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SOS Rhino : In the News : Articles : SOS Rhino Borneo Volunteer Report

SOS Rhino Borneo Volunteer Report
12-22 July 2003

by Myfanwy Griffith
I touched down at Kota Kinabalu airport on the 12th July and my first impression of Malaysia was of the incredible heat and humidity ‚ would I be able to acclimatise enough to be able to trek in the jungle? I was taken to a backpackerís lodge where I met another volunteer and we both discussed our expectations of the survey work to come. We were both a little unsure of what exactly we were going to be doing and how our days in the jungle would be organised. However it was good to know that I wouldnít be the only volunteer and we were both excited about the adventure to come. That evening Fay from SOS Rhino took us for a meal and was able to answer our many questions about what was to come and gave us examples of the work we may be involved in.

The next day involved a flight to Lahad Datu where we met Leni who supervises the survey work in Tabin Wildlife Reserve. She took us shopping to buy supplies for our survey, but I was left a little confused over what I actually needed to buy and what SOS Rhino would provide as group rations. For example it could have been made clearer that a lunch and dinner of rice would be provided, but you needed to organise your own breakfast. The rangers would cook up a large pan of rice in the morning and put it into tubs to eat at a lunch break. We were given plastic bags to put ëlunch riceí in but these were not ideal, and I ended up eating a large portion of rice for breakfast and then not eating again till the evening meal.

Once two more volunteers had been collected we all headed up into Tabin. The journey seemed to take forever as we passed through acres of oil palm plantations before finally reaching the secondary forest on the outskirts of Tabin. The Wildlife Foundation does a great job of liasing with all the plantation owners to ensure that Tabin remains a reserve. Our base camp was pretty basic, but at least there is a 'proper' toilet. My last excursion into African jungle involved a hole in the ground! Two more volunteers joined us later that evening making a group of six, and we all set about getting to know each other.

The next day was all about preparation for out 7-day survey. We were taken to find the much needed leech socks. Leni split us into two groups and we met the rangers who would be leading the surveys. She also showed us how to use the data collection and GPS equipment and told us which square we would be surveying. I then got a little worried as the square my group would be surveying involved a 17km hike on the first day just to get there, which seemed a little extreme for the first day. After the orientation talk we hiked up to a mud volcano and this worried me even more as it wasnít far but I found it hard going in the heat and humidity. I hoped things would improve as I acclimatised. The evening was spent packing our rucksacks with minimal clothing, sleeping bag, hammock, tarpaulin and the all important rice. My rucksack weighed what felt like a ton and I went to bed that night not looking forward to the next day.

The first day was a horrible, hot, trudge. The good things were that the 17km we walked was along an old logging track and not through the jungle and secondly, that there was a wonderful river to cool off in once we reached the first camp. I drank plenty of water but always seemed dehydrated. Over the next couple of days it became difficult to boil up enough water in the evening for the next dayís hike and we ended up drinking river water to stop getting dehydrated.

I was very impressed by the camps sleeping 'tents', which were made out of thin trees and string. We had four camps during our survey and it was amazing to see the rangers clear a site and build the beds for seven people in around an hour.

On the second day we had to wait for two rangers to join us with additional supplies, and it was great to have a rest after the previous days hike. Unfortunately one of the other volunteers was feeling ill and so returned to base camp on the third day while the rest of us continued into the jungle.

I am sorry to say that I found the survey work disappointing. I had expected to learn about how to track rhinos, feel like I was doing something worthwhile and see lots of wildlife. Instead I felt like was holding the rangers up and didnít learn anything. Admittedly I found the trekking harder than I had imagined, but for 5 of the days we were walking with full packs on. Obviously volunteers are not going to be as fit or fast as the rangers, and it felt like each day they were ahead doing the surveying and we just tagged along at the back. We werenít really shown where we were going each day or what to look for, and when I tried to ask questions and learn more there was difficulty in communicating. I didnít expect everyone to have perfect English but it would have been nice to know, for example how to tell the difference between elephant and rhino dung and what species of birds were calling. Although I found the trekking very hard I wouldnít have minded so much if I felt that I was actually achieving something.

We saw two old rhino wallows but not much else. I hadnít expected to see any rhino, but was disappointed at the lack of wildlife other than leeches and millipedes.

On the last day we hiked out of the jungle and back along the logging road to base camp looking forward to meeting up with the others and finding out how their survey experience was. On our way back we passed Leni going out in a truck so we knew the other group had arrived back before us. On speaking to the other volunteers it seemed as if their group had a much better experience. They did a much more systematic survey from a central point, which meant fewer days walking with the big rucksacks on. This could have been due to the topography of our square but it wasnít explained to us. Also the other group got the use the data collection equipment.

On a safety note, I feel very strongly that you should encourage volunteers to buy the kampung Adidas shoes, or at least make them aware that they will be wading down rivers where regular walking boots have no grip. On numerous occasions both the other volunteer and myself slipped whilst wading knee deep in rivers because our boots did not grip the wet rocks. I know that you recommend them on the website, but there was no reinforcement of their usefulness once we had arrived in Lahad Datu.

In conclusion, I am glad that I volunteered but wouldnít necessarily recommend it to others. I think a lot of my criticisms are down to personal preconceived ideas of what the experience would be like. Looking back at the information from the website it does provide a realistic overview of what to expect. Personally, I would have liked things to be more prepared, especially once I reached Malaysia. Not having done this sort of survey work before I felt I needed more guidance in what to buy and what to expect. Not knowing where or how far you are going each day and not being able to feel like you are contributing to a project, on top of the physical aspect of the hiking made me very disillusioned about the whole experience.