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SOS Rhino : In the News: : Articles : Summer 2002 volunteer experience with SOS Rhino’s Borneo Team
  The following article was submitted by Tracy Gluckman who volunteered for 2-1/2 months during the summer of 2002 with SOS Rhinoís Borneo Team in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Tracy holds a masters degree in veterinary science and is currently a third year veterinary student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, USA.

Tracyís professional interests include primate and conservation/wildlife medicine, and her hobbies are adventure travel, mountain biking, scuba diving, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing. Her previous travel experiences include Indonesia, Costa Rica, Spain, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, and the United Kingdom.

Tracyís interest in volunteering with SOS Rhino evolved as a compilation of many of her personal and professional interests. Since traveling to Indonesia in the summer of 2000, she promised herself that she would return to Southeast Asia as soon as she could with her eyes particularly set on Borneo. With her love of the environment, her strong interest in conservation-based issues and a developing interest in wildlife management and medicine, Tracy wrote ìthe SOS Rhino volunteer program fit the profile perfectly for an incredible and invaluable summer experienceî. .


Summer 2002 volunteer experience with SOS Rhino’s Borneo Team

 

by Tracy Gluckman

I left Chicago on my way to Borneo on May 31st, 2002 without much expectation as to what my summer volunteering for SOS Rhino would entail. My typical outlook on travel is not to have overwhelming expectations and therefore those inevitable twists and turns of the travel experience are anything but disappointing. Although I had traveled previously in Indonesia and had a good visual image of what Sabah would look like, what the food would taste like, and what the language would sound like, the course of my summer could have never been predicted. Without a doubt my summer working with SOS Rhino exceeded all expectations, indelibly altering my perception on issues of politics, conservation and most importantly, my future direction as a veterinarian.

Tabin Wildlife Reserve
North of Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

My first survey.


Arriving at the SOS Rhino headquarters bordering the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the shiny red Nissan pick-up at dusk was a head rattling experience. The hour-long ride along a dirt road from Lahad Datu left me filled with the hopes and anticipation of an elephant siting and a bit of despair seeing the road bordered on one side by the beautiful Tabin secondary rain-forest, while the other of oil palm plantations as far as the eye could see. I was warmly greeted upon arrival by thirty Singaporian volunteers from Temasek Polytechnic School who rapidly brought me up to speed on the following dayís plans as we set off on my first 10 day rhino survey of Tabin. My backpack was rapidly unpacked with some of the more useless items I brought (i.e. heavy gortex boots) and repacked with more forest-friendly gear and my share of the meals for the next ten days. I was readily outfitted with a clean pair of leech-socks and a size-six pair of kampung Adidas, one of the most brilliant shoes ever constructed for a slippery forest trek. Following repacking, I was briefed by my 12-man survey team on our journey for the next week and a half. We were heading to the core interior of Tabin, km 32, stopping the first night with two other teams at km 17, then moving quickly to km 27 where we would camp for several nights in order to survey the interior. This was the area a male rhino was spotted two months prior. My team consisted of 8 Singaporian youth, their team leader, two SOS Rhino rangers and Dr. Annelisa Kilbourn.

By 5:30am the next morning we were dropped at the gate entrance to Tabin. The weight of my backpack was estimated at 15 kg, but felt good on my back. I felt ready for this 17-km stretch, although silently repeating my trekking mantra, ìyou are strong, you can do this!î and hoping I would not slow my team down. The first 17-km consisted of a logging road with several sun-exposed hills, but was a fairly painless trek. As the first team to arrive at km 17, we immediately set up camp, reconstructing some of the hammock supports and enjoyed the cool flow of the river in what was my first mandi sejuk (cold bath) of the trip. It was heaven. For dinner that night we dined on fresh fish, delicious transformed to ikan goreng (fried fish) by the rangers and paquis, the delicate, tender shoots from the forest fern ‚ sedap (delicious)! Although my first hammock construction was not nearly as tight as the rangerís was I drifted happily to sleep in my slightly sagging hammock to a cacophony of forest sounds.

Having avidly watched the 2000 Borneo Eco-World Challenge, the fear and anticipation of acquiring my first tiger leech was fierce. I dreaded the bite; the blood engorged meal and attachment of these squirming invertebrates to my body. Although donning the leech socks insured foot protection, the rest of the body provided a massive open target for these blood-sucking creatures. And then the first bite came and went without event with only the remnant stain of blood on my pants. With time I was pulling those terrestrial wonders off without fear or hesitation. The only challenge I truly faced was learning to walk in the forest labyrinth of tree roots, tree litter-hidden crevices, down trees and burly thickets. Many times I was so convinced the rangers sprouted fairy wings when we werenít looking since their silent speed was more than unearthly. By my second survey, I learned to not only how to walk in the forest, but how to walk quickly and quietly, managing to keep pace with my smaller, faster team.

Upon reaching camp at km 27, we prepared to survey an area where previous rhino prints and wallows had been detected. SOS Rhino is outfitted with the latest high-tech survey equipment, geared to increase efficiency and ease of data collection. Hand-Spring Visorsë modified with Cybertrackerë software and Magellanë GPS tracking devices were configured to collect location coordinates and field data which could be backed up on disk in the field and subsequently hot-synced to the main database upon return to the headquarters. Cybertrackerë is an icon-based software program, modified by Dr. Annelisa, to fit the needs of the rhino survey program. For example, when prints are detected, subsequent data measurements can be entered into the HandSpring Visorsë and immediately linked to a GPS coordinate. All the data collected on a particular survey can be downloaded into an Arc-View file and a topographical query of human-encroachment, for example, can be visualized on a mapped layout of Tabin. This method of data collection and presentation allows SOS Rhino to recommend management strategies for Tabin based on demographics and distribution of their findings from the surveys. While surveying between km 27 and km 32 our team detected and measured over thirty rhino prints ‚ a record-breaking number according to Dr. Annelisa. After taking extensive measurements on each of the prints for statistical analysis and a plaster cast of a beautiful print; we proceeded to set-up one of the camera phototraps in hope of capturing one of these animals on film. The precise location for setting up these cameras poses a significant challenge since animals, like the gajah (elephant) have an affinity for head smashing the units after being startled by the bright flash.

My first survey of Tabin certainly left me well worn, but strong after a round-trip of over 65-km. I learned a bit of Bahasa Melayu that expanded rapidly within the 2.5 months I spent in Sabah. I ate incredibly well, dining on traditional Chinese and Malaysia fares that never left me hungry and returned to the headquarters with a clearer conception of conservation. Although SOS Rhino is still uncertain whether Tabin holds a sustainable population of Sumatran rhinos, to me the rhino serves as an ambassador for habitat conservation. Witnessing the perfect harmony of flora and fauna in Tabin brought with it the understanding that upsetting this balance has far-reaching implications to the survival of all species that reside within its borders. Moreover, that the ongoing destruction of forest habitat has significant global implications to all species.

Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre.
Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo


Of the 2.5 months I was in Sabah, I spent about 4 weeks at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. This orang-utan sanctuary run by the Sabah Wildlife Department (Jabatan Hidupan Liar Sabah) also houses the SOS Rhino captive breeding facility. Gelugob (female) and Tanjung (male) are assessed for reproductive viability in hope that these two can produce a beautiful young calf. The task of successfully breeding and Gelugob carrying a calf to full term is a difficult one. This captive-breeding program constitutes the ex situ effort of SOS Rhino. Aside from the goal of successful reproduction, increasing knowledge regarding behavior, reproductive anatomy and physiology, nutrition and health status can influence and guide management decisions for wild populations of Sumatran rhinos.

My role while at Sepilok was to work with Dr. Annelisa to help introduce and establish the newly hired veterinarian, Dr. Rosa. We spent several days evaluating Gelugobís reproductive tract with trans-rectal ultrasonography. If successful breeding did occur, could she carry a calf to full-term? We took blood samples to evaluate her health status and to evaluate circulating blood hormone concentrations and we spent 6 ‚ 7 hours per day monitoring Gelugobís and Tanjungís behavior to detect behavior indicative of reproductive receptivity. As a veterinary student, this was the reason I came to Sabah. I came for the rest as an ardent environmentalist and an adventure seeker.

The behavior monitoring was fascinating as it gave me new insight to wild rhino behavior. Observing foraging, where and how long they wallow and how they move through the dense undergrowth filled me with excitement upon my anticipated return to the forest. The observations took place while the animals were released into their large outdoor enclosures. A 4-meter high fence encircled these beautiful expanses with a modified 0.5-meter platform for observations. Days were spent trekking along the platforms, following a single rhino, often to and fro the wallow (by far the location of choice!) and watching for signs of reproductive receptivity. While on these platforms we were visited daily by free-ranging orang-utan and troops of pig-tailed and long-tailed macaques. Often too close for comfort, my last minute course of action typically involved a high-speed run along these narrow platforms to escape these aggressive primates. My need for adventure was certainly fulfilled on a daily basis.

The breadth of my experiences this summer cannot nearly be summarized in a few pages. The opportunities as a volunteer for SOS Rhino were far reaching and more involved than most volunteer programs allow. It was a summer I will never forget because of the people, the beauty of the forest and the craziness of the adventure. In 2.5 months I felt I was able to contribute something of considerable value to a program geared not only towards environmental change and conservation consciousness, but also for social and political reform of global proportions. I have a deeper appreciation for why the plight the animals that occupy these wild open spaces is not only a responsibility in my hands as a future veterinarian, but a social responsibility as a resident of our global community.

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