Notes from the Field: Katie Van Singel Recounts Rhino Conservation Journey to Indonesia

Katie Van Singel, OKC Zoo pachyderm caretaker, recently returned from a conservation journey to Indonesia. These are her notes from the field:

I am a primary caretaker for the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden's three Indian rhinos Arun, Niki, and Shanti. I never imagined that I would get the chance to go and see native habitat for any of the five rhino species in the world, but this July, my coworker Amy Mathews and I went on the trip of a lifetime.

Amy and I are members of the Oklahoma City Zoo American Association of Zookeepers (AAZK) chapter, and Amy was the chair for our Bowling for Rhinos fundraising event in 2018. All AAZK chapters have the option of registering an event to raise money for rhino conservation. The Oklahoma City Zoo chapter is the second highest donating chapter nationally since 1990, and Amy raised enough money as chair that she won a trip for herself and one guest to one of the in situ rhino conservation areas supported by Bowling for Rhinos. She chose Indonesia as her destination and me to come with her on the trip, and I am forever grateful that she did.

team photo with staff at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary

Team photo with staff at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary

During our two week conservation journey to Indonesia, we visited three national parks and the rhino protection units (RPUs) working under Yayasan Badak Indonesia (YABI), a grassroots foundation funded almost entirely by the International Rhino Foundation (IRF). YABI works to protect and educate the local people about the Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) and the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) that inhabit Indonesia. Both of these rhinos are considered critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and for good reason – the Javan rhino has about 68 individuals left in the world, and the Sumatran rhino has fewer than 80, with some experts guessing as low as 30, individuals. This is due in part to habitat loss and poaching for their horns. Thanks to the dedicated work of YABI, no Javan rhinos have been poached in Ujung Kulon National Park, their final stronghold, since the inception of the RPUs there. Sumatran rhinos need more help, as they are caught in snares and separated from each other by human settlements and industry.

I had never left the United States before this trip, and didn’t even have a passport, so the entire preparation for the trip was new and a little stressful at times. I packed months in advance, packing and repacking every time I got a new item I needed for the trip. Amy also had the brilliant idea to fundraise for solar powered lanterns for every RPU ranger in YABI, which amounted to 180 lanterns. Thanks to generous donors, the goal was met in two days! Unfortunately, due to the lithium batteries in the lanterns, we were only able to pack 20 with us on our trip due to customs restrictions, but Amy is working with IRF to deliver the remaining 160 to Indonesia. The RPUs were incredibly grateful, and seeing their excitement was definitely a highlight of this trip.

Check out that print! A recent footprint from a male Javan rhino.

Check out that print! A recent footprint from a male Javan rhino

We began our trip flying first to Houston, then Tokyo to meet with the two staff members from IRF accompanying us on the trip and the rest of the “bowlers,” as we were affectionately called. From Tokyo, we flew together to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, located on the island of Java. From Jakarta, we traveled to Ujung Kulon National Park, staying just outside of the national park boundary at a RPU lodge. We spent two full days in Ujung Kulon, trekking with the RPUs on some of their routes surveying the park. Along one of the routes, we found every sign of a male Javan rhino without seeing the rhino who left them. I have never been so excited to see rhino poop in my life! We also spent time visiting the Javan Rhino Study and Conservation Area (JRSCA). JRSCA’s main goal is to increase the area of the park that is usable by the rhinos by removing the sugar palm Arenga obtusifolia, a native plant that grows quickly and inhibits the growth of the rhino’s main food plants. YABI employs the local people living just outside Ujung Kulon National Park to clear away the sugar palm, providing income and increasing the amount of area much faster. Because of the work done by YABI and the locals, camera trap footage has revealed that the rhinos are inhabiting the areas cleared of the sugar palm. This project was one that touched my heart, as the Javan rhinos are members of the same genus as Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis), and are also known as lesser one-horned rhinos, just like the Indian rhino is also called the greater one-horned rhino. Seeing camera trap images of them reminded me of our rhinos at the zoo, and one of my favorite memories was sharing photos of the OKC Zoo’s rhinos with the Ujung Kulon National Park RPUs.

From Ujung Kulon National Park, we traveled to Sumatra, visiting Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park first. Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (BBS) is a World Heritage Site and home to three of Sumatra’s charismatic megafauna: the Sumatran rhino, the Sumatran elephant, and the Sumatran tiger. BBS is located in three provinces, making decisions and legislation concerning the park more difficult to achieve. The park is also surrounded by villages, with no buffer zone between the park border and human settlements. Because of this, human-wildlife conflict, deforestation, and poaching are major issues YABI’s RPUs face. The park is also cut in half by a large highway, making it difficult for animals to find each other. BBS has the distinction among the three parks we visited for being the home of Bowler’s Alley, a grove named for the Bowling for Rhinos fundraiser, where the trip winners and their guests plant a rhino food plant to encourage the regrowth of the forest. Besides this special event, we participated in both a night hike and a morning hike with the RPUs, looking for endangered tarsiers at night and finding plenty of evidence of the Sumatran elephants that call the park home during our day hike.

Dimas, one of the RPUs, and I with the avocado tree we planted in Bowler’s Alley

Dimas, one of the RPUs, and Katie Van Singel with the avocado tree they planted in Bowler’s Alley

From BBS, we traveled to Way Kambas National Park and the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Way Kambas is also home to rhinos, tigers and elephants, but Way Kambas’ main threat is poaching of these species and more. The RPUs must work diligently in Way Kambas to remove snares and arrest poachers. To show us how difficult they could be to locate, the RPUs set up two kinds of snares they commonly encounter and has us try and find them. It was pretty hard, even though they made them more obvious for us to see! Way Kambas is also subject to deforestation, and YABI is working to regenerate the forests at the park’s edge by planting rhino food plants and setting up watch towers to better look for threats to the forest. Despite these challenges, Way Kambas has incredible biodiversity, which was highlighted for us on a boat tour of the Way Kanan river. We saw eight saltwater crocodiles, plenty of long tailed macaques, and many different bird species.

Proudly #TeamRhino! The Bowlers with Ujung Kulon’s RPUs

Proudly #TeamRhino! The Bowlers with Ujung Kulon’s RPUs

The Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary holds the last Sumatran rhinos in human care, and functions as a breeding and research center. The Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary’s main goals are breeding the rhinos currently in their care to increase the population and bring the remaining wild rhinos into their care to increase genetic diversity and save the species. This is a major undertaking, as capture and transfer of one rhino costs upwards of $15,000. Besides that, the rhinos live in mountainous areas of Sumatra and Borneo, making it difficult to find and bring one to the sanctuary. Seeing these endangered animals up close was an awesome experience. Talking to the rhino caregivers and watching their routine was fun, familiar, and amazing all at once, and I will forever hold the memory of watching one of the rhinos while listening to wild siamang gibbons sing in the trees. Sumatran rhinos are incredibly special animals: as the closest living relative to the wooly rhinoceros of the Ice Age and the only member of their genus, losing this species would be devastating for global biodiversity. Ending our trip at the Sumatran rhino sanctuary was both the best and hardest part of the trip, as we were almost literally staring extinction in the face. Our trip ended in Jakarta after a night reminiscing about the amazing time we shared together, and our resolve to return home and bring YABI’s many stories and work back with us across the United States.

Because of their critically endangered status, the International Rhino Foundation has made it their goal this year to raise money to help save the Sumatran rhino by building new facilities to house them in their home national park. You can help them reach this goal by donating to the Sumatran rhino rescue, and please come to Bowling for Rhinos! It’s a fun event and your support helps save all five species of rhinos. We can’t do this without you!

-Katie Van Singel

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