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SOS Rhino : In the News: : Articles : In Tabin with SOS Rhino
 

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The following article was submitted by Tim Daw, who participated in a Sumatran Rhino survey with SOS Rhino’s 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, he’s about to head off to the NW Atlantic to work as a fisheries observer for three months.

Although Tim has visited several rainforests, the trip with SOS Rhino was the first time he’d 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 I’d 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 team’s 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 it’s way through the undergrowth apparently unconcerned by Nimrod’s 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 wasn’t 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 doesn’t 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.


 

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