The Rarest Rhino

Islands, August 1998
© 1998 by Greg Breining

THE SMELL OF METHANE AND ROT rises from the slick muck and brackish water as though we are paddling straight into the green shadow of the Carboniferous. Mudskippers and bright crabs skitter along the banks, and a rachet-voiced kingfisher flies up river. A four-foot monitor lizard lurks in the underbrush with reptilian disregard, septic gums drawn to a faint smile. Or do I imagine this? One of our guides would know. He was once rushed to the hospital with a monitor bite.

The canoe strikes another deadfall. We have intercepted Java's Cigenter river on an ebbing tide, and depth is draining from our waterway with every paddle stroke. We scramble out onto the tree, which lies across the river, half above the water, half below. The canoe is 20 feet long, itself hollowed from a tree. Waterlogged and dense, it must weigh 300 pounds. We strain to pull, then push the boat onward, up the river, deeper into Java.

In the shallows we debark once again to drag the canoe by a rope. Who planned this trip on a falling tide? Yet soon our effort is rewarded: In the mud we spot a trail of deep tracks and plump rhino poop, the size, shape and color of a coconut.

Yet those are the only signs we see, for this is the Javan rhino, rarest of the world's five rhino species. Until this century, it roamed the forests of Southeast Asia and lived in such abundance on Java the government offered a bounty to have them killed. But today they exist in only two small populations: about 10 in southern Vietnam and 50 here in Ujung Kulon National Park, which juts like a rhino horn from western Java. And this day the rhino that made these tracks remains elusive. 

TWO DAYS LATER, at the remote tip of the park, we hike a network of hilly trails in search of rhinos. While our quest is almost certainly futile, we set about the task eagerly, because Ujung Kulon is an Eden of diversity. Its 300,000 acres harbor more than 700 species of plants, many rare and endemic, and 250 species of birds. We spot a leopard track and scare nearly a dozen hornbills from the canopy of the trees. They make a ragged sound when they fly, as though their wings tear a hole in the fabric of the sky. 

I follow Husen Maulana down the trail. Fourteen years ago, when he hired on as a jagawana, or forest guard, he was simply taking a job, he explains. He knew nothing of park. He scarcely knew where it was. But as he spent time in the forest, he discovered its beauty and wonders and began to treasure it. He has high cheeks and flashes a captivating smile. Slim and graceful, he makes the government khakis look fashionable. "Sulangkar," he says to me, tearing the leaf off a shrub. "Rhino food." 

A couple minutes later he points to a shrub. "Can you remember?" he asks. "Sulangkar," he says again. He explains that the rhino browses on many species of shrubs and small trees. He shows us where the canopy of the invasive langkap palm has shaded out most low-growing plants that rhinos might eat. "It makes some problem," he says. 

Suddenly we hear loud crashing in the brush. The jagawana at the head of the column turns, smiles, and speaks in Indonesian. 

"A large monitor," Maulana says, amused by my look of alarm. 

The trails leads us to a little creek with crystalline pools, joined like pearls by tiny riffles. I can see upstream and down through the jungle and suddenly am overcome with a premonition. I decide I feel the imminence of a rhino about to appear. I have never seen one, but I know what to look for: a two-ton pachyderm, heavy set, even by rhino standards. It has a single horn, a prehensile lip, and leathery skin that seems to hang over its body like armor plate. And it likes water. I wait for it to step from the shadows and drink.

It does not and we make lunch of hot coffee and noodles instead. The Indonesian guards, without exception, light up cigarettes. The Americans, without exception, do not. I am here with several Minnesota game wardens, who have brought donated equipment such as two-way radios to their Indonesian counterparts. They will also provide self-defense training and evaluate patrol routines in an effort to reduce poaching. The Indonesian jagawanas, like Maulana, in addition to patrolling for poachers, also guide visitors and tend to park maintenance and construction.

After lunch, Maulana tells me that despite his long experience in the woods—three weeks of every month on patrol or at the park guard post in the village of Tamanjaya—he has seen only three Javan rhinos. He spotted two on a single occasion when he hiked along the coast near the guard post at Cibunar. They were wading into the surf. As we approach this very guard post, Maulana bends down to point out a track. "Rhino," he says. But, as we might have predicted, the track is all we see. 

After resting at Cibunar, we hike back and come to a broad savanna shortly before dusk. In the grass stands a herd of banteng. A peacock struts nearby, and hornbills fly at the edge of the woods. One of the Americans—a man who has painstakingly recorded the tremor of every colorful butterfly, the appearance of every lizard—has just run out of video tape. I walk quietly to within 30 yards of the herd. They graze, showing little concern. The cows and calves are glossy russet; the bulls, nearly black. They all look muscular and trim, like cows that lift weights. 

OUR FINAL DAY, we motor back toward Tamanjaya. Maulana tells me to keep a lookout for dugongs. I do, peering as if into the seabed. Nearing shore, we spot something else instead: two young men sitting near a canoe. A fishing net is set in the shallows, obviously illegally. Maulana begins shouting directions. One of the men begins gathering the net. We land, and Maulana talks quietly with the man on shore. 

An American warden—the one with the camera—jumps into the discussion: "Are you going to take the net?" he asks. "Are you going to take the boat? It would be more of an incentive if you took their boat as well." I wonder how the American would take to this if the tables were turned—if Maulana were horning in on his bust. The other fisherman wades over to the boat, places the net inside and comes ashore to sit with his friend. Maulana writes something in a notebook. 

Maulana tells the two men to sit on the boat with some of the jagawanas as others of us begin our long hike through the woods back to Tamanjaya. Maulana tells me the young men are from a village inside park boundaries. Their father was ill, but has recovered, and the boys were catching fish for a meal of thanksgiving. 

"Do you believe that?" I ask.

"Yes, yes, of course," Maulana says. He feels at war with himself in such situations, he says. On the one hand he is duty-bound to arrest poachers. On the other, his heart aches for the villagers.

I feel myself beguiled by Maulana's earnestness. I have watched the bumbling incompetence of the jagawanas in operating the park's patrol boat and paddling a dugout canoe across a windy bay. I have seen their hypocrisy in fishing by hook and line in the park's waters when such an activity is illegal for villagers and visitors. Yet I like Maulana and want to believe—I do believe—that he is torn between sympathy and duty. People infringe on the park and break the law in a thousand different ways. Of greatest concern are the rhino poachers, if only because rhinos are so rare. Horn, bone and toenails are sold, potentially for several tens of thousands of dollars, and smuggled to distant Asian markets for use in remedies for fever, skin disease and impotence. The worst poaching in recent times occurred during the mid-1960s, when the park lost at least a rhino a year, Maulana says. Three times since then, jagawanas arrested and courts convicted poachers killing rhinos in the park.

While few or no rhinos have been killed recently, poachers are willing to try, and jagawanas aren't always ready to meet the challenge, Maulana says. A few years ago, the guard corps learned that poachers had entered the park in pursuit of a rhino, and a patrol went out to intercept them. The guards had only two guns and, more importantly, because they had no money, only three cartridges. When the poachers began to fire upon the guards, the guards panicked and fled. 

Also dangerous are the outlaws who dynamite and ultimately kill the coral reefs to capture fish and lobsters. They are ruthless criminals by nature, Maulana explains, and have a potent weapon in their explosives. The jagawanas are no match for them.

But more often poachers simply catch the colorful forest birds or fish illegally within the park, where all fishing and hunting is—by law if not by custom—prohibited. Combating such petty larceny is difficult because villagers not only surround the park; many live within it, in settlements lassoed by the boundary when the area, long a wildlife reserve, was designated a national park and World Heritage Site in 1992. We enter one of these villages now. It has been here since the 1920s, Maulana says. At its heart stands a mosque. Several fishing nets hang in the sun. 

We stop and talk to an old couple on a porch. He's making baskets and I ask to buy one. The woman's mouth is red from chewing betel nut. When I ask about it, she eagerly brings out two plastic bags and a jar of whitish paste. She assembles what looks like a fat green cocoon. She hands it to me and motions toward her mouth. I open up, pop it in and begin to work it around. The leaves are dry and stiff. As I chew, it tastes bitter—astringent like aspirin or chokecherries. My tongue soon goes numb. I spit red.

Souvenirs in hand (and mouth), we pass through the village. Maulana greets villagers. We visit at several small stores and homes. Leaving the village, we walk among rice paddies. White flags, placed to scare birds, flutter in the warm wind, and we hear the clack of wooden cattle bells. It is clear our hunt is finished; we are nearly at Tamanjaya. We will not see a rhino, unless one loses its mind and blunders through the village.

"Two thousand four people live within the park," Maulana notes.

"Two thousand?" I exclaim.

"Two thousand four," he emphasizes. "We cannot control the area. Of course, we always try to stop them." Lawbreakers, I assume. 

If the Javan rhino is to survive in its last stronghold and if Ujung Kulon is to maintain its integrity as a national park, then two things must happen, Maulana says. The jagawana corps must improve, through better equipment, better training, and better morale. And second, the villagers Maulana knows so well must share his values of conservation. International groups have donated equipment to the jagawanas. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the Indonesian Tropical Institute, are trying to convince villagers that they help themselves by protecting the land on which they depend and its wildlife, including the Javan rhino. 

Maulana enthusiastically supports these efforts. "We always try and try again to make sure they have awareness about our resource, about conservation," he says as we walk, "—to ask them, 'Let's join us.'"