It’s still Day 1 of our search for Javan rhinos and just a short hike from the clearing where we encountered the banteng to a stream where we break for lunch. Our meals in the forest are simple – rice, noodles and vegetables mainly, some fish for protein, and a hot cup of sweetened tea or coffee to wash it down. Fresh water from the streams and small surface wells will be boiled to kill any parasites and used for cooking and drinking.
After lunch we climb to the top of a nearby ridge and encounter the first signs of rhino early in our ascent – a trail of foot prints. Two months into the dry season, the ground may be hard and dry, but the pancake-sized impressions made by a one-ton animal are easy to spot. On the opposite slope, toward the end of our descent, rhino footprints appear again, but they’re a tad smaller and probably those of a second animal. Javan rhinos prefer lowland forest habitats and tend to travel the valleys rather than climb the hills. We come across a dried pile of rhino dung – likely a few days old – a bit farther down the trail.
The forest here supports a broad diversity of plants and the vegetation is lush. Biologists have tallied over two hundred species of plants that comprise the Javan rhino’s strict vegetarian diet, so its habitat is essentially one huge salad bar. Ujung Kulon is classified as a tropical rain forest, receiving over 10 feet of precipitation each year. That’s three times as much rain per year than Seattle, Washington, which has a reputation as the precipitation capital of the United States, but actually two feet per year less than the temperate rain forests of Olympic National Park, located less than 100 miles away.
No additional signs of rhino this afternoon. The most conspicuous wildlife is the occasional hornbill flying through the treetops. Several different species occur here and, even if the leaves hide their flight, their slow wing beats make a loud and unmistakable “whooshing” sound. Their prominent beaks and headdresses make them appear like modern-day pterodactyls.
With evening approaching, we pitch camp alongside a stream, not far from the ocean. The site offers a shallow pool for bathing and also appears to be a perfect crossing point for any resident rhinos.
Sunset comes shortly after dinner and brings with it a symphony of forest sounds. The plaintive cries of a jungle peafowl signal the end of our first day, followed by a night of staccato gecko barks and chorusing tree frogs.
To be continued ….