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Conservation couture: Batik artisans make rhinos a fashion statement

  • Campaigners in Indonesia have blended rhino conservation with artisanal batik production to raise awareness about saving the critically endangered species.
  • Under a program started by a conservationist, local batik designers are incorporating rhino motifs into the hand-dyed textiles, in the hope that this will get the public thinking about rhinos.
  • There may be as few as 30 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild, following decades of poaching, habitat loss, and climate-induced forest fragmentation.

LAMPUNG, Indonesia — Campaigners in Indonesia are using the country’s celebrated batik-making tradition to get people to think about the Sumatran rhinoceros, a species on the brink of extinction.

The critically endangered Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the only living species of Dicerorhinus, the most primitive rhino genus, which evolved 15 million to 20 million years ago and includes the prehistoric woolly rhino in its ranks.

Habitat loss, climate-induced habitat fragmentation, and poaching have significantly slashed the species’ population, with estimates today ranging from 30 to 100 individuals. One of their last strongholds is Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra’s Lampung province, where a captive-breeding program is underway to shore up the flagging wild population.

Lampung is also home to a rich tradition of making batik, a form of hand-dyeing textiles in which the parts not being dyed are masked with beeswax. It was Elly Lestari Rustiati, a rhino expert at Lampung University, who came up with the idea of marrying the two concepts of conservation and batik. Rhino conservation awareness through art isn’t new; in India, artisanal wood-carvers make intricately crafted statuettes of the greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) that live in Kaziranga National Park.

So Elly introduced her idea to a local batik-making community, touting it as adding value to the textiles that they already produce, alongside the awareness-raising benefits.

A woman in Indonesia’s Lampung province dyes batik cloth that features a motif of the region’s Sumatran rhinos. Image courtesy of Hidayatullah.

Motifs are a central part of any batik textile, and are unique to the region in which it’s made. For the Lampung batik, it was only natural that the motif would be rhinos.

“They were eager and very excited to learn” how to make the rhino motifs, Elly said of the participants, adding that she helped provide information about the species’ characteristics to help them with their depictions of the two-horned animals.

It wasn’t as easy a task as it seemed, said Hidayatullah, 31, the owner of the Andanan Batik store in Lampung’s Pesawaran district.

“It was difficult at first. [The motif] didn’t look like a Sumatran rhino,” he said.

He said his initial attempts ended up looking more like the one-horned Javan rhinoceros, another critically endangered species native to Indonesia. But Hidayatullah persisted, and today his textiles bear the proud silhouettes of little Sumatran rhinos, as well as faithful reproductions of some of the plants the animal feeds on.

Hidayatullah said his determination to get the process right was inspired by his child’s interest in learning more about the creature taking shape amid the wax coatings on the textiles. As part of his education, the batik maker visited the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas to study the distinctive outline of the animal.

Getting the artisans to come up with motifs that did justice to the two-horned Sumatran rhino was difficult at first, with early results resembling the one-horned Javan rhino. Image courtesy of Hidayatullah.

Elly said she hoped the rhino batik would help raise awareness of rhino conservation, given the ubiquity of batik throughout Indonesia. “Hopefully for the batik makers in Lampung this initiative will be a mix between cultural and scientific values. That way, the community’s batik works will have added value and their own uniqueness,” she said.

The popularity of the rhino motif has caught on. In neighboring East Lampung district, local designers stamp out hundreds of sheets of the special batik each month, some of which have been fashioned into uniforms for district officials.

An artisan of the old school, Hidayatullah eschews the mass-printing model and instead makes his batik to order. (As a marketer of the new school, he promotes his work through Instagram.) He sells a sheet of rhino-motif batik, measuring 1.2 by 2.2 meters (47 by 87 inches) for 300,000 rupiah ($21), and a ready-to-wear batik shirt for 450,000 rupiah ($32).

“There’s a special pride that I feel from helping introduce this rhino to the whole world through batik,” Hidayatullah said.

A female Sumatran rhino with her calf in Way Kambas, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Jan. 31, 2019.

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