Looking for Rhino Footprints in Peninsula Malaysia

My name is Maman Suherman or my friends call me Maman.  I have been a member of the Rhino Protection Unit (RPU) in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (BBS) since 1997.  I never in all my life thought that I could go abroad, but I had the opportunity to go to Royal Belum State Park in Peninsula Malaysia to help with a survey for Sumatran Rhino.  The survey was collaboration with several stakeholders; the RPUs from Indonesia, operated by Yayasan Badak Indonesia (YABI) were one of them.   The RPUs were invited to participate in the Malaysia survey because of our expertise in tracking rhinos.  There were four RPU members (including myself), and our coordinator (Arief Rubianto) and a representative of YABI participating the survey, which was conducted and managed by WWF Malaysia and the Malaysian Department of Wildlife.  The survey was to take place in Peninsular Malaysia’s Royal Belum State Park, which supposedly has a Sumatran Rhino population.  The last confirmed sightings were in 2004.   

We left Lampung on July 4th, and onto the Jakarta Airport on July 5th early in the morning. We stayed overnight at Inov’s (the IRF Indonesia Liaison) house in Bogor one night to be sure we had all our gear in order.  Before departing, we had a briefing in the YABI office and did one last check of all our equipment for the survey.  It was my first time to go to abroad.   

We arrived in Malaysia at almost midnight and went right to the big base camp.  Instead of getting to rest, we had a big meeting to talk about preparing and coordinating all the different groups working on the survey.   We were late, because some of misunderstanding with the committee in Malaysia and also because of some really bad  traffic. 

When I entered the meeting room, my name was called.  I thought it was for the attendance list, but apparently I was chosen to be the leader in group 2.  My team would be five others from different organizations such as WWF-Malaysia, Perhilitan (in Indonesia similar to the Ministry of Forestry), the official of the kingdom of Taman Negara, Sabah foundation and a local official.  At that time we were given the list of participants, the rope sheet, map, GPS equipment, implements for measurement, and liquid for keeping the rhino or tiger feces and one bag of black plastic for team survey supplies such as cooking tools.  When I open the plastic bag, the team and I all laughed because there was a huge cabbage vegetable as big as the pot.

We were scheduled to depart for the survey area at 09:00, so we did not have time to say goodbye to the majesty of  Paduka Seri Sultan Perak Darul Ridzuan, Sultan Azlan Shah, who gave us the permit for the activity.  This was a special activity – most of the participants said it was the first time for them to join a survey like this, and the first time they ever had flown in a helicopter.  Using a helicopter to move the survey teams was really expensive – almost 10 million Rupiah or around USD $1000 to rent for one hour.

The helicopter dropped us at the first point for about 6 or 7 minutes after leaving the base  camp and would return to pick us up at 11:00.  One group was already in place at the site.  At almost 12:00 we arrived at the entry point and we saw one team standing by already. Based on the schedule, our team went to north and the other team went south. 

Royal Belum State Park seemed very similar to BBS and I almost felt like I was walking in my own country in Indonesia.   Plantation, topography, river and the environment was  similar to BBS.  I could not have imagined it – and I very much enjoyed the survey.

My team survey from left to right: Saad, Edward, Maman (it’s me), Cik Wan, Boys, and Yakup

My team survey from left to right: Saad, Edward, Maman (it’s me), Cik Wan, Boys, and Yakup

During the survey we found a sign – a plant that had been eaten by a mammal.  It sort of looked like a rhino but I was not too sure that it was rhino sign, because quite different from what my experience in Indonesia.  We also found footprints (17 cm and 10 cm) and feces.  I thought it was tapir (Tapirus indicus) sign and not rhino sign, although several people in my team believed that it was rhino sign.   I tried to explain to them the difference between a rhino footprint and a tapir footprint.  Finally, we all agreed that it was not a rhino footprint.  During the survey we also found bear sign, several deer sign, and an orangutan nest.  

We surveyed Royal Belum State Park for almost 2 weeks.  It was a good experience and we had a lot of opportunity to share information and to get to know each other.  After the survey we returned to the base camp and I saw almost all of teams (11 teams) were standing by to have a meeting to discuss the data from each team.  We got a chance to take a bath and dinner and then we joined the others for the meeting.  According to all of the information and data from all of the teams, no rhino sign was found.  Although several people still believed that the sign they found was rhino sign, after thorough discussion and a little bit debate, finally all of participants agreed that no one had seen rhino sign.  Unfortunately, this means that there probably are no rhino anymore in Royal Belum State Park. 

We did see other species, like tapir, elephant, tiger, bear, bulls (like banteng in Ujung Kulon), wild pig, several species of snake and group of deer.  We also found evidence of  some of the threats in Royal Belum State Park like illegal poaching (we found a trap), and other illegal activities.  There is a traditional people who stay around Royal Belum State Park and almost all their activity depends on the forest.  They hunt deer and wild pig.  We hope later on there will be discussions about resolving their status and saving the Park.  There is a big need for collaboration among the management authority, NGOs, and the military (I think the military is key stakeholder for protecting Royal Belum), as well as other stakeholders.  This has to be if Royal Belum State Park will be preserved and protected.

Photograph with Malaysian Army on Survey Royal Belum State Park

Photograph with Malaysian Army on Survey Royal Belum State Park

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