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SOS Rhino : In the News : Articles : SOS Rhino Volunteer Report July - September 2004

SOS Rhino Volunteer Report
July - September 2004

  Mike Sweet

Chapter one; the real jungle book

'one can pay back the loan of gold, but one dies forever in debt to those who are kind - in Borneo, we must be both debtors and creditors, for there is much here, money cannot buy'

Sazamat paji pronounced salamat pagi

I landed in Kota Kinabalu in the evening and was greeted by a member of the SOS Rhino staff and taken to my place of residence for the night, a lovely little hostel right in the centre of KK. I had a few days before i was to meet Dr Edwin so i made friends quickly with the 15 other residents of this hostel, so the next day we headed to Pulau Manukan in the Tanku abdul Rahman Marine Park, in the South China sea.

So let me paint you a picture, there's this island right in the middle of the deep blue sea, white sandy beaches, palm trees waving in the breeze, small bit of jungle in the middle, the sea is warm, the weather is great, the sun is shining and i'm sitting between a group of girls having the time of my life sorry about that As coincidence has it two of the girls were from newcastle university, such a small world. So we chatted, and swam and ate and swam some more.

First time we went snorkeling and saw to my dismay a very degraded reef, due to dynamite fishing and chloroform (used to catch the fish for the live fish trade) despite this the fish were still there in abundance, which confused me a little. So after lunch I decided to go round the corner and explore and to my great enjoyment I found the most amazing reef I've ever seen, the corals were beautiful, many species of fish, crustacean, cuttlefish, blue ringed octopus (very dangerous), mimic octopus (my favorite animal in the whole world) clown fish, parrot fish, puffer fish, pipe fish, Moorish idols just to name a few. It was truly an octopus's garden, beneath the waves.

Anyway so after that amazing day, oh by the way yes deoxycycline makes you very photosensitive and even with factor 40 on i got burnt to a crisp, along with most of the girls, so the night was spent with very sore backs, going owwwwwwww, anytime we moved... but it was worth it.

The next day i was to meet Dr Edwin at the airport and fly to Lahad datu, he's a relatively nice fellow. We landed in LD and got picked up by his guys. After that we headed to Sabahmas a very large oil palm plantation where i was to spend the night, it was amazing, I'm due to work there later on in my stay so I'll tell you more later ... just take my word for it we were treated like kings and it was as near to a palace as I've ever been.

After that we jumped in the rovers and headed for Tabin, the most unexplored jungle in Borneo (not available to the public as yet), The reserve was created in 1984 to help preserve the disappearing wildlife, straddled by palm-oil plantations, 48km east of Lahad datu, it covers a huge area (1205sq km) of mostly lowland dipterocarp forest, with some mangrove forest in the northern reaches. After a three hour bumpy road journey through plantations I thought I would never get to the jungle, we stopped at a small village called Kampung parit and hopped onto a boat with all our stuff, another good long time passed and we finally reached Tanjung utik (SOS RHINO BASE CAMP) i was pleasantly surprised, its been being built for three years and still on going but its still very cozy. The beds consist of a plank of wood ( so its good for my back) but we have a generator (so yes I'm not always in the dark). So i thought... hay this jungle life ain't going to be to bad. At 5 in the bloody mourning the next day (when light hit us we were up and packing) where are we going guys i ask. The jungle was the reply, so we were off...

Chapter two; the second coming

So the jungle, what where you guys expecting, i thought after the base camp was so nice the jungle would be a piece of cake. I was told I was going to head with the guys just for 1 day to set up a camp for a group of 24 Aussies who were coming just for one day. In the end one day turned out to be a wee bit longer than I had come to think a day really was, apparently in Borneo the days are very long (1 day = 2 weeks out here, apparently).

But anyway it was amazing, it took us 2 days to make an incredible camp, there was me, Opop (team leader) Sarinus (boss of the boys) and the rest of the gang Bindis, Amit, Jali, Husrin, Lusri and the two girls Rajimah and Marniah. These were to be my family for the next few days and to make things more interesting there, English to say the least is limited, so what do they do, they speak nothing but Malay, interesting scenario to be in, but its making me learn fast and i can now hold some good conversations with them, i will write in Malay or even Duson (local language) later on.

Anyway we drive up in a boat up stream (as of yet I've only been in secondary forest, I get to hit the real stuff when Dr Thayan finally shows up so until then I'm helping out with SOS until he does and its kind of like a jungle survival lesson/taster which is incredibly valuable before i head into the jungle for months on end) 2 weeks was hard enough.

The river is amazing, there's lots of monkeys, grey leaf, macaques, proboscis, not to mention the bird life, egrets, storks, kingfishers galour, hornbills (many different species), crested honey buzzards, brahminy kites, fish eagles, Coucals, herons and dartars to name the very least.

As of yet the biggest animal I'm afraid to say i saw was a mouse deer which is the same size and indeed looks pritty much like a fat rabbit, added to this we also saw a civet or 'tangalung' (Viverra tangalunga). The first of many close encounters with a heard of elephants 'Gajah' was also had, but unfortunately I missed both, the first a herd of about 5 or 6 passed by on the other side of the river (i was out fishing for tea) and then that night a bull elephant came into our camp and nearly trashed it (i stayed fast asleep, snoring away, nothing could and nothing did awake me from the sleep), if it wasn't for Opop shining a torch at the bugger he would have probably flattened us all. I was blamed for that beast coming into the camp because after the first lot i was disappointed and said i would have liked to have seen Gajah (elephant in Malay) and their belief is 'you do not mention her name as she can hear you and comes to find you, so when i mentioned 'gajah', she/he (as it was a he) came to find me and squish me. coincidence???? you decide, but i have now learnt never to mention '..........' again, instead you say "Nenek sangat bahaya, hati-hati"

Nenek is like nana (grandmother) so roughly translated it means; 'grandmother is very dangerous, so be careful'. So now I don't say anything, but I still really want to see one.

The Aussies came and went and we found a rhino print and it was very unexpected as its close to one of the villages, 'Tanjung Dagat', so after surveying for a few more days and finding more prints we went to speak to the village chief and told him about the "badaks" (rhino's) presence, (please note a rhino horn can fetch in excess of 50,000 ringets a tonne and you can get a few tonne from just one rhino, and 50,000 is more than the village will see in about 5 years! So its not so good news for this fella to be wondering around outside of the core area as illegal hunting still goes on. However in this case the village in question is in full support of SOS Rhino as the organisation employs many villager.

I feel now is about the right time to fill you in on a few facts and figures about the Sumatran Rhino or Asian two horned Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), in malay they name them 'Badak'. In Tabin (the only place they are known to be in existence in Malaysian Borneo) there is an estimated 32 rhinos (at that's not many. Notice that I said estimation, as there are only 6 known sightings with a further probable 10 estimated from the number of tacks presently found, and so with the reserve size scientists have come up with this guesstimate of 32. In captivity there are only 7, located around the world three in the USA, two in Sumatra and two here in Sabah. There were more but unfortunately 8 died in Peninsular Malaysia quite recently, due to trypanosomes (a blood parasite similar to E. coli). Added to this unfortunate loss breeding from these animals have proven exceedingly difficult and only Cincinnati zoo in America has had successful breeding attempts with the birth of a healthy female calve on September 13th 2001 and the resident female appears to be pregnant again, so fingers crossed. They managed this amazing break through by applying progesterone to the female, which sustains the pregnancy, and the results speak for themselves. Problems with captive breeding arrive due to a few important things, first the lack of captive animals to start with also many of the females in captivity suffer from uterine tumors due to lack of sexual stimulation for long periods (added to this many of the animals are reaching ripe old ages). The males on the other hand seem to suffer from a low sperm count and the sperm that they do manage to muster has very few spermatozoa within and furthermore, especially the male at Sepilok (Sabah), they prefer to mate with fallen tree trunks rather than the female standing right next to him, so manual masturbation is often to the only way to get the sperm.

Anyway back to the jungle. On one of the treks, Opop, Bindis and Amit got very bad rashes on their skin, me the only other member of the team, came out fine, all be it a bit wet and be-draggled (the weather here is quite strange.... more later) So those guys headed to see the doctor and me, Nus, Jali and Lusri headed upstream to set up another camp for 6 British students (17/18yr olds + teacher). Camp again was fun.

Right a quick lesson on how to set up camp, well you find a nice patch of forest by the river with a good access route and a plentiful supply of 'pakis' (forest food, a bit like a fern and tastes "sangat sedap", very delicious (kind of like broccoli)). You then clear the site of small trees using your parrang, aka. big knife!!!!! (I got presented with mine by the guys, we're good friends now and my malay is coming on well) Then you chop a lot of trees down (I'm assured its sustainable, but it seems a bit drastic to me) and lace structures together with roots from the trees.

The British came, we trekked, I'm now one of the guys and a good tracker (if i say so my self) Opop even chooses me as one of the guides to show the others what to look for and all, its very hard but once you know what you're doing the tracks leap out at you. I still wonder past a few with out seeing them but they are soon spotted by Opop or Nus (tracks I have seen so far include, rhino, elephant, otter (Anjing laut), wild bore (babi), Sambar deer (rusa), monitor lizards (Biawak), bunting (wild cattle) and I'm sure I'm missing some but you get the picture. I've seen the same stuff as the guys who have been working here for years, non of them have seen a rhino as its like looking for a needle in a hay stack, just the prints are spotted which I have been very lucky to see first hand.

With the Brits we found a rhino wallow, with many prints about 40 in total, and hairs (so we can do a DNA test to identify the animal). After they left I ended up in Lahad Datu on a break.

Lahad Datu is not a tourist destination to say the least, the lonely planet class it as a pirate town. As far as I can see I am the only 'orang puti' (white man) around and it feels quite strange and a wee bit scary. Opop was with me last night but he's headed home (near KK) for his break so I have a few days alone. I don't dare walk the streets alone and have been advised not to leave the hotel after dark and get plenty of food and water for supplies, which didn't helped my nerves much.

My days of being a vegetarian have ended and now I chow down on any beast that crosses my path -- to date I've tried wild bore, chicken, and snails, very interesting experience and I'm still standing... but i don't think I've really missed much.... the fish here on the other hand is amazing, in the jungle we have rice and noodles but then catch fish in the rivers, LONTONG is especially nice, a very big fish about 60cm and very tasty, other fish eaten include archer fish (like those seen on David Attembourgh shows, the ones that spit out the water to catch their prey), cuttlefish, and satayed anchovies. Added to this we often have omelet, pakis, lipesu (like sour apples), asam asam, rambutans, mango-steins, jack fruit, durian (the king of fruits) mangoes and other fruits of the forest i have forgotten the names off but i can remember what they look like (so survival should be OK when i hit the big jungle).

During this time I was given the Dusun name of "Kilau podos" by the guys, so when i am introduced to anyone they use this, which i find kind of nice however in translation it means fire ant, (a nasty, pest with a horrible sting like fire, so I don't know quite how to take it, insult or complement- in malia it is Sumut Api (api, meaning fire). In the jungles those who live and work here often change their Christian (birth) names to more meaningful ones. Originally a name may be changed for a number of reasons, for example if someone did a spectacular journey or 'peselai' the purpose of which seems to be linked with acquiring wealth and social status but now its more to just keep those fading traditions alive. Some other names, which I came across, were Mulun Balang (Live tiger) and Seribu Munung (Many faces) Siran lemalun (look at me) and Mulun Kadangan (eternal light) as well as some slightly more unfortunate, obscure ones such as Ta low (short penis).


Sabahmas is an oil palm plantation where I was due to work for a week, trying my hand at everything from harvesting, to work at the nursery and then the mill and my, it was interesting, oil palm is big business over here, so I was treated like a king 'rajah'. Harvesting the crop is harder than it looks, and not too well paid. Apart from the actual work I got to drive around on my own scooter and look at their conservation patch. They're very proud of this and to their credit it's got a number of proboscis monkeys Nasalis larvatus, macaques both long tailed Macaca fasicularis and pig tailed Macaca nemestrina, and bearded pigs Sus barbatus.

After a week it was back to Lahad Datu, where Tinju picked me up and we headed to Sepilok. Amongst the lovely jobs I previously mentioned we built a new enclosure for the rhinos (it looks very nice), dug a drain, and fed the two new baby elephants that arrived at the same time as me. I met Dr Thaya there and just before he drove down to Tabin. I was to spend a few more days in Sepilok before heading down after him and just before I did, I managed to quickly do a walk through Sepilok's primary forest catching a lovely view of two groups of orangutans, a cobra (king), minor birds and numerous other birdies. That night was a delight as i spent it in Tinjus family house just outside Datu, which would later become my favorite house to stay. On the 14th on the way back to Dagat, I caught a sneaky peak at a lovely sun bear Helarctos malcyanus toddling around the edge of the forest. The next day was spent fishing (I was due to head back into the jungle in the next few days) we caught a huge eel which scared the living daylights out of the Dr but unfortunately it was the one that got away , but not before it tried to take a bite out of my leg. The boat also ran out of petrol, so we spent the next 4 hours rowing against the current back to the village - which was an experience in itself.

The 16th was the start of the long trek into the core. First we had a days boats ride, I say boat ride but it was more like the boat was riding us, as the river was little more than a trickle at some points so we had to drag it along the rocks. Rhino prints were found on the way (1 day old) so it was straight into action, the next day trekking again, and the next day (harder this time up hills 300 meters plus with 30kilo weight on my back its rather harder than you would think, trekking again for another day and then finally reaching, what would turn out to be my new home for just over a month. Jadi apa kamu buat sakarang (so what do you do now), you build camp and make it a good one, as it's got to last elephant attacks, carpets of fire ants, swarms of flies and a bombardment from bloody civets who are determined to steal out salt, food containers, water bottles and anything else you don't sleep with - they even fancied trying my ankles and obviously liked them as they came back for more most nights.

OK so the rest of the gang left leaving us short of supplies and the research begins. Food was a big problem as it was 10 days until they were due to come back with new supplies and we had about 5 days of food.

Trekking is amazing and jungle life now is quite hard. The Malayans constantly shout 'hati hati' in my direction as we cross over say a fallen log across a stream or across the ridge of a steep embankment. Now in my dictionary 'hati' means liver. What sort of a message, I asked myself, were they trying to convey with the expression 'liver, liver'. Later I discovered that in Malaysia the liver is considered to be the emotional center of the body, as the heart is for westerners. 'Hati hati' meant 'take courage, have a strong heart' in short 'be careful'. There were other uses for the word. I once heard a women referred to as bagus dan murah hati (good and inexpensive liver) which meant she gave of her emotions freely - a warm generous person. If a person was said to have 'sakit hati' (sick liver) he or she was cruel and conniving. Practitioners of the dark arts and black magic were said to be of this nature.

The first five days we found five tracks (different sizes as well) so that's good news on the rhino front. The wildlife is amazing, and I couldn't be luckier, apart from sighting the elusive rhino I guess. Gibbons Hylobates muelleri funereus are my favorite animal, they're amazing animals, gray black in colour with jet black head, hands and feet and no tail. Gibbons are the only animals to have a ball and socket joint in their hands as well as their feet, which enables them to swing effortlessly and gracefully through the canopy allowing them to turn direction completely in an instant. The first survey (meant to last 6 days only lasted about 4 as we got totally lost and had to make a straight transect back). A mixture of heavy rain, carpets of Kilau podas, civets stealing our only bag of salt and the growing concern for food meant Thaya and Frances went to try and get help from the plantation owner on the border, leaving me to do the research, --four days later they return unsuccessful. Its about the 30th now and tomorrow new supplies are supposed to come, that day came and went and the next and the next and the next, now we've been eating rice and water for the past 10 days, but i still love the jungle. Nothing, not even hunger of this magnitude can dampen my sprits, but the others seem quite irritated.

On the 5th they arrive, again bringing only half the supplies - so we wasted the best part of a week waiting for supplies. Off researching again tomorrow. One trek revealed a group of poachers. I stormed in hot headed, as is my tendency, which in hindsight was a very stupid thing, as they turned out to have lots of lovely, big shiny guns, which they could have used to have dispatched me and my fellow workers quite easily and without a trace in this unforgiving wilderness. As it turned out however they were quite friendly chaps, even though they killed (at least) 2 Sambar deer, 2 pigs, 8-10 mouse deer, a porcupine, 3 turtles (labi labi - as soft shelled river turtle) and they had fished the river out completely (not one left), so we got our photos taken with them (the only way i could think of taking their photo was to have a keen orang puti posing as a tourist to ask for a photo). They'll probably get away with a hefty fine. So a few more days later, my time in the jungle was ending, we headed back to base camp and arrived just as Nus and the boys arrived to take us out. One last night in Datu and another night in Tinjus village, were i learnt the proper rules of Takrow, a fun game, a cross between football (keep it up) and volleyball (using a net and similar court). It's very popular over here. We had a great little party at Tinjus, the children were occupied with drawing me pictures and calling me uncle mike (which i loved as they were so adorable) whilst we (the adults) busied our selves with eating and drinking. Later on or should i say early in the mourning we turned in and slept like logs and it was bye, bye guys as i got on a bus to Semporna the next mourning.


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