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Andatu and Ratu

Taronga Zoo’s Melissa Wyatt and Alex Connor were awarded a Zoofriends Fellowship to visit the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park Indonesia, a project run by Taronga Conservation Partner, the International Rhino Foundation. Filled with excitement and keen to learn more about the work being done to help save this critically endangered species, their aim was to provide support by developing a ‘Voluntourism’ proposal. Alex shares her first-hand account of the experience below:

We arrive in a bustling Jakarta on a Sunday afternoon and take the two hour taxi to the city of Bogor, ready and excited to visit YABI, the team working to save the Sumatran Rhino. There are only 100 of the world’s smallest rhino left in the wild.

We meet with Pak Widodo, head of YABI, the local arm of the International Rhino Foundation, who has dedicated his life to saving the Sumatran Rhino species. YABI are inspiring and dedicated people keen to develop voluntourism to attract visitors to the sanctuary to provide assistance in their work, as well as learn about these rare animals. After a short flight we arrive in Sumatra, where it’s hot, sticky and raining – what you’d expect in the wet season.

When then travel by truck for a few hours and we find ourselves entering the sanctuary. A barking deer outside the main station serves as our welcoming party. The sound of siamangs also echoes in our ears and we see long-tailed macaque climbing above us – yes, this really is the forest.

We head to dinner and start talking to the team about their work and it’s impressive. Caring for five rhino, who have 10 hectares of forest each in which to roam, is a 24-hour-a-day operation.

Keepers are locals who work seven days at the station and then have two days back with their families, while the vet can be here for up to a month. Each rhino has two specialised keepers. Their routine involves getting up at 6:30am to feed and clean the rhinos, who come into their dens for two hours each morning. Then as the rhinos walk out for the day, keepers walk out with them, following them through the forest.  During breeding season, or if they suspect a rhino is sick, their watch will be 24-hours-a-day.

After a well earned sleep, we are delighted by an offer to see the rhinos. This is a very special experience, as the keepers’ focus is breeding and rhino health and outside visitors are tightly controlled. We walk up to a pen to see their pride and joy, Andatu, their 18-month-old calf and his mother, Ratu. They are beautiful and actually have some fur.  Next we meet my favourite, the old dame of the group, Bina. At 30 years of age, she is sleepy after her morning meal and we notice a small cut on her face. The keeper actually pats her to encourage her to go to sleep. After about five minutes she lies down and the keeper applies antiseptic to her wound. It’s a beautiful moment.

Caring for some of the last of this species involves all sorts of challenges. Keepers have to deal with trees coming down on the electric fence, snakes, collection of browse (even in the forest this is difficult), managing injuries after courtship and breeding, the global pressure to produce offspring and the ever present danger of poaching. Even in a semi in-situ environment with a keeper present, poaching is still a real threat.  

As part of our adventure, we visit local farms and talk with local NGOs. It becomes clear to us very quickly that the survival of this species is dependent on the engagement of the local community. About 80% of the locals rely on agriculture as their main source of income and there is no buffer zone between the national park and local farms.  Elephants leave the national park over 400 times a year to raid local crops. Conflict seems inevitable.

Here enter the rock stars of our story, the Rhino Protection Units. This dedicated group spends over 20 days a month away from their families, trekking through jungle, sleeping rough and dealing with the threat of poachers, to protect animals in this national park.  Filled with good humour and fascinating stories – including returning to their tent one day to find a tiger inside – these guys really are the front line of conservation.

Most interesting though, was their work with local communities. Visiting schools, presenting ‘rhino dances’ and talking at any and all local events, their top priority is engaging and educating the community. They would much rather prevent poaching through education than have to deal with a poacher and the loss of an animal. These tough jungle warriors were also approachable, engaging and brilliant teachers.

This was where the inspiration for our voluntrousim program came from. What would happen if the people who visit the sanctuary not only foster a love and appreciation for wildlife, but can understand the role of the local community and also become rhino ambassadors? 

Energised by this prospect, Mel and I work like mad, literally from dawn til dusk, developing daily itineraries with opportunities to work with animals and people. We visit a local Balinese village, work at a school, take part in the local agricultural way of life, build an alternative fuel source for a family, and trek with the Rhino Protection Units.  We develop budgets, application forms and briefing notes – everything we think the team would need to set up and run this project.  We can see clearer and clearer as we go on, the amazing positive impacts these people could bring to the work of the sanctuary.

After a whirlwind two weeks, it is sadly time to leave. We present our ideas back to the team at the Rhino Sanctuary and finalise our reports.  I have learned many things I did not expect, especially about the wonderful Indonesian culture and attitudes. I feel reassured in the knowledge that these exceptional people are working to save this species and remain hungry to support them.

* The local arm of the International Rhino Foundation, YABI and Taronga are currently considering the ‘voluntourism’ proposals put forward as a result of this project.  Watch this space for any updates.

- Alex Connor

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