesting. In most species of hornbills, when the female is pregnant and ready to lay, she enters a natural cavity in a tree. She and the male plaster over the cavity's opening with a mixture of droppings, mud and regurgitated food. They leave a narrow opening just wide enough for the female to poke her beak through, but too small for predators to enter. The plastered wall hardens, and the female, her eggs, and later the chicks, are safe. The male spends the time feeding his mate. When the nestlings are half-grown, both parents chip away the wall and the female emerges. She then helps her mate feed the baby birds, which remain in the nest until they are fledged. During the time the nest is occupied, it is kept clean and disease-free by insects and microscopic scavengers.