Notes from the Field: Amy Mathews Recounts Rhino Conservation Journey to Indonesia

Amy Mathews, OKC Zoo lead elephant caretaker, recently returned from a conservation journey to Indonesia. These are her notes from the field:

In July, fellow pachyderm caretaker Katie Van Singel and I traveled to Indonesia to learn more about the various rhino conservation initiatives sponsored by one of the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden’s legacy conservation partners, the International Rhino Foundation. While abroad, Katie and I were fortunate enough to meet with many of the passionate individuals who have dedicated their lives to the care and conservation of one of the world’s most endangered species. The Zoo community is to thank for this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Last year, hundreds of individuals gathered at a local bowling alley for food, fun, and most importantly: rhinos! This event, “Bowling for Rhinos,” is organized entirely by zookeepers who volunteer their time and energy to raise funds for wildlife conservation and habitat preservation in Asia and Africa. I was the 2018 chairperson for the event and the OKC Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) raised over $22,000, the third-highest contribution made by any chapter nationwide. In total, the OKC Zoo AAZK chapter has donated over $350,000 in the past 15 years.

Amy with BBS Rangers

Amy and Katie present rhino patrol officers with solar inflatable lanterns

After nearly 20 hours of air travel, we arrived in our first destination, Jakarta where we spent most of our time at Ujung Kulon National Park. Our hosts were the dedicated individuals of the Rhino Protection Units (RPUs). RPUs are highly-trained, anti-poaching teams that intensively patrol vital areas of the national parks monitoring animal activity, removing wildlife traps and snares while also investigating illegal activity, including poaching. During our brief stay in Ujung Kulon, we trekked throughout the dense forest with the rangers in search of the Javan rhino. After tracking footprints and markings for an hour, we stumbled upon a rhinoless wallow (mud pit). Although our paths did not cross with the elusive Javan rhino, we are confident that we "just missed it."

Amy and Katie in Indonesia

Amy and Katie tracking a Javan rhino one morning and came across a fresh pile of dung

After our time in Java, we traveled to Sumatra and spent some time in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (BBS). Like Ujung Kulon, the RPUs and government official whom we met at BBS were extremely hospitable. Although they work tirelessly throughout the day to manage the many aspects of human-animal cohabitation, they took the time to share their home with us. On our last day at BBS, we were invited to plant a tree in "bowlers' alley" - a nod to the Bowling for Rhinos events that have benefited conservation. This tradition allows "bowlers" to leave a lasting impression in the national park. It was both an honor and a privilege to partake in that experience.

Planting a tree in the National Park

Amy Mathews adding a tree to "bowlers" alley in BBS National Park 

Finally, we traveled to Way Kambas National Park, where we saw an abundance of wildlife from dazzling birds to enormous crocodiles. Located in the heart of the national park is the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS). SRS is committed to the care, conservation, and research of the Critically Endangered Sumatran Rhino. With fewer than 80 individuals left in the wild, the time to act is now. The International Rhino Foundation, in partnership with the Government of Indonesia and rhino experts from around the world, have devised a way to bring the Sumatran rhino back from the brink of extinction. To learn more about the Sumatran Rhino Rescue efforts, click here.

Amy in Indonesia

Amy with another "Bowling for Rhinos" top fundraiser from Cincinnati Zoo in Indonesia

As a seasoned traveler, I always return home amazed by the generosity and hospitality of the local people. The men that serve as Rhino Protection Units are unsung conservation heroes. Their job is far from easy: they risk their lives while spending weeks away from their loved ones. Despite these challenges, they welcomed "the bowlers" with smiles and took the time to provides us with more insight into their world.

We met several government officials, and it was a pleasure to hear these individuals discuss their dedication to conservation. Saving a species is a collaborative effort, one which would not be possible without the support of the Government of Indonesia.

Lastly, there was one individual with whom the trip would not have been possible, and that was Inov. He is an exemplary advocate for wildlife, a phenomenal liaison for the people, and an asset to the International Rhino Foundation. Inov is an excellent example of conservation in action and a friendly reminder that one person can make a difference. So be the change you want to see in the world and you too can save a species!

Amy Mathews

-Amy Mathews

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