Camera trap tales

The overall consensus among other experts is that there are considerably fewer rhinos in Bukit Barisan Selatan. Susie Ellis, the head of the IRF, said she believed there are only a “handful” left.

Camera trap data is bearing this out. A 2014 survey only photographed one or two rhinos, and none have been photographed since – though the RPUs reported that they sighted an individual in 2015.

Wulan Pusparini, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said her group’s Smart Patrols are finding fewer and fewer elephants every year in Bukit Barisan Selatan — and, unlike the RPUs, have found zero signs of rhinos. She said the RPUs are simply finding “false positives”.

“It’s quite understandable, you’re a rhino protection unit: your sole existence is based on the rhino. You see Bigfoot when you want it,” she said.

Still, in a bid to find the rhinos of Bukit Barisan Selatan, WCS is employing more camera traps, hoping to confirm Arief’s hidden population.

“In Bukit Barisan you put 20 cameras and it’s not enough; you put 50 and it’s not enough … They plan to put 200 cameras out,” Wulan said. “It will never be enough.”

Yet Arief has a ready response to why camera traps are not catching rhinos any more: he says Sumatran rhinos have learned to avoid anything to do with humans, including camera traps.

Wulan is highly skeptical of this claim. She pointed to Gunung Leuser National Park, in northern Sumatra, where the WCS has employed just 25 camera traps and confirmed a population of at least 12 animals.

“If there’s a rhino, we will capture [it],” she said.

John Payne, head of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, said that when researchers found the female rhino, Iman, in Malaysian Borneo’s Danum Valley, WWF was able to get dozens of pictures of her.

“They’re such easy animals to find, really, if they’re there,” Payne said. “This thing about their being shy is … nonsense. Like any wild animal, if they’re spooked, they’ll run away; but if they don’t hear you, you’ll see them.”

Payne said RPUs should be seeing rhinos regularly if they are there in the numbers claimed. But Arief argues that patrolling has, itself, begun disturbing rhinos. “Every NGO… has [a] patrol unit in the same place,” he said, an issue that, according to him, has further pushed rhinos off well-worn trails and deeper into the bush.

Wulan contends the “burden of proof” is on those who think the rhino population is still viable, and not on those who believe that the rhinos may be gone — or, at best, reduced to a handful. “You have to prove the rhino is there,” she said.

And to date, no one can.

This debate has had real-world consequences: conservation groups are no longer using RPU monitoring data to estimate rhino numbers. In a sense, the RPUs have been sidelined, though they are still seen as essential by all stakeholders for protection and other efforts, including removing snares and catching poachers.

Rhino dilemma

Can we ever know if there are rhinos left? Ellis says to look to the methods used to observe Javan rhinos in Ujung Kulon National Park. Not long ago, no one had great data on Javan rhino numbers. Then, the IRF and WWF covered the whole park with camera traps. Now the numbers are irrefutable.

“Suddenly we have the best data we’ve ever had in hand,” Ellis said. “It shouldn’t be that difficult to do in the other parks.”

Yet Payne argues that counting Sumatran rhinos is a waste of time and resources. Instead, he says, they should simply be caught.

And this raises the question: if there are any rhinos left in Bukit Barisan Selatan, what should we do about them?

“Even if it is 10, it’s not a very viable population. The government needs to think through some proactive steps,” said Bibhad Talukdar, chair of the IUCN SSC Asian Rhino Specialist Group. Talukdar added that he’d like to see a “very rapid survey” to find out how many are left, and that “if [the] male-female ratio is encouraging, maybe you … just need very active protection.”

However, an expert meeting May in Jakarta reached a consensus that recommended all rhinos in Bukit Barisan – if there are any – should be captured and brought into sanctuaries in order to boost the small captive breeding population. Most of the experts I spoke with took this line.

“Any rhino out of Bukit Barisan [Selatan] should be caught and put into SRS or Way Kambas, it doesn’t matter,” Widodo Ramono the executive director of local NGO YABI, told me.

Widodo’s views hold particular clout as he is a member of the Joint Rhino Conservation Secretariat of Indonesia that is advising the government on what to do. However, it’s not yet clear if the government is convinced – to date no traps have been set to catch rhinos in Bukit Barisan.

Removing the population may be the best long-term hope for the species. But what about the men and women of the RPUs?

RPU staff examine a tree rubbed against by a deer. From left to right: Yuliane Afterya, assistant manager of education in Sumatra for the RPUs; Marsum, the field coordinator of the RPUs at Bukit Barisan Selatan; and Bahara, a senior member of the RPU. Photo by Jeremy Hance for Mongabay.

In the RPUs’ corner

My second night, the RPUs took us on a hike to find tarsiers. The tarsiers were a no-show, but we found plenty of leeches. We also found some spectacular toads, lizards and a newly bloomed Rafflesia. The RPUs didn’t speak English and I don’t speak a word of Indonesian, but I was immensely impressed with their skills — wandering through bamboo forests at night, flicking leeches off my neck, and finding things I couldn’t have seen in broad daylight. I spent 36 hours with the RPUs in Bukit Barisan Selatan and left deeply impressed by their dedication, their skills, their hospitality, their toughness and their humor.

After lunch on the second day, I sat down for a chat with Marsum and Bahara, a senior member of the RPU. Yuliane Afterya, assistant manager of education in Sumatra for the RPUs, translated for us. They told me the last time RPUs had directly seen a rhino was in 2015, but that their team had seen calf footprints along with footprints of a larger rhino, presumably its mother, as recently as this June.

Like Arief, they said the rhinos have moved deep into the slopes of the park to avoid human disturbances, and they have begun finding rhino signs this year in this new home range. While the population is scattered, the RPUs believe they can still meet for breeding in the dry season.

Should these rhinos be removed from the park? “It is not our decision; this is a government decision,” they said. “The RPUs are only here to help the government.”

What they really needed, they told me, was official government support, including a permanent forest guard, empowered to make arrests, who could patrol with the RPUs.

Still, the RPUs have seen a decrease in poaching and snaring. Encroachment remains the largest threat: the RPUs recently stopped villagers from cutting down the forest by going in-person to explain the situation. No one was arrested and the villagers moved to a different area.

A baby Sumatran elephant in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Rhinos are not the only endangered species who benefit from the presence of RPUs. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The key here is that while RPUs may be focused on rhinos, their work is instrumental to all the species of Bukit Barisan Selatan. As if to underscore this, a recent study by the WCS and Panthera found that the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) population is on the rise in Bukit Barisan Selatan, a hopeful sign for another one of the island’s critically endangered species.

“If you don’t have the RPU, all will be unprotected,” said Widodo, pointing to the fact that the government doesn’t have a regular ranger presence in Bukit Barisan Selatan. Widodo said he would like to see RPUs stay on even if the rhinos are removed from the park.

“If you don’t have a Rhino Protection Unit, why don’t you have a Wildlife Protection Unit?” he posited. “If [funders] support us to do that, we can continue.”

Without the RPUs, Bukit Barisan Selatan, a sanctuary since 1935, would be bereft of a vital conservation team. Listed as an “in danger” UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bukit Barisan Selatan needs all the friends it can get. While the park may soon be without rhinos, it is still home to tigers, Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus), and the Sumatran ground cuckoo (Carpococcyx viridis) — all considered critically endangered. It also home to the Sumatran striped rabbit (Nesolagus netscheri), six species of primates and six of hornbill, as well as thousands of other species, big and small. Tropical Asia is facing a biodiversity crisis unparalleled anywhere else in the world in terms of species threatened and forest lost. Amidst this, Bukit Barisan Selatan remains a jewel.

“We have a dedicated army,” Widodo said of his RPUs. “You will not find many people who work like that.”

I know I haven’t. If Bukit Barisan Selatan loses the RPUs, this already deeply vulnerable wilderness — one of the last sites of primary lowland rainforest in Sumatra — will become that much more threatened.


Continue to Part Three of this series, which looks at the debate over captive breeding versus protecting rhinos in the wild.

A rainforest creek in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


  • UCN and UNEP-WCMC, The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) [On-line], September, Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC. Available at: Accessed through Global Forest Watch in November 2017.

Correction: this article was updated Nov. 13 to reflect that fact that WCS, not WWF, is employing more camera traps in the park.

Banner image: A Sumatran rhino calf, photographed in 2016 at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Article published by Isabel Esterman
, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

, , , , ,

Print button