Skip to content Skip to footer

Room for the Warriors

s in war, not everyone has the ability to be frontline fighters. But everyone can take their role by giving the rhinoceros, the shy animal that is surviving against the time, to sustain.

by Natalia Oetama*

Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) Rosa in the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, Way Kambas, Sumatra, Indonesia. (Foto: Willem v Strien, CC 2.0 Generic license)

"Is it true that the skin of the rhinoceros is thick?" I asked Rama, while we walked inside the Way Kambas National Park (WKNP). Rama was one of the guides in charge of escorting me and my entourage in this 125,000-hectare lowland forest. Rama laughed. He took a step and stared at me through his glasses. "Yes, but the rhinoceros is a shy animal!"

Way Kambas National Park is located in the southeast corner of Sumatra Island, about 100 kilometers from the city of Lampung. Commonly known as WKNP, this area has been preserved since 1936 and is now home to five large mammals: the sumatran elephant, sumatran tiger, honey bear, tapir, and sumatran rhinoceros. Most of them are endangered, and one of the most critical today is the sumatran rhinoceros.

September 2015 was my first visit to WKNP. My writing about the beauty of islands on eastern part of Indonesia brought me the chance to win a blog competition organized by the KEHATI Foundation. Me and two other finalists were invited to visit WKNP as a prize for the competition.

This visit to TNWK opened my insight about some of the large mammals here. "So, the rhinoceros skin metaphor isn't 100% relevant?” I muttered with furrowed brows. Soon after, Rama told an informative story about rhinos.

The scientific name of the rhino family, Rhinocerotidae, is of Greek origin. Rhino means nose, and keras means horn. The nosed-horn, that's the literal meaning. Animals that for 50 million years have occupied the earth--to be precise in two "ancient" continents, Asia and Africa--are loners. This may be the reason behind the dwindling rhino population, in addition to the vile horn poaching. Such a baseless myth that somehow has so much potential. Rhino horn is said to be able to cure various diseases and become a powerful drug. In fact, "The horn is just like our nails, only keratin, nothing more!" said Rama with annoyance.

The Nusantara, an archipelago with its majestic forests, hosts two of the five surviving rhino species on earth. The javan rhino can only be found in Ujung Kulon National Park, while sumatran rhinoceros, which numbers less than 80 in the world, is spread in several national parks in Indonesia such as in Gunung Leuser Aceh National Park, Bukit Barisan National Park, Way Kambas National Park and one female rhino in the Sumatran Rhinos Sanctuary (SRS), Kelian Lestari Protection Forest, East Kalimantan.

Sumatran Rhinos Sanctuary (SRS) Way Kambas is the first rhino sanctuary built in Indonesia. Until 2020, SRS Way Kambas is occupied by seven rhinos, three males and four females.

"The rhino is very sensitive to its surroundings, Nat ...." Rama explained, when I asked about the possibility to directly see the animals that rely more on their acuity of sense of hearing and smell than vision. Not only loners, this mammal is very easily disturbed even by its partner. This is a strong reason not just anyone can visit. Special licensing is required from YABI (Yayasan Badak Indonesia) to be able to visit the SRS area.

The Sumatran rhinoceros is the smallest rhino compared to its four cousins. Despite being the smallest, the sumatran rhinoceros is believed to be the most primitive species of rhinoceros, as it is the only rhino with hair. The Sumatran rhinoceros is considered the closest relative of the ancient wooly rhinoceros, which once lived in the ice age.

Rhinos spend day after day grazing, touring the forest and eating leaf shoots. In a day, they are able to spend about 50 kg of leaf shoots, which is equivalent to 10 percent weight of his body. Once full, the rhino will look for its dumping ground.

On a very hot afternoon they will look for swamps or puddles to rest and cool the body. Even though rhino skin can grow up to 5 cm thick, this skin is very sensitive to insect bites. The mud attached to their bodies also serves as a natural sunscreen and moisturizer. The mud also serves as repellents for parasites and insects, preventing them from staying and eating away at the layers of rhino skin that contain collagen.

Wallowing in the mud for a rhino might be like soaking in a spa, enjoying me time below shady trees. The rustle of the wind blowing the leaves was the background music for their nap. How delightful! Rhinoceros really know how to enjoy the day.

The way rhinos enjoy themselves, on the other hand, is a stumbling block to the ability of this species to breed. Sumatran rhinoceros scattered in several locations, minimizing the possibility of this shy creature to meet their mates. Meanwhile, female rhinos that are not fertilized for a long period of time have the potential to get myoma or even uterine cancer. Rhino pregnancy period that reaches 15-16 months and the limited number of child births, one per pregnancy, are also inhibiting factors for breeding. To make things more complicated, rhinos are exacerbated by the high sensitivity of requiring proper physical conditions and environmental comfort for mating. Furthermore, rhinos are highly sensitive and require proper physical conditions and environmental comfort for mating. How complicated!

"That's the way to SRS, Nat!" said Rama, pointing to a branch of the road as our car drove towards the elephant's area. I look closely at the visible end of the road. KWNP, which stretches across an area of 125,651 hectares, is one of the last strongholds for this ancient two-horned species. Like a fortress, safeguards for creatures that are defending against this era should be tightened, especially from human intervention that makes rhinos a source of income instead of preserving them.

As in war, not everyone has the ability to be frontline fighters. But everyone can take their part, and my little part is to write and share about sumatran rhinos. I want to get more people to be aware of and care for their story and their slim hope of survival. Not only to visit, but also give them spaces without disturbing their species.

* The author is one of the main winners of the Youth Love National Park blog writing competition (AMCTN) supported by USAID BIJAK, Biodiversity Warriors of KEHATI Foundation, Birdlife Indonesia Association (Burung Indonesia), Tambora Muda, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF), OnTrack Foundation Media Indonesia (OTMI) and Forest That Indonesia (HII).