Thanks to a Zoo Friends fellowship, Taronga Western Plains Zoo Keeper, Nerida Taylor, travelled to Sumatra in May 2017 to meet and work with Sumatran Rhinos. She found she had to pinch herself a number of times to check that she wasn’t imagining where she was.
As soon as I drove through the entrance to Way Kambas National Park I knew I was somewhere special. The temperature seemed to drop by a couple of degrees instantly, however the humidity was stifling. After an 8km drive into the forest along a rocky road, I was greeted by Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) staff and directed to my room which I would call home for two weeks.
The SRS is home to seven Sumatran Rhinos that are part of an intensively-managed research and breeding program aimed at increasing Sumatra’s wild rhino population. The rhinos reside in large, open areas where they can experience a natural rainforest habitat whilst still receiving state-of-the-art veterinary care.
Given the Sumatran rhino is Critically Endangered, with less than 100 animals now left in the wild, it is important that we learn as much as possible about this species – its basic biology, disease risks, food and habitat requirements – to help it survive. The rhinos living at the SRS are helping with exactly that. They are ambassadors for their wild counterparts, and a means for educating local communities and the general public.
While at the SRS I had the honour and privilege of working alongside the rhino keepers as they went about their daily routines. The mornings were spent hand feeding, bathing, checking the rhino’s bodies for ticks and cleaning their feet, before letting them back out into their forest enclosures for the remainder of the day.
I also had the pleasure of following the vet team around, and was able to observe the female rhinos having an ultrasound. Many discussions were had relating to their breeding successes and challenges they face in the future. The dedication and devotion to the care of these animals by all the SRS staff is inspiring. They all appreciate the importance of the work they are doing and the need to keep these amazing rhinos around for future generations to come. And they are obviously doing something right – the SRS has welcomed two calves born in the last 5 years. Andatu was born in June 2012 – the first Sumatran rhino born at a breeding centre in Indonesia, and Delilah – born in May 2016. I was fortunate enough to be at the SRS for Delilah’s first birthday and it was a celebration to remember. Dignitaries from the Ministers’ office, Forestry department and Eco-Tourism operators were all invited to get up close and personal with the birthday girl.
I cannot talk about the SRS without mentioning the tireless efforts of the Rhino Poaching Units (RPU). The main cause of the initial decline of Sumatran rhinos was poaching for their horn. Now, the populations are also limited by living in fragmented habitats which prevent their ability to get together to breed. Rhino habitat is also continuously encroached by human populations. The RPUs patrol the entire national park - on foot, by motorbike, and by boat, all the while monitoring rhinos and other threatened wildlife found in Way Kambas - such as tiger, elephant and tapir populations through direct sightings, footprints, faeces, wallows, and evidence of feeding. RPUs immediately remove any traps or snares discovered during patrols and investigate any illegal activity, including illegal hunting and fishing, illegal logging, construction of camps or houses, and clearing of land for crops. Where appropriate, the RPUs then collect evidence and together with the forestry department, help make arrests.
After visiting the SRS and seeing the dedication and commitment to save these magnificent animals, I leave with a greater sense of faith and hope that there is a future for the Sumatran Rhino.
Taronga is a founding member of the International Rhino Foundation, which helps manage the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Taronga’s expertise has been called upon by the SRS to provide a range of support including husbandry and veterinary expertise, along with funding community based anti-poaching rangers in the Way Kambas National Park.
Based on the extreme circumstances facing rhinos and Taronga’s commitment to rhinos, the Sumatran Rhino was one of the species chosen this year as a Taronga Centenary Legacy Species. This means Taronga is committed over the next 10 years to supporting Sumatran Rhinos including funding anti poaching projects, providing financial support and expert staff from our veterinary and husbandry teams and focusing on local communities around Way Kambas National Park to build capacity around eco-tourism and education programs.