By Bill Konstant
Note: “Badak” is the Indonesian word for rhino.
The route to Ujung Kulon National Park is a relatively long one by car from Jakarta, at least half a day including a lunch break in the seaside village of Labuan and a requisite stop at the slightly-greater-than-life-size statue of a Javan rhino that advertises entrance to this World Heritage site. Throw in a traffic jam – an earth-moving machine and hundreds of motorcycles – and you might tack an extra hour onto the trip.
Each of these experiences impacted our Bowling for Rhinos tour group, so it wasn’t until sunset that we transferred from our vehicle and boarded a boat for Handeleum Island, our home for the next few days. Our modest accommodations were at the former administration offices constructed by Dutch athlete and wildlife conservationist Andries Hoogerwerf back in the 1930s. Hoogerwerf ran on the Dutch 4 x 400-meter relay team in the 1928 Summer Olympics and was the country’s 800-meter champion from 1927-1930, but a career change found him accepting the position of nature protection officer for the Dutch East Indies in 1935. Today, Handeleum serves as a base of operations for Ujung Kulon’s Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) and is also home to a habituated herd of Indonesia’s rusa deer, a Vulnerable endemic species.
Our first trek in search of Javan rhinos began with a short boat trip across the southern end of Welcome Bay to the north shore of the isthmus connecting the Ujung Kulon Peninsula to western Java. The distance southward to the Indian Ocean is only a few kilometers, but the terrain remains completely waterlogged at the close of the rainy season, so we measured our progress as well by the amount of mud that accumulated on our boots. Fortunately, the ocean surf provides excellent wash and rinse cycles.
The afternoon hike took us northwards back along the coast and into the Javan Rhino Study and Conservation Area (JRSCA) to the foothills of Gunung Honje (Ginger Mountain). This project will increase suitable rhino habitat in Ujung Kulon by clearing an invasive palm species, Arenga obtusifolia, known locally as langkap. Although native to the region, the palm has managed to take over vast areas within the national park, creating a closed canopy that prevents the growth of rhino food plants on the forest floor. To date, about one hundred acres of langkap have been cleared by local workers, many of them people who had previously settled illegally in the national park, but who have been successfully relocated. They are now being employed to help save the Javan rhino – the emblem of Banten Province – from extinction.
The JRSCA project was initiated based upon a study conducted by IRF’s Indonesian liaison and our tour, Sectionov (who’s known affectionately as Inov). The project is just emerging from the experimental stage. However, the results are already encouraging. Of the dozen or so most common recolonizing plant species – the seeds and stems of which must remain dormant under the forest floor awaiting the sun’s return – more than 90% are favored food plants for the Javan rhino. Prior to habitat restoration efforts, the evidence suggested that only two rhinos regularly frequented JRSCA’s nearly 10,000 acres. Now, according to project director Yanto Santosa, the presence of seven animals has been documented. We came across signs of newcomers as we hiked the wildlife corridor from the peninsula, including newly-dug rhino wallows. It was also very evident that the forest can replace itself very rapidly after being cleared of palms – six month’s plant growth is often chest height or higher.
The forest adventure ended with a presentation and ceremony. Widodo Ramono, executive director of the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia (Yayasan Badak Indonesia or YABI), gave a summary of progress to date and plans for the future. Our tour group was also invited to help dedicate construction of a 10-mile fence that will help protect the Javan rhinos that ultimately inhabit JRSCA. Each of us etched our names in the wet concrete footings that anchor the posts in the soil. We felt honored to play a role in this ambitious effort.
Our final day in search of rhinos was spent canoeing the Cigenter river, where clear evidence could be seen along the banks of large animals having entered or hauled out of the water. However, the rhinos themselves remained as secretive today as they have for the last half century. At no time during that period do biologists believe the Javan rhinos of Ujung Kulon have numbered more than fifty individuals. So the challenge ahead is to increase the habitat’s carrying capacity, boost rhino numbers and create opportunities to repopulate former habitats.
We said goodbye to Handeleum Island on a pre-dawn boat ride that took us past sleepy fishing platforms and into some rough seas. Everyone agreed that this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, yet I’ll be surprised if several members of the group don’t find an excuse to return someday.