In the Footsteps of a Rhino

My name is Remco van Merm. I studied Nature Conservation and Biodiversity Management in Deventer, the Netherlands. When I visited Ujung Kulon National Park in 2002, in the context of my holidays, I learned about the existence of Javan rhinos for the first time. During that visit, I encountered one rhino footprint, but at the time I did not realize how special that was. After coming home, I realized how lucky I had been to have seen even a mere footprint of this elusive animal, and I started to cultivate more and more interest in it. By now, this interest has developed into a passion, and I successfully completed both my BSc.-thesis and my MSc.-thesis on the subject of the Javan rhino.

After I graduated, my thesis started to live a life of its own, and it somehow found its way to Dr. Susie Ellis, Executive Director at IRF. I was taken completely unaware when she invited me to join on a field trip to Ujung Kulon, which was to take place in February 2009. I had little time to make the necessary arrangements, but luck stuck with me and I managed to get a cheap ticket and some time off, even though it was on very short notice. I was now ready for adventure, but it was still three weeks until my flight…

Time crept by slowly (as did my flight), but eventually I found myself emerging from the arrivals hall at Soekarno-Hatta international airport in Jakarta. A taxi took me to my hotel in Bogor, where I met Susie Ellis and Bibhab Talukdar, Chairman of the IUCN SSC Asian Rhino Specialist Group and IRF’s Asian Rhino Coodinator. The following morning we were joined by Sectionov (or Inov, IRF) and Widodo Ramono (Executive Director of YABI), and we started our journey to the Ujung Kulon National Park headquarters in Labuan, a trip which allegedly took only three hours, but which seemed a lot longer.

At the NP HQ, we were welcomed by Agus Priambudi, the Director of Ujung Kulon NP, as well as other National Park staff members. A delicious lunch replenished our resources, after which we continued our journey to Sumur, accompanied by Agus Priambudi. I was shocked to see the state of the road, which less than a year earlier was still in good shape, but which was now littered with holes as a result of heavy trucks carrying big pieces of rock to a construction site near Pandeglang.

From Sumur we took the “Badak Laut” (“Sea Rhino”, a speed boat used for patrols by the National Park) to Handeuleum Island, where we would be spending the night in the recently renovated resort. Since it was the season of strong westerly winds, the sea was rather choppy and the ride was rough, as though we had never left the hole-infested road to Sumur. After about an hour, the boat made an attempt to moor at an island. A huge flying fox was circling the treetops of the island’s coastline. Initially, there was some confusion about what we were going to do here, but it soon became evident that this was our destination.

Having been in Ujung Kulon a year earlier, the magic of the place was still fresh in me. Seeing the forested coastline of the peninsula only a couple hundred metres away made that thrill surge through me again. It felt more like a homecoming than coming home ever had.  We were welcomed on the dock by a number of RPU (Rhino Protection Unit) members and National Park rangers, as well as Iwan Podol, the camera trapping expert of WWF-Ujung Kulon.

We unloaded our bags from the boat and set foot to the resort, passing a narrow strip of beach forest before emerging on an open field where the recently renovated resort beckoned us to take a rest. A dinner of fried fish and vegetables was waiting for us, and as it turned out, the RPU members were great cooks. Later that evening the wildlife of Handeuleum Island also came to give us a warm welcome, when a number of deer emerged from the forest to graze in front of our porch. A couple of flying foxes were moving in the trees to the left of us, but when I pointed my flashlight in that direction, the ghostly eyes of something much larger were looking back at me. Unable to decide what it was, I went to bed for some well-earned rest.

The following morning, we got up early. We were expected at the RPU post in Tamanjaya at eight o’clock in the morning, where we would get a short tour of the facility and some explanation about the organizational structure of the RPU. Waiting for us in Tamanjaya was Kerry Crosbie (Asian Rhino Project director), who had arrived in Indonesia the day before and travelled to Tamanjaya overland.

We spent half an hour there before we continued our journey to Legon Pakis, an enclave in the National Park. Legon Pakis was the scene of a major conflict a couple of years before, in which a villager lost his life and a newly built guard post was burned to the ground. Fortunately the conflict was resolved and the relationship between the villagers and the National Park guards improved again.

From Legon Pakis, our guides took us through the rice fields in the direction of the forest on the lower slopes of Mount Honje. The forest edge wasn’t far, but the layout of the rice fields forced us to take a zigzagging route over the low mud buttresses in between them. The beauty of the landscape could hardly be enjoyed, because the path we followed was very narrow and slippery, requiring our full attention. During our hike through the fields we were escorted by the eerie sound of scarecrows, which scraped a piece of metal on the inside of a rusty can whenever they were stirred by the slightest breeze. In the distance, the angry noise of a chainsaw disturbed the peace. A couple of RPU members left our group to investigate, but luckily the chainsaw was being used on the outside of the National Park.
Then the heavens opened their floodgates, and all sounds were muffled by the deafening roar of the rain. It was brief but torrential, and in no time at all we were soaked. By the time we reached the forest edge we looked like drowned kittens. The path was saturated with water, causing us to sink to our ankles in the sticky mud. In the process of wiggling free of the mud’s relentless grip, Kerry lost the sole of her shoe, which, by the way, was not even her shoe. After having a good laugh and exchanging her shoes with Inov, she gave the OK and we continued our soggy hike. Along the way, Pak Widodo pointed out the many signs of good rhino habitat, including the high availability of water and cover, as well as a wide variety of rhino food plants.

Photo 3 Remco blog

Eventually we reached a wider part of the path, where the RPU members had prepared a resting area for us. There was a makeshift bench of branches and rattan leaves, and a pot of coffee was boiling over a small campfire. The bench was a welcome opportunity to sit down without becoming too wet, and the coffee made us alert again. Iwan Podol took the opportunity to talk about the 30 newly placed video traps, the cameras for which had been supplied by IRF. He explained how the cameras were distributed over the western part of the peninsula, based on signs of rhino activity. After a month of operation, 14 video clips of rhinos had been collected so far, some of which have been posted on the IRF website. The cameras will stay in their current location for a year, after which they will be moved to the eastern part of the peninsula, where they will also remain for a year. Hopefully, the results of these traps will help us to learn more about the behaviour of Javan rhinos. That information will be very important to identify suitable locations where a new population of Javan rhinos can be established.

Eventually our hike took us back to Legon Pakis, where we had lunch before going to Tanjung Lame. From Tanjung Lame, we took a boat to the isthmus. Shallow waters near the shore forced us to leave the boat and wade through the sea for a hundred metres or so. Given that I was wearing sandals instead of hiking shoes, I made use of the occasion to rinse the mud from my feet with the refreshing seawater.

On the beach where we landed, we immediately saw some exciting signs of wildlife in the shape of leopard footprints. A little further inland we came across a stand of Arenga obtusifolia, a notorious palm that is spreading fast across the Ujung Kulon peninsula, outcompeting rhino foodplants. Where Arenga grows in stands, their foliage blocks all sunlight, hampering the growth of other plants. However, Javan rhino does not only suffer from Arenga stands. There is evidence that they use them for cover, and to wallow in the mud cooled by the Arenga’s shade.

Photo 5 Remco blog

It wasn’t long before we saw the first signs of a rhino. The calf-high water on our path obscured any rhino footprints, but it made its dung float. The expert nose of Pak Uus told us that the dung was approximately two weeks old. A little further along our path we did come across some footprints, which were also more than a week old.

photo 6 remco blog

Our path took us further across the isthmus to the southern coast, where we would take a rest at the guard post of Karangranjang. I remembered this particular guard post very well. This was where I spent my first night when I came to Ujung Kulon in 2002. I remembered a soursop tree outside the broken window of the bedroom. It was still there, and to my surprise, it had hardly grown. The area around the guard post was remarkably similar to seven years earlier, suggesting that it was still regularly being used.

After some coffee and a cup of POP mie, we continued our trek to a rhino wallow not far from the guard post. When we arrived there, there were plenty of signs of rhino activity, indicating that the wallow was still active. We spent a long time here, allowing the RPU to take measurements of the footprints. Being where a rhino had passed perhaps a week earlier was very exciting. I tried to imagine the rhino that had made the track, visualizing it as it plodded past the wallow. It must have been a large rhino, leaving footprints of approximately 28 centimetres and mud on the lower 1.5 metres of tree trunks. On the left side of the wallow the mud had been churned as though the rhino had been dancing. Being at a place like this, seeing evidence of the struggle of the extremely rare Javan rhino to hold on to existence, must be an emotional moment for any conservationist.
We went back to the north shore of the isthmus, tired and dirty, but very satisfied. A refreshing bath beckoned us at the resort, after which a delicious grilled fish dinner gave us even more satisfaction. When the sun started to set, I took out my flashlight to investigate the tree from where the previous evening something had been staring at me with wraithlike glowing eyes. Pointing my flashlight in its direction, I could see that there were a number of flying foxes roosting in its upper branches. But on some lower branches, a large, dark shape grabbed my attention. It was difficult to make out what it was, because the dark background of leaves obscured its silhouette. But as they say, patience is a virtue, and after a while the dark shaped moved from one branch to another, crossing a patch of sky, where the fading light outlined the shape of a large, four-limbed animal with a long, bushy tail. Susie exclaimed that it might be a binturong (otherwise known as bearcat), and I was glad that she did, because I was hoping that it would indeed be a binturong. However, not all of us agreed, and there followed a long debate on the nature of the mysterious creature in the tree. Some suggested that it was just a bat (being unaware of the bushy tail), while I tried not to maintain that it was a binturong too stubbornly. I gave some consideration to the possibility that it was a flying lemur, but I hadn’t seen any skin flaps between its fore and hind limbs. The debate unresolved, I went to bed, and even though it might not have been a binturong, I settled with the idea that it might – it just might – have been one.

I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of hammering rain. It poured out of the sky unrelenting, hammering on the roof over my head with rare brutality. It went on for the rest of the night and well into the following morning. Therefore, our schedule to go canoeing had to be adjusted, and we decided to have a meeting with the RPU members first, which was originally planned for that evening. The RPU members were very happy to talk about their motivation to do their job, and they all obviously did it with pleasure and pride. After having been in the jungle the day before, experiencing its hot, soggy dampness, I got a deep respect for these people. They spend at least twenty days every month in the forest, with disregard to the weather conditions. And while the experience was thrilling to me, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the enthusiasm of the RPU members.

Eventually, the rain ceased in time for us to go on our scheduled canoe trip. We took the Badak Laut to the mouth of the Cigenter river, where we got into our canoes. The scenery on the river was absolutely stunning, and it became more and more beautiful after every bend. There were a lot of overhanging branches, and the high water level sometimes made it difficult for us to pass them, to the point where we had to lay flat in our canoes if we didn’t want to be knocked off. Along the way, we came across a number of young pythons, which were lying in ambush on the branches of young trees and on palm leaves.

Since the water level was high and the overhanging branches were low, sooner or later we would reach a point where we could no longer continue by canoe. Living in the illusion that our destination – Cigenter Falls – was only 700 metres away, we continued on foot. At first, the path was slippery, but reasonably easy to walk. However, this soon took a drastic change. The path became more and more slippery, as did my mud-clogged sandals, making it almost impossible to stay upright. At the first crossing of a stream, my sandals betrayed me and I lost my footing. Iwan Podol grabbed my wrist to prevent me from falling all the way into the river, but my shoulder felt like it was nearly dislodged in the process. I finally made it safely to the other side and continued the hike. We crossed a number of other streams, one of which had particularly treacherous banks. Pak Agus decided that the safest way to cross this stream was through the air, and after several tries, a sturdy liana swayed him safely to the other side.

The path became narrower and ever more slippery. It became almost to narrow to walk on, which added an extra thrill to the trip. Only an arm’s length away, the river bank made a sheer drop to the water some two metres below, and on the other side of the path, the land sloped steeply up. If not for the support of the available vegetation, I would surely have tumbled into the river. This was the last place where I expected to find rhino footprints (except for my backyard, obviously), but to my astonishment, there was a clear rhino track on the very same path. I could not imagine how an animal of 2000 kilograms could follow a path that was hardly wide enough for a human. We followed the footsteps of this acrobatic rhino in the opposite direction and eventually we came to the point where the rhino had climbed out of the river onto the steep, muddy bank, proving that the plump Javan rhino is actually very agile. A truly amazing animal.

At last, after a hike of several 700 metres, we heard the sweet sound of a rumbling waterfall. We had arrived at our destination. Most of the group stayed at the bottom of the waterfall, but I made my way upstream, climbing over rocks and fallen logs. Iwan and a couple of RPU members were already on the other side, where an opening in the undergrowth indicated where a campsite had been. We spent some time here to take a rest and enjoy the riverscape. My imagination took me on another journey as I pictured a rhino crossing the river bend. Just the possibility that it might happen before my own eyes was an adrenalin rush for me. Such is the enchantment of Ujung Kulon: the secrecy of its rare animals is so tantalizing that it feels like a presence lurking in the shady undergrowth.

The way to Cigenter Falls was quite an adventure, but the way back to Handeuleum Island was even more so. My sandals had collected a respectable amount of mud, making it almost impossible for me to keep my footing. When we came to the stream with the treacherously steep banks, I decided that I might be safer if I tried to cross on a makeshift bridge (which was no more than a thick bamboo trunk). I was wrong. As I tried to get down to the ‘bridge’, I slipped. I was holding a rattan leaf for my balance, but it bent more than I wanted, and a fall into the stream seemed inevitable. I was already preparing myself to go under, but suddenly, my fall was broken by the rattan leaf that I was holding. As I was dangling from the steep bank, with the water of the stream to my thighs, I had a moment of indecision. Would I let go and sacrifice my camera, or would I try to climb back up and risk another fall? I was hanging with my back to the muddy bank, holding only a rattan leaf. Could I trust its strength to get me back up? I could not feel the streambed under my feet; if I let go, I might get wetter than I’d expect. Finally, I struggled to turn around and I used the rattan leaf and some roots that were sticking out of the bank to scramble back up it. There was Iwan again to hoist me back up, and I managed to get back to safety. Without further ado, I took off my sandals and tried again to cross the ‘bridge’. This time, I made it to the other side safely, with many thanks to the RPU members who were there for extra support.

Eventually we all made it back to the canoes, and we let the river take us back to the beach. Along the way, I heard a rustling noise on the right bank. I tried to see through the dense vegetation, but I could not make out anything. Then, a small gap in the foliage gave me a glimpse of a large, dark shape. And then it was gone. In my enthusiasm and frantic desire to see a rhino, I saw a rhino.

I yelled “Rhinorhinorhino!”, causing a lot of confusion among my friends. But I was convinced that I had seen the shoulder and ears of a rhino sticking out above the undergrowth. We paddled our way back to the place where I had sounded the alarm, and I scuttled onto the river bank with Inov right behind me. Expecting that any rhino that might have been there would have been startled by my foolish call, I was not too disappointed to find that the shape I had seen was only a dry palm leaf. There were, however, some rhino footprints, but according to the RPU member who joined us, they were already more than a week old. Further downstream, we came across a narrow gap in the vegetation, where a rhino had climbed out of the river and disappeared in the undergrowth.

Back at the beach we made a little detour to the Cigenter grazing ground, where we were treated with a herd of banteng grazing on the far side. Then, the Badak Laut took us back to Handeuleum Island.

It was a warm evening, which was not only due to the high temperature. There was the warmth of friendship and, for some, whiskey. We all had a good laugh about my hallucination, and we talked about the tough treks that we had made in the past two days. It had been a wonderful experience for all of us. Despite the harsh conditions of the rainy season, Ujung Kulon had showed me once again where my heart lies. I postponed sleep as long as exhaustion allowed me, savouring every moment. When fatigue finally got the better of me, I went to bed. The following morning the Badak Laut took us back to Sumur. As the forested coastline of the peninsula disappeared into the distance, I was filled with many different emotions. There was sadness for having to leave, satisfaction with what I had experienced, and regret that I hadn’t seen a Javan rhino. But underneath it all, simmering, was the belief that I would get another chance; I would return to Ujung Kulon, to walk once more in the footsteps of a rhino.

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