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SOS Rhino : In the News : Articles : Emily Aron Volunteer Report
 

Emily Aron Volunteer Report

  My Volunteer Experience

Emily Aron
May 2006

The Walking
My walk into the forest to undertake rhino surveys began in a village. We (me along with one Rhino Protection Unit, RPU) walked into Tabin forest reserve. I found the walk extremely challenging. The terrain is hilly, the ground is damp, very muddy in places, and there are numerous tree roots to trip over and spiky plants to catch my clothes. Although I was getting tired and worn out I couldn’t wipe the huge grin from my face. Just the thought that I was actually in the rainforest and challenging myself by undertaking this trek was enough to please me immensely. The initial trek felt much further than 5km, and I suppose it must have been. 5km on a GPS reading in a straight line is not the same as walking along choosing the best path with ‘the least resistance’, avoiding large trees, patches with very dense foliage and crossing the river in the shallowest narrowest places.

After the initial hike into the forest and back, the walking to search for rhino tracks was more enjoyable. We took a slower pace and I had ample opportunity to observe my surroundings and really appreciate being in dense forest. The surveys were fantastic. We headed off in our chosen direction and just walked and walked looking for tracks. I had plenty of opportunity to look at all the insects and plants around me, and only carrying a small bag with lunch and my camera was a welcome change from carrying my heavy backpack weighing me down. I could actually keep up with the boys during the surveys, rather than feeling like I was holding everyone up being slow on the walk into the forest. The walk out of the forest back to the boundary was broken in two, camping in between, as per the walk in. I was much faster on the walk home. I think it was the strength I had built up on the surveys and the thought of clean dry clothes and a beer!

Rhino Tracks
On only my second survey day in the forest Amit (our team leader) found rhino tracks. We were walking in a Northwest direction from our camping site all keeping a close eye on the ground. We all ran over to Amit, and I, along with all the boys, was very excited. James told me that he had been working for SOS Rhino for 4 months and these were the first tracks he had seen, I felt incredibly lucky that I was seeing tracks from a wild Sumatran Rhino after I had been in the forest for such a short time.


Rhino footprint. One of 6 in total.

We found 6 prints in total, and many elephant tracks. The elephants had walked over the rest of the rhino prints obscuring them from view. The boys set about measuring the prints with callipers and taking GPS readings of our location. The tracks were reasonably fresh, probably only about a week old. I found this incredible to imagine a rhino walking in this exact spot just a week earlier. The prints were located on quite a steep hill, so the 3 toes were clearly visible, as the rhino had dug its toes into the ground as it wandered carrying its immense weight up the hill.

The Forest
I don’t know where to begin summarising how spectacular and spiritual it is to live inside the rainforest for 2 weeks, and spend a further 2 weeks staying in base camps around Tabin forest reserve. The forest is a beautiful awe-inspiring environment. Whilst bathing in the river I would lie back and gaze at the trees shadowing above and enjoy the cooling gentle flow of the river. The only slightly disconcerting aspect to bathing in the river was when the fish decided to find out if I was edible and nipped at my legs. The trees are huge and the ground is alive with all sorts of life, mainly insects and leeches.


Centipede and ants on a fallen tree. These centipedes were found everywhere!

My first day in the forest, I was less than impressed with the leeches, and had to really psyche myself up (with the help of the RPU boys) to pull them off. After the second day, I was desensitized, and could pull them off myself without too much fuss! Leech socks are an absolute essential. At every rest break whilst trekking I would check for leeches, mainly found travelling up the outside of my trousers, or attached to my stomach. I am very thankful that they were not on the inside of my trousers travelling up my legs! As dusk fell I loved listening to the loud cacophony of sounds, the crickets, cicadas and frogs calling, the river flowing and occasionally the distant rumble of an elephant.

The forest is a very relaxing and calming place, most of the time. When a storm is brewing the thunder is deafening and the rain arrives quickly and falls heavily. On one night the rain was coming down really hard and the thunder was frequent and extremely loud, we sat in our hammocks sheltering from the rain and watching the river swelling. The river flooded so far that it started to come up under the camp. We quickly packed all our belongings and hammocks into our bags, grabbed all the cooking equipment and canvases and carried everything back further into the forest away from the rising river. The boys went back and removed the branches used to make the camp, and set about rebuilding the camp away from the river. It was amazing to watch them at work. The new camp was built in no time, even in the slippery mud and pouring rain. I wasn’t much help without a parang, but I held torches and took photos, and apparently I was of some use!

Our final survey day proved very interesting. Whilst looking for footprints, Amit spotted a tree with very clear bear claw marks. There is only one bear found in the forests of Borneo, this is the Sun Bear. On the tree there were puncture marks in the bark where the bear had climbed up and deep scratches where the bear had scrambled down. The tree looked well used, and I wondered if the bear was still asleep up the tree while we were standing below.


Scratch marks from a sun bear. You can see where the bear has climbed up and scrambled down.

Tabin Base Camp
After successfully completing my 2 week survey in Tabin Forest Reserve with Amit, Johnny, James, Dell and Lucas, I met up with Lynn (the field co-ordinator) and Marikus again and we drove from Tungku to SOS Rhino base camp in Tabin. The base camp is basic, but homely and I saw the first running water and flushing toilet I had seen for weeks. This made me realise how little I had missed these conveniences whilst immersed in the beauty of the forest.

The base camp is located just on the edge of the forest, and by day I could sit at the base camp and watch long tail macaques playing in the trees opposite. I walked with another RPU (Rasaman, Jenci and Yusri) based at the base camp to see the near by mud volcano. I found the walk to the volcano most pleasant I had missed the forest! I’d certainly not missed the leeches, but found removing them no problem, and I had almost mastered the roll them in the fingers and flick them away to prevent them from attaching to your fingers when you have pulled them off. The volcano is an amazing sight; there are no trees and vegetation growing on the mud, as it is too rich in caustic minerals. It has created a large circular gap in the forest. On the walk to the volcano I saw a troop of shortail macaques, the largest primates I saw in the forest. They were very close to the base camp, and the sighting was so unexpected, I hardly had time to get my camera out to take a picture before they vanished back into the trees.


Shortail macaque returning to the trees. Tabin forest near base camp.

Rhino sightings

Whilst staying at the base camp, Lynn received a call informing her that a Sumatran rhino had been spotted in an oil palm plantation near to another forest reserve. It was decided that we would go and search for the rhino (if it was still inside the plantation), look for fresh tracks, and interview people working at the plantation about what they had seen and how often the rhino was sighted. Lynn and I set off from Tabin with Marikus, Jenci, Idik, and Yusri to find out more. We drove through miles and miles of plantation with Marikus expertly navigating our way through the identical looking roads and tracks. As we got closer the information gleamed from plantation gate guards got increasingly encouraging. We drove for about 6 hours into the night and then arrived where the rhino had been spotted. We got some well-needed sleep, and the next day drove to a camp where forestry department employees were staying to ask if we could enter the forest to look for ‘tapak badak’ - rhino footprints. We were granted permission and set off into the forest.


The very first rhino footprint seen near plantation

Idik was the first to spot it and he stood gleaming waiting Jenci and me to catch up. It was a perfect print, even me, with my amateur eyes, could undoubtedly see that it was a rhino print. Obvious 3 toes, a textbook tread. We continued along the track, stopping enroute to look at a very small mud volcano our forestry department guide had taken us to. A short walk further lead us out of the forest on to another well-used bulldozer mud track. Here we saw an incredible sight, perfectly clear fresh rhino prints leading all the way down the track, from the forest to the plantation and back again.


Trail of rhino footprints from forest to plantation.

We took loads of photos, none of the RPU boys had ever seen a sight like it in the wild. I seemed to be very lucky with seeing the rhino footprints. I was hoping that my luck would continue and maybe we would see the rhino itself! It had rained all night the night before, and the footprints had not been washed away or affected in anyway by the rain. This meant the prints were from that very morning. The freshest tracks anyone from SOS rhino has seen. Amazing! The boys took measurement data from many of the prints and GPS readings. We headed into the estate to ask plantation workers about the sightings. They said the rhino was a regular visitor, and we informed them of how endangered the species is and how lucky they were to have actually seen a wild individual. Lynn did most of the talking, my Malay had improved greatly since I first arrived 3 weeks ago, but not to a level where I could understand what everyone was saying without Lynn interpreting for me. The next day we returned to interview a man who regularly sees the rhino. He gave a detailed account of the rhino’s appearance, and when it was last seen. He had seen it the day before, just a few hours after we had left the site. How disappointing, we missed it! We returned to Tabin very excited about the footprints we had seen, and people we had spoken to. Lynn informed me that SOS rhino would hopefully be sending an RPU back to the site to take more data and hopefully find the rhino.

Dagat

After returning from I accompanied Lynn to the village of Dagat. There are no roads leading to Dagat, so we left the car at the river and travelled by boat. The journey along the river the first night was beautiful. The night sky was a magnificent sight, so many stars and fireflies. There is one specific tree along the riverbank that is lit up like a Christmas tree it holds so many fireflies. We arrived at the base camp and I met another RPU. These boys are much quieter than the previous RPUs I had been with, but very nice people. I think Dagat is an amazing little place. It is quiet, peaceful and beautiful. In the day I would sit at the base camp watching the edge of the forest. I saw longtail macaques and silver leaf langur monkeys in the trees and otters in the river. At night I loved to watch the stars, I saw more shooting stars then I had seen in my life. There is so much light pollution in England we never see many stars. I really appreciated the tranquillity. One night while I was watching the sky I even saw two bearded pigs (Babi hutan) that had come to the village scavenging for food. On my last afternoon in Dagat I was taken on a boat trip to see the proboscis monkeys. They were wonderful. The males had great huge bloated bellies, and all had the big bulbous noses, characteristic of the species. We also saw long tail macaques playing in the trees and rhinoceros and black hornbills flying overhead. On a couple of occasions along the river I saw Brahamany kites flying above. Just being in Dagat was an experience; I really appreciated the slow pace and simple life.


A troop of proboscis monkeys by the river in Dagat

My volunteer experience

I would like to thank SOS Rhino for providing me with such an amazing experience. It was my first direct experience of working with a front line conservation organisation, and it gave me much to consider for my continued progression into a career in endangered species conservation. I think all the field staff work extremely hard, and this organisation would not be a success without them. I would especially like to thank Lynn, Marikus, Yusri, Johnny, James, Lucas, Dell, and Amit. I was very well looked after whilst I was inside the forest and I learnt a great deal from my RPU. They are very skilled at the work they carryout. It was very encouraging for me to meet other young people so dedicated to, and enthusiastic about, animal conservation. From a scientific point of view I think it would be helpful for the RPU boys and future volunteers to really see what happens with the data they collect. I am not exactly sure what SOS Rhino do with the footprint data; maybe volunteers and field staff could be made more aware of this.

My volunteer experience was one of overcoming physical challenges and being rewarded by witnessing fresh footprints of one of the world’s rarest mammals. The Sumatran rhino has fascinated me for many years and my keen interest continues. I didn’t see an actual rhino, so maybe on my next trip to Borneo my luck will continue and my wish will be granted!


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