Seeking the Elusive Badak Jawa: Stories in the Sand

Bill Konstant
Program Officer

Day #2 in our search for Javan rhinos begins with the sound of surf crashing on the southern shore of the Ujung Kulon peninsula.  The beaches are deserted in both directions for as far as the eye can see, but tracks in the sand tell us what creatures – great and small – used this barren coastal highway in the wee morning hours.

Southern shoreline of the Ujung Kulon Peninsula

The easiest trails to follow are those left by water monitors, lizards that are scaled-down versions of the giant Komodo dragon.  Equally prominent are tracks left by small felids – perhaps fishing cats or leopard cats – and the native wild dog, known as the dhole.  We also find leopard spoor, which I’m glad I didn’t see last night before hitting the sack.  Since the Javan tiger went extinct, which biologists believe happened in the 1970s, the leopard is Ujung Kulon’s largest and most dangerous predator.  Fortunately, leopards don’t particularly like to interact with people, so we shouldn’t worry too much about them prowling around our campsite at night.

Water monitor tracks

Water monitor lizard

Dhole tracks

Leopard spoor

The most interesting track we stumble across on the beach looks like it was left by an all-terrain vehicle that emerged from the sea and then made a U-turn back into the surf.  Judging by its size, it was made by a leatherback sea turtle – the largest of the world’s sea turtles – which apparently hauled itself ashore in pursuit of jellyfish, one of its favorite foods.

Leatherback sea turtle tracks

Jellyfish – leatherback sea turtle food

A glance down the beach now reveals a small group of people hiking toward the distant, fog-shrouded hills.  They must have emerged from the forest a few hundred yards back.  Their destination is a sacred cave, where they’ll probably spend a few hours in worship.  Their journey may have started in Taman Jaya, just like ours, but while we sailed around the peninsula for three hours, they’ve been walking for a day or more at this point.  They’ll also have to make camp again tonight on their way back.

En route to worship

What we don’t see along the beach, unfortunately, are any rhino tracks.  While these secretive creatures probably do approach the shore, it’s doubtful that they wander very far from the forest cover and out into the open.  We’ll just have to follow their trails inland if we hope to observe a Javan rhino in the flesh.

To be continued ….

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