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SOS Rhino : In the News : Articles : Volunteer Report by Robert Risch (July-August 2007)

Volunteer Report by Robert Risch (July-August 2007)


Before I start with my report I want to explain my personal motivation and my choice to join the SOS Rhino Borneo project:

Why did I volunteer for SOS-Rhino?

Already as a child I was fascinated by the diversity of life. Soon this led my interest to the rainforests- the hotspots of biodiversity. Also very soon I started to suffer in view of rainforest destruction.
The knowledge about all the species that already have been exterminated and the species that will vanish in the future makes me very angry. I don’t know exactly why but I developed a special interest in Sumatran Rhinos. Maybe that’s because they are so mysterious, hardly visible and incredibly rare. Or because they look like one of the first big mammals that existed millions of years ago and they symbolize somehow the vulnerability of life’s variety. So I did internet research on the Sumatran Rhino and conservation projects. Between 2004 and 2006 I traveled several months through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and visited nature reserves and national parks. Everywhere I asked for rhinos and once in southern Thailand a guide showed me the trace of a Sumatran Rhino. It was so exciting to see foot prints of such a rare animal…
In the course of my internet research I found out about the website of SOS Rhino and after a long internal struggle because of the fees I finally decided to go to Sabah where the last 30 – 50 individuals of the Borneo subspecies of the Sumatran Rhino are facing their ongoing extinction (or rescue!). I wanted to see what rhino conservation in the field looked like. And I wanted to see how involved I could get. Another reason is that I would like to work as a conservation professional in the future. And of course I wanted to see the famous lowland rainforests of Borneo, probably the richest hotspots of biodiversity in the world.

What did I do in Tabin?

I arrived on the 28th of July 2007 in Lahad Datu to spend 4 weeks in Tabin Wildlife Reserve. On the same day, a group of students from Wales also got there. The first 5 days of my stay involved joining the group of students. We did reconstruction work at the long house (installed new mosquito nets in the windows) and cleaned the wildlife department building which is to be used to treat injured wildlife.
We also had some nice trips to the mud volcano and a nearby waterfall. Unfortunately
We didn’t go to the forest for a survey because several members of the group became sick (most probably because they were unaccustomed to the water). They left 2 days earlier to Lahad Datu. I too was sick, but just for 2 days.

On the 2nd of August another group of students from Lincoln, England arrived in Tabin. I joined them as we were sent to an orangutan rehabilitation camp 6 km away from the base camp. We stayed there for 5 nights to build a roof for the orangutan cage and to go on surveys. The time spent at the camp was very nice. Orangutans are really fascinating animals.

orang-utan having lunch

orang-utan watching me

The surveys were not as successful as we had found no rhino signs. Back at the base camp, the group from Lincoln departed and 2 days later I joined 3 very nice people from the staff to the core area of Tabin where we spent 10 days. We did 6 surveys in 2 different regions. It was mostly primary forest and indescribably fascinating (so I won’t try to describe it). On the 5th survey, we actually found a rhino footprints. Unfortunately the prints were too old to deliver any useful information about the individual that left them. But at least we found rhino footprints, which is rather exceptional during a survey.

When we were back from the forest I had 2 days off. One night, I spent at the mud volcano to watch animals. Then I was brought to the second base camp to help with construction work during the last days of my stay.

What did I see in Tabin?

Culture vs. Nature

My first impression as I was on my way from Lahad Datu to the base camp was an oil palm desert. From the plane I saw never-ending mono-cultural fields covering nearly every visible square meter. That’s the ugly face of capitalism, I thought. The destruction of the world’s richest habitats just to make a maximum of profit on the globalize market. Later in the jungle I saw all the scars of the systematical excessive logging during the 60s and earlier. Maybe 90% of Tabin is secondary forest. And even in the core area you can see old traces of selective logging. It might take several centuries for Tabin to look like a virgin rainforest again. 

The People

I had a lot of contact and fun with the staff. Their collective way of life, their open-minded attitudes and their friendly way to integrate me into their daily life was a very nice experience for me. Thank you all, I will miss you!

From a distance I also saw the rather sad working and living (!) conditions on the plantations. The plantation workers seem to waste their life just for the profit of the oil palm companies – for RM500 a month. Not funny at all!


The Animals
I saw a lot of animals in Tabin. Good places to spot animals are the roads between the forest and the plantations (especially at night), the mud volcano and of course the jungle. Normally you see the animals just for 2 seconds or from a further distance. But sometimes, for example if you use a torch during the night so that the animals can’t see you, you might even take pictures of shy animals. Here is an incomplete list of species I saw:

Pygmy Elephants, Greater Mouse Deer, Lesser Mouse Deer, Muntjac, Wild Boar, Common Palm Civet, Malayan Civet, Pig-tailed Macaque, Long-tailed Macaque, Grey Leaf Monkey, Gibbon, Orangutan, Leopard Cat, Squirrels, Flying Foxes, Bats, Hornbills, different species of birds, Estuarian Crocodile, Snakes, Monitor Lizard, Geckos, Frogs, a variety of insects and other invertebrates (not to forget fire ants, leeches, mosquitos, gadflies and all the other little troublemakers). The closest I could get to a rhino was just a few old footprints and 2 old wallows.

The Jungle
During the surveys and especially in the core area I saw the untouched beauty of Mother Nature. No sign of human presence to be found, just enormous trees, plants everywhere, the occasional wildlife in between, clear rivers, while being surrounded by the jungle chorus.

I felt as if I had gone back to prehistoric times, taking me far, far away from the stressful life of today. This is a rare experience for a western victim of civilization that makes you think of autonomy and freedom and of the possibility of a new society living with nature, and not against it…

What do I recommend to other volunteers?

If you come from a western industrial country where nearly every minute of the day is organized to be as efficient as possible, you should forget about any straight schedule. This is Asia and everything is a bit more improvised, spontaneous and less efficient. So bring enough time with you! Anyway it’s better to have a few days to adapt to the climate before you go to the jungle.

You should be fit! Start as early as possible with jogging at least twice a week or something like that to improve your condition. You cannot prepare yourself for the climate but you can strengthen your body and work on your fitness. You will understand what I mean when you are carrying your 20kg backpack uphill trying to be as quick as the professionals and around you the air is 30 degrees Celsius and has 70% humidity or more.

Language knowledge
To be able to have some conversation with the staff you should have a malay dictionary. The English of the staff is normally very basic and Malay is a simple language. It will help.

Things you might not get in Sabah
If you have big feet you probably won’t find “kampung adidas” or leech socks. I think more than 42/11 is already a problem. So bring good, water resistant walking boots with you. This is important because wet feet get sore very quickly. A lot of dry socks help as well. For the leech socks I unfortunately don’t have an alternative proposal. Maybe bring an anti-itching product with you to cure itching leech bites.

Have a third leg
For walking in the jungle I recommend a stick with one pointed end (nearly your body length) that you can cut in the forest. It helped me many times crossing/following rivers and walking up and downhill on slippery ground. But be sure not to have a pointed upper end, so you don’t accidentally kill yourself if you fall onto your own stick…

About water and food
You can easily get sick because of water on wet dishes, food or drinking water that hasn’t been boiled for at least 5 (!) minutes. Though it’s no problem for the local people, it might challenge your immune system dramatically. Use dry dishes, boil your water long enough or use a water filter and disinfectant tablets (silver ions) which is much more convenient. If you get diarrhea and you have to vomit don’t panic, after 2 days it should be ok. And be careful with chili: it burns twice!

Sabah is surrounded by some of the world's most famous dive sites. If you can spend a few days diving or at least snorkeling before/after Tabin just do it! But be sure to book in advance, because in Sipadan for example the number of divers and snorkelers per day is restricted.

Useful equipment:

  1. A water filter and silver ion tablets, three 1.5l plastic bottles and a 0.5l bottle for your pocket (one-way-bottles from a supermarket)
  2. A malay book; if you are not a native speaker also an English dictionary
  3. A note book
  4. Toilet paper, handkerchiefs
  5. A Swiss knife (useful in any situation) and a parang (available in Lahad Datu)
  6. Gloves (for construction work)
  7. A first aid kit (including a disinfectant, a needle to get rid of thorns in your hands, a fever thermometer, to see when it’s time to check on malaria, tape to fix plasters on wet skin and spray plaster to close wounds before entering the shower or a river)
  8. 2 LED lamps (a head lamp and a strong torch)
  9. enough rechargeable batteries and a battery charger
  10. A digital camera and a USB-stick to save your pictures/ to empty your memory card
  11. A compass (you get easily lost in the jungle during a survey)
  12. A plastic container for food, a spoon and a plastic cup
  13. A big rain poncho, big diving bag (or big plastic bags) and many small plastic bags to keep everything dry which is not absolutely resistant against permanent humidity, river water, rain and liters of sweat per day
  14. A hip bag
  15. A camp set ( light hammock, the finest mosquito net for the hammock you can get, a fly sheet), a light silk sleeping bag, a light blanket (as you can find them in airplanes)
  16. String, rope, tape, needle and thread
  17. Small binocular to watch wildlife
  18. Enough insect repellent (it’s a malaria region)
  19. A lighter (useful to get rid of leeches: you just burn them with a lighter or a cigarette and they will take their long tongue out of your veins)
  20. Dextrose, if you suddenly feel very weak, vitamin and mineral tablets to make drinks (it’s nice to taste something else than river water from time to time and even if the food is usually delicious you might spend weeks without seeing a fresh fruit and vitamin C is essential for your immune system)
  21. 2 sets of long-sleeved fast drying clothes (army clothes in forest colors are good and a light jumper that can also be used as a pillow), a hat, a light scarf ( to save your neck from small pieces of stuff falling down from the branches all the time), 2 towels, enough socks, underwear, t-shirts
  22. Personal medicine, toilet articles, lipstick (or maybe not), hand washing paste, natural soap (there are no sewage works)
  23. Alarm clock, not to miss subconsciously your plane back…

What did my stay in Tabin change for me?
I think the experiences I’ve gained, the different world I saw and the project I joined for a month has made my personality richer and contributed to my self-confidence. But mostly it has increased my motivation to fight against nature destruction, exploitation and inequality and the capitalist way of thinking that causes all these crimes. Because I saw with my own eyes what I want to preserve and I saw how much is already lost...

Good memories that will stay...
Sad memories that will stay as well...

For more information, feel free to contact me:

robris(circled a)


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