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SOS Rhino : In the News: : Articles : Sumatran Rhino Survey May 2004

Sumatran Rhino Survey May 2004

  May 14th ‚ 24th
Nick Hanlon

My time with SOS Rhino began in Kota Kinabalu, after a relaxing previous three weeks spent travelling around Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah. This time was quite beneficial in that it allowed me to adjust to the local climate, a bit of a change from the approaching New Zealand winter! So, on the 12th of May, I first met up with Annie, who helped me organise my transport to Lahad Datu, and advised me about what to expect and the supplies that were to prove necessary.

The following day, a phone call from Annie advised me that Dr Petra was in town with a group of people who had just finished the Rhino Challenge. I met up with Dr Petra, who explained to me more thoroughly what to expect in the jungle. Dr Petra also explained to me the nature of the work SOS Rhino is conducting at Sepilok, and outlined the survey work as well. After shopping for a few more supplies in KK, I caught up with Dr Petra, and a number of the volunteers from the Rhino Challenge, for dinner.

Friday the 14th of May, I checked out of the fabulous and deservedly famous Lucyís Homestay, and made my way to the airport to catch my flight. I arrived in Lahad Datu at 10.30 am, most bemused by the corrugated iron plane next to the runway. I was met at the airport by Tinju Isa, and once we had claimed my baggage we were off. The first stop was to collect my permit for the reserve. After this I had some kampung adidas sized up for me. We then went and bought the food supplies we would need for the upcoming days. Post-lunch we departed Lahad Datu for the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. During the journey through the palm plantations to the reserve, we saw Pig-tailed macaques, as well as a leopard cat. We arrived at the SOS Rhino cabin and unpacked the truck, after which Tinju left me, Opop, Amit and Jali to settle in and get know each other. We took a walk down the road to the nearby mud volcano, in order to get a GPS bearing. Here we saw hornbills, and I found my first leech!

My Kampung Adidas

Saturday was dedicated as a rest day, and for us to participate in the festivities associated with Kaíamatan ‚ the rice harvest festival. After breakfast we headed up to the Park HQ, where Opop, Amit and Jali joined in to the blowpipe competition. I had a pretty dismal attempt at the slingshot competition. After a siesta we were back at Park HQ for dinner and watched the local dance style. I was also convinced into sampling the rice wine ‚ Aramai tii!!

The next day was when the serious stuff started. We left the cabin at about 8am with a pack that at this stage still felt reasonably light. We walked the kilometre to Park HQ, from where we began our journey down the road to our destination. It was a fairly long walk, but it was the heat that really made it tiring. Fortunately we were able to combat this with regular rest stops. The trail was fairly easy going, with a few river crossings by log thrown in for interest. Along the way we encountered Sambar deer as well as a giant forest tortoise. We had lunch at the top of a reasonable little hill. The lads then set to building the camp while I felt a bit left out without a parang of my own. Probably best not to give me one though. It was quite impressive seeing how the camp could be built so quickly. Once set up, we had some dinner, and settled in to the comfortable hammocks for the night.

River crossings on the trail to the mud volcano.

The journey onwards from our overnight camp was much more relaxed, having only five kilometres to walk. However, from here, the trail was more overgrown, requiring whoever was leading to clear a path through. We arrived at the camp site about midday, just in time to see a group of otters move down the stream next to our campsite. After lunch, we needed to build another camp. This went up as quickly as the first, but with the use of vines to tie it all together, rather than twine like the previous night. This camp was also built with a kitchen ‚ we were living in the lap of luxury. A swim in the stream on hot afternoon was exactly what was required; the stream even had good rocks and deep pools for jumping off. With a fishing net set, we even had dinner covered. It was also fascinating watching the forest floor and all the life living there ‚ absolutely teeming.

Cooling off in the stream


The next day we began the actual survey. We walked about another two kilometres to the mud volcano. The mud volcano was to be our point of origin for each day of survey. Unfortunately there was no sign of any rhinos on this first day. We did however spot an orang-utan nest. I later found out that several orang-utans had been previously released in this area by staff based at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. While one and a half kilometres of survey was not a great distance to walk, it took several hours, as we were cutting a path, and looking for rhino sign. Day two of the survey was similar, heading through more sparse vegetation. Again no rhino sign, but we heard an orang-utan.

So on day three we travelled in a different direction and it was fairly hilly in this area. We reached the end of the survey, and were pleased to be heading home after all those hills when we found our first rhino print! This was estimated to be two months old, and turned out to be the smallest print found so far, at only fifteen centimetres across. The print was measured, photographed and plotted via GPS.

Amit, Opop, and myself trying to look scientific, with a rhino print in the foreground

The final day of survey involved survey the trail onwards and there was no distance limit, only a time limit ‚ we wanted to be back at camp by dark!! We passed through another camp site and had lunch at yet another camp site. It was here that another two rhino prints were found. These were a bit newer, estimated at a month old. Again these were measured, photographed and plotted. We had also heard the not so dulcet tones of the Muntjac or barking deer.

One of the rhino prints found on the fourth day of survey.

Our seventh day in the jungle, and we broke camp and headed back at a fairly relaxed pace. We arrived to find that since we had left just a few days beforehand, a group of elephants had been through and knocked over the camp. Worse still, they had left only one lemon on the tree growing at the campsite!! Mercifully, the camp was even quicker to build the second time around. After lunch, we were all sitting in camp when we heard an elephant roaring in the distance. We could hear elephants trumpeting sporadically for the rest of the afternoon. The elephants were apparently a bit close for comfort, and it was evident that the path the elephants would take would be straight through our camp. A sizeable fire was built as darkness set in, and we had candles ablaze all night.

However, no elephants eventuated. We broke camp early, leaving about 7am. The first seven kilometres went very quickly.. At all rest stops along the way the main activity was juggling, which was quite entertaining as we all dodged each others juggled rocks. We stopped again at kilometre 6 for my final lunch of rice and fish. Just before Park HQ we all got a considerable fright when we spotted a large snake just on the edge of the trail sunning itself. I swear that Jali squealed. Nobody could tell me what it was ‚ just big, black and scary looking. We arrived back at the SOS Rhino cabin about 3pm and settled into a relaxing afternoon. Tinju and Nuswin turned up later on with more supplies. We spent the evening chatting and enjoying dinner and the comforts the cabin offered.

Opop, Amit and Jali juggling at a rest break.

Lunch ‚ Fish and rice.

Baked beans for breakfast ‚ what a treat!! I packed up my gear, and we loaded up the truck for the drive back to Lahad Datu. Tinju dropped me off at the bus station for the next leg of my journey. All in all, it was a great experience, getting out there and seeing what organisations such as SOS Rhino are doing on a daily basis to learn about the worlds most endangered species. It was also a great opportunity to experience one of the few remaining and fast disappearing wild places on earth. Thanks SOS Rhino.


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