The following article was submitted by Tim Daw, who participated
in a Sumatran Rhino survey with SOS Rhinos Borneo Team. Tim
is a member of the Sabah Society and studied Marine Biology at Newcastle
University in the United Kingdom. Upon graduation Tim took the post
of Chief Scientist on a coral reef research project in northern
Sabah and joined the Sabah Society to learn more about the state.
Tim has recently finished his work in Sabah but
plans to return to do some further study. Meanwhile, hes about
to head off to the NW Atlantic to work as a fisheries observer for
Although Tim has visited several rainforests,
the trip with SOS Rhino was the first time hed been on any
serious jungle trek.
In Tabin with SOS Rhino
October 18th-24th 2001
by Tim Daw
When I heard about the opportunity for a Society member to go tracking
with SOS Rhino, I hopefully wondered whether Id be lucky enough
to get a photo of a rare Sumatran rhino. A little more research
persuaded me to leave my zoom lens at home as I discovered that
there are less than 30 left in all of Borneo and that even the project
coordinator, Dr Edwin Bosi has never seen one live in the wild!
I met Dr Bosi in Lahad Datu and he gave me a brief introduction
to Sumatran rhinos, Tabin wildlife reserve and his unique brand
of humor as we drove to the reserve headquarters. The wildlife reserve
is 120,000 hectares, nearly three times the size of the more famous
Danum valley and home to the big three: elephants, Tembadau
and Sumatran rhinos as well as many other important species. Much
of the forest has been logged in the past but there are still 10,000
hectares of primary forest around the core area and SOS Rhino have
found several sets of rhino footprints there.
My companions for the week-long expedition were not paid guides
but the staff of SOS Rhino; I just tagged along with the team on
one of their bi-monthly expeditions. I was very much the novice
in the group and I would rely on and come to respect their wilderness
talents over the week.
After a night at the SOS Rhino house at the park headquarters where
Dr Bosi briefed the two teams, we set off to the core area of the
reserve. The route, along an old logging road, was surprisingly
fast and open. On this first day my legs were out of practice for
this level of exercise and so I was relieved when, seventeen kilometers
later, we arrived at our first base camp. A clearing lay just off
the logging road with a small shelter, frames for the teams
hammock beds and a small, gurgling river for washing and fishing.
I set up my hammock slightly away from the camp where there were
two suitably spaced trees and after a typical meal of rice, maggi
mee and sardines settled into my first night enveloped by the cacophony
of the forest.
The following day was heralded by exotic woops from distant gibbon
troops and started, as always with the ritual of cooking rice and
eating a hearty breakfast. Our much shorter route continued along
the logging road for a few kilometers further before we struck off
into the forest and made some steep descents towards the next base
camp on a flat area beside another lovely stream. That evening Nimrod,
a jungle-wise Orang Sungai from Kinabatangan, took me on a torch-lit
foray to see my first pelandok, or mouse deer. Sure enough, after
15 minutes walking as stealthily as possible we watched one of the
odd creatures pick its way through the undergrowth apparently
unconcerned by Nimrods torch.
On the way back, an otter civet bustled past in front of us and
mushrooms that we would have barely noticed in daylight glowed with
an eerie green luminescence. That night I was forced to come to
terms with the leechy realities of life in the forest. The camp
had a healthy population of the little suckers and I found that
neither my leech socks nor my hammock offered foolproof protection.
After only a few kilometers more on the following day we chose
a spot for our camp for the next few days. The team set about making
a small clearing and cutting poles for their shelter and hammock
stands. I was impressed by their parang skills and how quickly they
turned a small patch of forest into a comfortable camp (complete
with picnic table!). I often regretted not bringing the my own parang
as I was unable to help with many duties or practice new jungle
skills (or chop up leeches that I caught stealing my blood!)
We started the actual work on the fourth day in the forest. The
SOS Rhino teams cut transects through the forest on predetermined
bearings, which can then be surveyed for signs of rhinos and other
animals. Tracks or sightings are recorded via a palmtop computer
system, with the futuristic name of Cyber-tracker. This
allows the teams to easily record all relevant information without
kilograms of notebooks. Back at HQ data and satellite derived positions
are downloaded onto a PC and integrated with other surveys and maps.
The teams are currently working to establish a network of transects
and base camps throughout the reserve that will allow several teams,
each equipped with a Cyber-tracker, to conduct a survey of the entire
reserve to get a unique snapshot view of the numbers and positions
of different animal groups. The permanent transects can then be
used for future monitoring. The reality of this during my trip simply
involved hacking our way through the jungle following a compass,
as the priority was to prepare transects and base camps for the
big survey next year.
Unfortunately for me, this was far from ideal for seeing timid
wildlife and our sightings of large animals, despite copious quantities
of elephant dung and footprints were limited to very brief glimpses
of a pig and two deer. From the camps and during breaks I did see
some beautiful birds including hornbills, minivets, treeswifts,
kingfishers and flowerpeckers as well as an inquisitive treeshrew
and a nice iguana. However, the highlight of the trip for me was
to be absorbed by the impressive environment of Tabin. Once, we
unexpectedly stumbled out of the forest onto a wide, open riverbed,
scattered with huge boulders: the course of the Tabin Two river.
The scene was walled in on all sides by tall forest and whole dead
trees had been dumped across the river by past floods, their roots
twisting towards the sky. As we sheltered from a thunderstorm under
one of these fallen giants on an undiscovered riverbed in the midst
of a 120,000 hectare wilderness, I relished our remoteness from
the modern world. Meanwhile, Hillary relished the opportunity to
catch some dinner for us from the un-fished river.
Despite supplementing our supplies with ferns, ginger, fish, snails
and frogs from the forest, our rations ran low after six days (apparently
the team later expressed surprise to Dr Bosi that Orang puti
kuat makan nasi!) and so we planned to head out of the forest.
I felt very comfortable within the noisy, shady confines of the
forest by this time and imagined myself becoming an adept jungle
survivor like my companions. However, the forest soon put paid to
my naïve confidence on a small evening foray from camp.
While un-snagging my shirt from some rattan, I noticed insects
crawling over the plant. Before I could realize what was happening,
my hands and then nose burned with stings as the hornets or bees
vigorously defended their nest. I crashed away through the undergrowth
while wildly swatting my face with my cap for about 50 yards until
the insects had all gone. My nose was still very painful although
I wasnt completely sure whether from the stings or my baseball
cap! After catching my breath I cautiously circled back to camp
where my companions were amused by my tale of clumsiness.
The following day I followed the team and my swollen beak 24 kilometers
all the way from our camp back to the park headquarters. Although
the only rhino we saw during the trip was a hornbill, I came out
of the forest feeling alive and refreshed from my rich jungle experience.
Thanks to Dr Bosi and my team for a special opportunity that I would
recommend to anyone who doesnt mind the odd leech or ant bite
in return for a unique wilderness experience. Just remember to leave
your zoom lens and pack your parang.