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  SOS Rhino : In the News : News From The Field : MONTHLY FIELD REPORT JULY 2004
JULY 2004
  After the hectic trip to Tabin, I went over to Sepilok on 3rd July to meet up with Dr. Petra. I went over to the airport a bit earlier and managed to continue reading my book entitled "1421". This is about a new revelation that the Chinese was the first to sail around the world. Amazing documents and evidences were used to illustrate the fact including the presence of Chinese genes in the indigenous people around the world. I had quickly sent Dr. Petra a message via 'sms' that my flight was delayed. Poor Petra she has been waiting for hours at the airport. She has only received the message when I touched down at Sandakan airport! This is one of those IT weaknesses.

After a quick lunch at Ipoh we quickly organized to conduct an ultrasound on Gelogob, the female rhino at the breeding facility. Ultrasound images are not easily interpreted unless you have the expertise of Dr. Nan Schaffer. Dr. Petra and I tried to 'freeze' as many images as possible so that we can have Nan to look as them. I am more familiar with rectal palpation and I could feel the soft uterus and couple of marble-like structure on the right ovary. The field assistants informed me that they saw mucus discharge from her vagina about three days ago.

Petra is now gathering crucial data and information. She has drawn blood and sending them for progesterone analysis. She is also collecting fecal samples for the other hormonal analysis. Behavior has been monitored on a daily basis for both the male and female rhinos. Estrus detection via mucus discharge is done daily. We are expected to collaborate these data and information and to join the animals together within two months.

Pix shows Dr. Petra and her two assistants working hard during the ultrasound session

Pix shows the male rhino, Tanjung, enjoying the clean water in the wallow

Rhino Feet

I have taken the close up pictures of the legs of Gelogob from the rear and from the front. The purpose is to provide some ideas for readers of how the feet looks like, and the impression they will make on the ground. This information is important for rhino trackers. We now try to get as much photographs of the hoof prints as possible with our newly acquired digital camera, courtesy of Kerry Crosbie's Rhino Project Australia.

Pix shows legs and feet of Gelogob from the rear

Pix shows legs and feet of Gelogob from the front

Oil Palm Industry and the Environment

According to the oil palm industry players, they have been incriminated and identified as the culprit behind the destruction of forest and wildlife habitats. In view of these negatives connotations, the oil palm industry organized a 2-day seminar starting on 8th July to address the issue. More than 300 participants from the government and private sectors, non-government organizations (NGOs), tourism agencies and guides and students attended the forum held at Sabah Hotel, Sandakan. The forum coincided with the declaration of Sandakan as a nature city. A total of 11 papers were presented including one from SOS Rhino.

My paper entitled "SOS Rhino and the Oil Palm Industry - Partners in conservation" was well received by the participants. In fact, several participants have requested for a copy of my presentation, which I believe the organizer, will be compiling and binding as a proceedings.

My focus was the Tabin Wildlife Reserve where we have determined the presence, distribution and population density of Sumatran rhinos. This information, including the presence of small hoof prints, is presented in the context of awareness and protection of the reserve. More than three quarters of the reserve is surrounded by oil palm plantations and it is natural that we need to get the support and cooperation of these plantations. The rest of the reserve is under wetland and there are three villages within this area. Thus, it is natural that we engage with the villagers to help us with the protection of the reserve. I have emphasized the importance of freshwater supply from the reserve for everyone including the oil palm plantations.

So far, Sabahmas Plantation, which is located at the western part of Tabin reserve has been our strong supporter, and thereby tagged as our partners in conservation. In my parting talk, I would like to include more plantations as our partners in conservation, and that SOS Rhino with its international network will provide assistance and advice to the oil palm industry in matters relating to conservation.

We were made aware that the oil palm plantations are from poor and degraded forest, and not from virgin jungles. Due to the poor economic returns from Cocoa, rubber and coffee, many of these plantations were converted into oil palm. The oil palm industry is also implementing proper agricultural practices - reduce inorganic fertilizers and insecticide usage, and turning areas not suited to oil palm to conservation area. They are mindful and concern about the consumers concern for environmental degradation especially in Europe.

Pix shows Dr. Edwin Bosi presenting his paper

Sandakan - A nature city

Briefly, Sandakan is at one time Sabah's capital. It is located on the eastern coast of Sabah and about 40 minutes by speedboat to the islands of the southern Philipines. Logging in the 70s and 80s kept Sandakan a popular town. Now, the oil palm plantations have taken over. Nevertheless, the district has some popular wildlife destinations. The Orangutan rehabilitation center at Sepilok is well known worldwide. Sepilok forest is also the most accessible virgin forest in Sabah. This is followed by the Turtle islands at Selingan, off the Sulu Seas, Swiftlets and edible bird nests at Gomantong and Proboscis monkeys at Menanggul river, Sukau. Credit must be given to the Forestry department and Sabah Parks for their parts for establishing the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation center and Gomantong cave, and turtle islands respectively.

SOS Rhino Volunteers

Mike Sweet from Manchester in the UK started his volunteerism on 15th July. He is a graduate in zoology and has traveled to many countries doing volunteering works. Mike will be with SOS Rhino for three months. We have planned for him to join our research student in Tabin and also, to experience life in oil palm plantation. On 19th July, Mike and volunteers from Trinity College Perth Australia joined a rhino survey and found rhino hoof prints. The find has made Mike so excited and he hopes to learn more when he joins the research team.

A 24-strong exclusive male volunteer from Trinity College in Perth arrived Lahad Datu on 18th July. They were earlier out in Sukau and Turtle islands. This was a short intensive volunteering for our Aussie group. Mr. Tim Blake and two teachers were kept on their toes to ensure of no un-towards incidents. Two vans were hired to ferry the boys to Parit. We were lucky to have our Ford Ranger as the two vans could not accommodate all 24 volunteers. It was a miscalculation and an oversight. While we were informed that the van could take in 15 passengers the driver did not anticipate the sizes of our Aussie boys. One van broke its kingpin on the left front wheel. The driver managed to fix the problem within an hour and quickly requested that only one passenger sits on the front. Again we lost some precious time at the Tomanggong gate when we were required to get a entry pass for every volunteers. After racing to the nearest plantation office to see the security chief, we were exempted from the pass requirement and headed straight to Parit. It was raining along the way. The boats, all four of them, and our field assistants who doubled as boatman were waiting along the drain or channel to receive us. The drain water was fast due to the rain. We quickly got everyone onto the boats and headed for Dagat. One boat was used to carry the luggages. Our luck ran out as we were forced to move hopelessly slowly along a drain connecting the Segama river to Tabin river. During high tide it would take about 5 minutes to cross this drain. We lost another 60 minutes of precious light. We lost the sunlight by 6.00pm and when we finally crossed the drain, we were in total darkness. The big boat with 10 passengers had just managed to cross the drain.

Tim quickly handed me a headlight but it was of no use. The first and second boats were far ahead, without flashlights. Our field assistants-cum-boatman are recruited from the villages and they have a fine skill in navigating even in darkness. By sheer luck we caught up with the first and second boats when the first was stuck with a fallen tree under its belly. The boat, which has a 30HP engine was pushed out of troubled. In turn, the boat pulled the two smaller boats across the horizontal tree. The clear sky was providing some light to our boatman but with the dark clouds casting overhead, it was then darkness. It was at this moment that I took out my flashlight and our boat led the way to Dagat without any incident.

We arrived Dagat at about 8.00pm. All along it was drizzling. The first boat had arrived Dagat barely 10 minutes ahead of us. Although they had an easy crossing along the drain, their boat was also stuck by the fallen tree. They should thank their lucky star. Two boats suddenly appeared in the dark and helped them out of the predicament. As we disembarked Tim quietly asked for his headlight back. I have felt his worry when he handed me his headlight. When I mentioned to him about the dangers when 'boating' in the dark he did not look surprise. He just said how impressed he was with the skill of our boatman.

Timing is crucial. Information about the tides is also crucial. There are unforeseen circumstances that can cause delays. This was one such case. Despite all the planning things can go wrong. This reminds me of Murphy's laws.

We have arranged for the wife of the village chief to prepare dinner for the group. There was nowhere we can handle the catering! I have indicated that it would be an authentic Malay food and Tim has more or less 'warned' the boys. Sarinus has been working hard to get 20 bunk beds ready for the group. Four 'unlucky' boys have to sleep on the floor with our team. We have mentioned of 'roughing-it-out' and I only heard someone saying something hard poking on his back! There were mixed feeling among the boys. Some had a good sleep most probably due to the fatigue of traveling. Tim brought along an inflatable mattress, which he recommended for future volunteers. After a peaceful night, Tim decided to donate the mattress to SOS Rhino. Thank you Tim.

Toilet is always a bone of contention. We have problem with clean toilet and we have problem with functional toilets everywhere in Sabah. We already have a major campaign on how to use our toilets! In the village a pit latrine is a luxury. The worse scenario is when you are in the forest. You have to bring a small spade, dig a hole and off-load and bury your stuffs. Some kind and considerate volunteer would stick a twig to warn others of his 'landmine'.

We now have improvised the village latrine. There will be a toilet bowl and you have to squat. After you are done there is a bucket, which you have to get your water for flashing. The septic tank is buried behind the toilet shade. It was amusing to see the boys lining up to use the toilet. One boy came out and said, "there is no flash". Of course a more observance one said, "hai mate, I think you need to use the bucket".

Survey site

After a super quick breakfast, we left for the survey site. Sarinus has identified an area along the Tabin river, approximately 4km from Dagat. Opop, the new team leader gave the boys a fast demonstration on how to fix the hammock. New female recruits, Marniah Sapran and Ragimah Kasran also assisted in getting the boys to prepare their hammocks.

Pix shows Marniah and Rajimah showing the volunteers on how to fix the hammock

To save on time packed lunches were made available by the villagers. I gave a short briefing on Tabin reserve and SOS Rhino while Opop showed the volunteers illustration of rhino 'hoof print' and how to measure them. We broke into two groups one led by Sarinus and the other was by Opop.

Pix shows the volunteers in their new leech socks ready for the survey

Opop's team came back without any good news but with mud stained volunteers. It is a rainy season and trekking can be challenging. On the other hand, finding fresh rhino tracks can be enhanced. Sarinus came back with some exciting news. They have found rhino hoof prints just about 100 meters from our camp. Without hesitation I went back to examine the prints. The clearest one measured about 18.5cm diameter. Tim considered the finding truly amazing. Except for Mike and one Aussie volunteer the finding did not produce much excitements among the rest.

Pix shows Tim and Mike with the SOS Rhino rhino trackers at the site of the hoof prints

Jungle Spirits

The jungle is full of mysteries. For the locals, we always respect the forest and we believe that there are spirits dwelling in them. Sacrificial chicken is useful. In this case, we only sacrifice one, three, five or seven chickens. It is always an odd numbers. In the forest we will ask for permission before we pee or do our toilet business. We do not want to soil the spirit's residence. We will also share a tiny portion of our food by throwing it to the forest floor before we partake our meal. This is done to keep the spirits happy. We do not shout or make excessive noises in the forest. This makes the spirit unhappy.

Many things can happen in the forest without any explanation. This is always attributed to the spirits. That night, one volunteer had a bad nightmare. The other felt he was strangled and died. It was only after he switched on his flashlight that he realized he is alive! These are not uncommon to many of us.


Breakfast was served early on 20th. Our menu was instant noodle. The group left for Dagat to pick up the extra luggage before heading for our other base camp at Tanjung Utik for lunch. The two vans were waiting patiently in Parit. Before departing, Tim quickly presented his two Dolphin torchlight and followed by a cash donation of two thousand Ringgit. The cash donation will be used to purchase a grass cutter and water tanks for Dagat.

Pix shows Tim presenting the torchlight to Sarinus witnessed by other members

Mud Volcano

We took off at about 12 noon and managed to find time to visit the Lipad mud volcano, approximately 700 meters from the road. Tinju and I accompanied Tim, Rob and Brad and four volunteers to the mud volcano. As soon as Tim poked his finger into the 'eye' of the volcano, the rain started. We were drenched when we reached the vans.

Pix shows Tim and others at the mud volcano


Before departing Lahad Datu at 5.35pm, Tim presented two souvenirs as a token of appreciation. They are a plague of Trinity College and a boomerang.

New boat

One of the ways to get rich is to play with foreign exchange. Tim found that out during our way back to Dagat. He has an extra dollar from the foreign exchange! Just before we alighted from the boat he has decided to get SOS Rhino a new boat. The sum of RM800.00 was passed to me for a boat that will bear the name of the school.

Camre Outlook Expedition (22nd-29th July)

Having sent the Aussies off to Kota Kinabalu on 20th, I stayed overnight in Lahad Datu to do shopping for our next volunteers. The 9-member strong contingent from UK led by Kate Barlow and Simon came in Lahad Datu on 22nd after a 3-day trekking in Maliau Basin conservation area. After a brief introduction Tinju and I left them to search for their Indian food. I went over to Sabahmas on 22nd after following Awi from Yam brothers to visit his 200-acre oil palm plantation located south and sharing the same boundary to TWR. This is an ideal location for stationing a Rhino Protection Unit (RPU). This RPU can potentially make a permanent transect two km from the boundary, along the southern boundary of the reserve. Awi has gladly offered to build a guardhouse for SOS Rhino and provide the necessary facility as required by SOS Rhino. After spending about 5 hours with Awi, we went over to Sabahmas plantation to meet up with Ooi and Simon. I made an arrangement to get our volunteer, Mike Sweet, to experience plantation life for about a week. This oil palm experience with SOS Rhino volunteers is a mutual arrangement, Sabahmas being our partner in conservation.

Pix shows Awi camp and Tabin reserve on the background

Wan, the van driver has been contacted earlier on to be at Jagokota hotel by 11.00 am on 23rd. His van is able to accommodate 15 passengers but he quickly admitted that he did not take into consideration the sizes of our western friends and their luggage. Hiring Wan's van is the best option for volunteers more than 5 persons. Our Ford Ranger comes handy when we help carry some of the loads and also, taking with us the leaders of the group. I am able to brief them why traveling some 3 hours along the jungle road, and to answer many queries.

We tried to make it by noon in Parit as the drain or channel is dependent on the tide. It is very important to reach when the tide is high and especially when we are heading direct to Dagat. Circumventing the Segama, Tabin and Dagat river is much further in distance and use more fuel. It is therefore more practical to use the drain or channel linking Segama to Tabin river.

Pix shows the drain or channel at low tide

We stopped by Tanjung Utik, out base camp along the Segama river for lunch. We have already bought packed lunches in Lahad Datu. Again, as in the Aussies, lots of bottled drinking water was purchased for the English group. We arrived Dagat by before sunset and after sorting out their bunk beds (not without using the whip) the group settled down and later went to the village chief's house for their meal. The English appeared to enjoy the Asian spicy food.

Settling down for the night was quick after the generator set was switched off at 11.00pm. Prior to this, some of the volunteers watched the DVD movie. Not too bad for a village that has no communication with the outside world! I jokingly wanted to charge them RM5.00 per person but those without chairs wanted a discount. I will see if we can get some generous souls to donate us good chairs.

On 25th the group arrived at the campsite along the Tabin river and is about 5.9 km from Dagat. The Aussie's camp was about 3.9 km from Dagat. The afternoon was spent listening to a briefing from me. Sarinus and Opop illustrated the rhino hoof prints and showed the volunteers how to identify and measure. We talked about SOS Rhino activities in Borneo and where we are heading. Since Tabin reserve is designated a wildlife reserve and one of the largest in Malaysia, the presence of the Borneon Sumatran rhino makes the reserve unique. The Sumatran rhino of Borneo is reported to be extinct in Sarawak and Kalimantan. Thus, the last few animals that are only found in Sabah and in particular in Tabin reserve makes the country lucky in one sense and unlucky on the other. It is extremely important that we work hard to ensure the survival of this species. On the local front, SOS Rhino's community outreach program is focused on working with the stakeholders namely the oil palm plantations and villagers around the reserve. We definitely need international support in preserving and protecting this reserve.

The ever-eager volunteers were up and ready for rhino survey on 25th. At Dagat, Kate reminded me of the roosters that were crowing at five in the morning! At the campsite, we have the rhinoceros hornbills making a wakeup calls as early as 6.00 am and followed by 'wak-wak' calls from two groups of gibbons. We split the group into two, one led by Sarinus and the other by Opop. Both groups returned back to camp disappointed. No rhino signs but many tracks of other mammals were seen. The most obvious were the elephants (and dung), wild pigs and sambar deer.

The 26th surveys were productive. Both teams found rhino hoof prints. My team found few hoof prints but only one was obvious. The age - about 3-5 days old. We took pictures and made plaster cast. The measurement was about 18.3cm diameter. The other team was much fortunate as they actually found a day-old tracks. The happiness can be seen from everybody in the camp. However, late in the evening a group of about 23 elephants were seen on the other side of river, in front of our camp, screaming and trumpeting away with their babies. I knew it is going to be a 'interesting' night.

Retiring to bed, our pressure lamp continued to burn. At about 11.00pm I heard the crashing of the trees and shrubs on the other side of the river. Then, there were some crashing sounds just 30 meters from our camp. To my horror, one of the volunteers crawled out of his hammock and headed to where the elephants were. I quickly called him and went to the other direction to pee. Then, the pressure lamp went out and it was total darkness. In such situation, there was stillness and silence in the forest. Then, there were 'snoring' sounds from the elephants, very close indeed. I quickly woke Opop to get the pressure pump going again, which he did quite steadily. Later, we checked the boats out at the riverbanks and they were not harmed. It is normal for wild elephants to destroy any structures foreign to their eyes. Bill boards and even abandon camps are destroyed by them. As we were now practically surrounded by elephants, our staffs took turn to check on the camp and boats. Lights appeared to be the best method to keep wild elephants away from the camp.

The next morning I wanted to call Mike to tell him of our dinner 'tit tat'. As he was not lucky to see the elephants in the evening Mike was so disappointed as to say he wanted badly to see them. I politely told him not to mention about elephants during the dinner, as we locals believe that the elephants can hear. Mike insisted that he wanted to see the elephant. Again, I reminded him not to mention the elephant by names. Whether it is coincidence or not, the staffs found out that two elephants have crossed the river and were just 20 meters away from the camp. In total darkness, they would have come in and check out our camp. Maybe they do hear!

On the 27th we had a quick breakfast of instant noodles and this time, I decided to return to check out the tracks found by Opop's group. They were about 700 meters using the GPS from the camp. I brought few volunteers with me while the others started cleaning and packing as we were heading back to Dagat. Indeed, the hoof prints were as fresh it can be. We took many photographs and measurements. A plaster cast was also made. Then, we managed to collect hairs from the side of the wallow. Hopefully, we can find some forensic expert to provide us expertise on identifying rhino individuals using the hairs. My decision to bring only the tougher volunteers paid off. As we were heading back to camp, our forward scout Amit, noticed that an elephant was on our path. We quickly made amend and were safely back to camp.

Pix shows a group photo at the site where fresh rhino hoof prints were found

In Dagat the volunteers enjoyed another round of Malay food - for westerners, not too hot and spicy. It was raining continuously on the night and morning of the 28th. A soccer match has been planned between the visiting UK team and SOS Rhino. The eagerness on both sides was too great that by 9.00 am both teams were in the pitch. Even the long grasses, patches of muddy ground and water paddles did not bother the teams. The score was 20-5 in favor of SOS Rhino. I think the two teams not only enjoy the game but they were honored by the presence of an important spectator, the village chief. I must give credit to the UK team for fielding in two female players!

Pix shows volunteers having their meals in a specially constructed shed along Dagat river, in front of the village chief's house

Pix shows the soccer match in progress

Pix shows a group photo with the Village Chief

Cleaning out the dirt was not an issue. All the players took to the river in front of the village chief house. I was apprehensive when I saw them swimming around as these rivers are home to the salt-water crocodile. For the record there is not one case of crocodile attack in this village.

Pix shows both teams cleaning themselves at Dagat river

At three in the afternoon, the volunteers headed for the other camp, Tg. Utik. We took the longer way by first going to the Segama river estuary and then upstream, to Tg. Utik. This was an opportunity to watch wildlife along the river. Although it was drizzling we managed to see a fair number of Proboscis monkeys and long-tailed macaque.

The 28th night was a Barbeque night. The staffs have started the BBQ going and soon the party started. Both teams were at their best - trying to outshine each other on the singing. The UK team was also entertained and taught the traditional Kadazan dance - the 'sumazau'.

Pix shows the scene of the BBQ

The 29th was a parting day. The UK team arrived Lahad Datu safely and later took off to Sukau about the afternoon.

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