The Indonesia Blog: Part One - Looking for Rhinos September 2012

Up river in Ujung Kulon looking for Javan Rhinos ...

I'd be the first to admit that Indonesia isn't exactly a top destination on most people's 'must-visit' lists. Unless you want to go to Bali of course (which we didn't). So I'm going to have to explain why we went there ... and it's really very simple: we went to look for rhinos. There! Does that sound crazy?

Well it would sound a little crazy if you know about the rhinos of Indonesia. You see, nobody actually sees them. Nobody. To be clear ... NO ONE EVER SEES RHINOS IN INDONESIA. EVER. Which partly explains why we were so keen to go. After all, we thought, what if we did?

I need to flash back just a little. My lovely and adorable wife Sue likes rhinos. She once sat up all night nursing a sick rhino at Chester Zoo, and well, she has a thing about them. She loves the African rhinos (the black rhino and the white rhino) and she loves the Indian rhino (we once saw Indian rhinos from elephant-back in Nepal). But there are two rhinos that she really, especially wants to see: the Sumatran and Javan rhinos of Indonesia. So what is a husband to do? 

We flew into Jakarta, and onward to Sumatra, and then we drove to Way Kambas national park. There are twenty Sumatran rhinos here (they know this from camera traps, footprints, and dung) but it is a large park and each rhino has around sixty five square kilometers to hide in. The Dutch researcher Nico van Strien spent more than twenty years studying Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia, and he famously never saw one. A Swiss researcher, Marcus Borner, spent five weeks, day and night, in a tree-hide where rhinos were known to roam, but he never saw one. No one ever sees them. They are secretive, small, and well-camouflaged.  Way Kambas is a heavily forested park with just one road through it. We saw siamang, and agile gibbons, and a whole array of wildlife. But no rhinos. 'Have you ever seen a rhino?' we asked our mahouts at the elephant school in the park. 'Never,' they told us. We explored on bikes, we explored on foot, and we went down the Way Kanan river in a noisy boat. There we had what may have been our closest encounter. Sue smelled the familiar pong of rhino scent-marking. We stopped the boat and waited in silence, watching the bank. But nothing. 'Have you ever seen a rhino?' we asked the boatman. 'Just once,' he told us, and he pointed at the bank. 'Right there.'

So from Sumatra we took a ferry to Java - but without much optimism. The Javan rhino makes its Sumatran cousin look positively gregarious. There are possibly 150 Sumatran rhinos still in existence ... but only 35 Javan rhinos. Sightings are incredibly rare. Still it's a larger rhino, and we did have a glimmer of hope. All Javan rhinos are in a single park - the Ujung Kulon National Park on the south west coast of Java. It's a tough place to get to. You have to drive for seven hard hours from Jakarta, and then you have to charter a boat to take you for a two hour trip to one of the islands off the coast of the park where you can camp out in an empty lodge. So you need a boat, a crew, a guide, and a cook. There are no roads at all in Ujung Kulon; it is a dense jungle, normally far too swampy to explore by foot. So the only way into the park is to pay a park ranger to take you up one of the rivers in a dugout canoe. And this is what we did. On Handeuleum Island we met a researcher from the International Rhino Foundation, a charming man called Inov. He told us that he'd been studying rhinos in the park for fourteen years. Had he ever seen a rhino? No. Silly question. Of course not. 

Still we had hope. We had come at the tail-end of a long dry season, and we hoped that this would bring rhinos to the riverbank for water. To increase our chances we arranged with a ranger and his canoe to spend nine hours on the river over three separate visits. After that we were relying on luck. 

And luck is what we had. On our first visit up river we saw fresh rhino footprints. It was a good omen. The water was the colour of smoky jade, the river was overhung with palm fronds and vines, there were crocodiles in the reeds and snakes above in the trees, and paddling was hazardous - we had to duck uncomfortably low to squeeze beneath fallen trees, and the canoe would get entangled in floating islands of branches and bamboo. But we were loving it. Sue was loving it. We trekked for a short distance and the ranger showed us footprints of a rhino and a calf. They were old prints, but it meant we were in the right vicinity at least. On the second trip we stuck close to the area where we'd seen the footprints on the shore. We drifted in near silence. But the hours went past, and we didn't see rhinos. It was starting to get dark. 'We must go,' the ranger whispered and reluctantly we started to paddle downstream towards our boat. We abandoned our silence now. We were paddling, the ranger was bailing water (did I mention that the canoe leaked?) and now we were talking and laughing. And that was when we came upon the rhinos. 

We knew it was something big. Very big. Something was thrashing and splashing behing the curtain of palm fronds that shielded the river. We sat frozen in silence. The whole undergrowth seemed to be waving. 'Rhino,' whispered the ranger, and there it was - the huge brown backside of a Javan rhino just a meter or so away on the bank. Something else was crashing towards us. I saw the fleeting shape of a smaller rhino and Sue caught a clear sight of them both - a mother rhino and her calf framed in the palm fronds. And then they were gone. 

We had seen Javan rhinos. Only a brief glimpse, but it was a clear sighting all the same. We have no photograph to prove it, only our own memories and the account of a Javan park ranger called Dedi Hidayat who told it all to the park staff when we got back. We paddled hard to get back to our boat, but we had lost a lot of time. Darkness fell and we were canoeing in pitch blackness. I thought I could spot the light of our boat and I pointed it out. 'It's a firefly,' Dedi told us. Every paddle-stroke shimmered with the light from bioluminescent creatures. Sue nearly clouted a crocodile with her paddle. But our elation was high. 'I can't believe it,' Sue kept saying. You may not understand this, but she was in tears. We had seen Javan rhinos! I think we may be the only living westerners who have seen a Javan rhino and her calf. That is how rare this sighting was. 

There are reasons to be positive about the Javan rhinos. There are only thirteen adult females left, but they do seem to be breeding. The park is as inaccessible to poachers as it is to tourists. If we leave them to it, then I do believe the population will thrive. One day it might be as easy to see a Javan rhino as it is to see a white rhino. But for the time being, we have the bragging rights. Thank you very much. 

Peace and Quiet on Handeuleum Island

Still looking for Javan Rhinos ...

Krakatoa ... still smoking after an eruption five days before

Sue exploring Way Kambas ... Sumatra

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