By Bill Konstant, IRF Program Oficer
Together, the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia (Yayasan Badak Indonesia or YABI) manage 16 Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) in three national parks: Bukit Barisan Selatan (7), Way Kambas (5) and Ujung Kulon (4). Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) are highly trained four-man anti-poaching teams that detect and deactivate traps and snares, identify and apprehend illegal intruders, and investigate wildlife crime scenes. Each year, the American Association of Zookeepers (AAZK) helps support these protection efforts with funds raised through its Bowling for Rhinos events. This tour, in fact, is an opportunity for selected AAZK members to see firsthand how the RPUs accomplish their mission. It’s a special opportunity to spend time with the people on the ground who work to safeguard the future for the world’s two most endangered large land mammals – the Sumatran and Javan rhinos.
The first RPU officer that our tour group meets is Arief Rubianto, who coordinates Sumatran rhino patrols and surveys in Bukit Barisan Selatan and Way Kambas National Parks. His career in wildlife protection Has included battles with illegal loggers, gunfire exchanges with poachers, surviving days in the forest without food, and conducting undercover assignments as the leader of an Intelligence and Law Enforcement Unit (ILEU). Arief learned a great deal about information gathering from his father, who served in military intelligence, and he has also garnered an incredible wealth of knowledge about tropical forest ecology in more than 20 years of field experience. This experience not only helps him manage teams of rangers in the field and coordinate with government wildlife authorities and law enforcement departments, but also helps his staff communicate with local communities – people who close to nature.
In Bukit Barisan we meet Meliaro Hulu, a senior RPU member. Called Hulu by his colleagues, he began a career in wildlife conservation in 1988 as a keeper for the former Sumatran Rhino Trust. Later, he was hired as one of the first RPUs at Kerinci Seblat National Park, formerly home to the Sumatran rhino. Hulu took part in the capture of seven rhinos from this region years ago that helped establish an international captive breeding program. Among them were Ipuh and Emi, who were eventually sent to the Cincinnati Zoo and produced three offspring – Andalas, Suci and Harapan. A male named Torgamba lived at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary for a number of years, but never produced any young. And Hulu also helped capture Bina, one of three female rhinos still in residence at the sanctuary.
Today, Hulu spends at least 15 days each month in the field on patrol and survey. He and his co-workers sometimes encounter poachers who have greater numbers and superior weapons. The mountainous topography in which he works is also challenging, and there’s always the danger of encountering elephants and tigers while on patrol. Despite the hardships, Hulu considers his Rhino Protection Unit as the “best team ever on patrol for wildlife in Indonesia.”
In addition to rhinos, RPUs also work to protect a long list of other threatened species including little known creatures such as pangolins – small, scaly-skinned mammals that feed on ants, termites and other tiny invertebrates. Pangolins are increasingly becoming victims of the illegal wildlife trade, sought both for their scales and meat. Another Bukit Barisan Selatan RPU ranger,Uga Yogaswara, last year helped arrest a pangolin poacher who was also involved in the local drug and weapons trade. One member of our tour group, Rhishja Cota-Larson, was very excited to meet Uga and learn more about the successful prosecution, as her organization, Annamiticus, is raising public awareness regarding the poaching threat to pangolins.