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

Sumatran Rhino Survey September 2004

Joe Figel

Volunteering with an organization like SOS Rhino should be a requirement for any student with a passion for protecting large mammals and wild areas. No textbook or biology course could ever match the amount of knowledge I gained while in Borneo. Throughout this unique experience, I was exposed to a broad spectrum of wildlife conservation issues. From tracking rhinos along transects during the surveys, to interacting with oil palm plantation workers and discussing conservation issues with Dr. Edwin Bosi, it became increasingly clear that saving the Sumatran rhino was hardly a scientific matter. The surveys are undoubtedly crucial in terms of assessing the status and distribution of the species, but the key to protecting this magnificent animal lies within the social, political and cultural realms.

Base camp was set up on a hillside in Tabin overlooking a vast expanse of oil palm plantations extending in all directions toward the Celebes Sea. Despite the plantation eyesore, it was a beautiful location for camp. The rhino survey finally began on September 5th, five days later than originally planned. Apparently the forestry department had a slight delay in issuing our permits so we spent time preparing the equipment and mapping our survey routes.

We walked 7.4 kilometers on the first day, which felt more like 7.4 miles. Unlike most people, I do not mind the humidity but the hills were another story. Sumatran rhinos prefer traveling along waterways and ridges, which could make the latter difficult trekking terrain. Nonetheless, the feeling I got from tracking Sumatran rhinos in the jungle was exhilarating. During the survey, I felt like an explorer from a distant century on the trail of an animal that only a handful of people have seen in the wild. It was as if we were wildlife detectives, examining snapped saplings, tracks in the mud, wallows…any clues that indicated rhino activity.

Wonders of the Tabin rain forest were certainly not limited to the Sumatran rhino. Listening to the bellowing roars of two sun bears play fighting at sunset no more than 100 meters from camp, watching the majestic rhinoceros hornbill swoop in and out of the canopy overhead, searching through the leaf litter for the elusive horned toad or smiling at the comical sight of a young orangutan foraging at daybreak are experiences I will never forget.

The survey ended at base camp located within the reserve’s core area. Midway through the trek, we were caught in a torrential downpour ­ a brief preview of things to come in the upcoming monsoon season. The rainfall was so intense; it felt as if there was a gigantic showerhead above us. Upon arriving in our jungle home for the next few days, I introduced myself to Dr. Thaya, a Sri Lankan researcher and Mike, his field assistant from England. Dr. Thaya is collecting data on the rhino’s nutritional requirements for his PhD. I was envisioning a tin roof, warm fire and maybe some hot Milo but instead found myself stumbling into a camp with tarps covering soaking wet hammocks. My spirits were instantly lifted, however, when Dr. Thaya and Mike informed us about their recent discovery of tracks from at most nine different rhinos! The estimate seemed high but even one rhino print was good enough for me. Early the next morning, we set out to locate the prints. Most were washed away in the rain but there was an unbelievably clear set in the sand next to the river. I envisioned this shy, mythical creature crossing the river several weeks earlier making its way deeper into the jungle, almost as if it knew our survey team was on its path.

Despite the efforts of international organizations like SOS Rhino, rhinos continue to be slaughtered for their horn. Poaching, extensive habitat loss and rapid human population growth can, at times, make conservation efforts seem hopeless. However, anyone who questions whether the Sumatran rhino can be saved should read Eric Dinerstein’s Return of the Unicorns, a classic book outlining how the critically endangered one-horned rhinoceros was brought back from the brink of extinction in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. There is hope as long as there are committed individuals dedicating their lives to protecting endangered species.

In ending this journal entry, I want to thank SOS Rhino for letting me participate in this special project. In particular I’d like to acknowledge Cindy Salopek from the Chicago office for promptly responding to my emails and making trip planning a very smooth process. I want to thank Dr. Bosi for patiently answering my questions, resulting in conversations that often lasted several hours past sunset. I will remember the ideas you gave me for the rest of my life. I also want to express appreciation for my survey team ­ Opop and Amit, for teaching me about the rhino and Rajimah for making better meals than I eat at home. Finally, I want to thank Nos for answering my countless questions about the mysterious haramau dahan (clouded leopard) and always making sure I had enough rice.

I look forward to the day I return to Borneo.


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