Life

Suhadi risks life for Sumatran
rhinos


Oyos Saroso H.N., The Jakarta Post, Bandarlampung

In the murky predawn light on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002, a team of rangers from the Rhino Protection Unit (RPU) in the Way Kambas National Park were suddenly confronted by a group of illegal hunters carrying deer that they'd killed.

The rangers, including forest police and local citizens, were even more startled when they realized the poachers appeared to be members of the military. The animals that had been shot, four sambar hinds and one stag, and had been dumped in a green Chevrolet pick-up. Some of the deer had already been dismembered. The stag was hanging from the back of the vehicle, its mouth gaping and eyes glazed.

The dozy rangers were immediately alert. They'd been up all night patrolling the forest, and were ready for a rest. But all ideas of an early sleep at the end of their watch disappeared when they realized their opponents were frighteningly well equipped.

Some of the poachers were armed with modern military assault rifles, including FNs and M16s, types issued to the Indonesian Navy and Army. Others were carrying knives and other sharp implements. One man had a chain saw.

Ranger Suhadi's heart skipped a beat or two. The 45-year-old RPU member started to run fast when he heard the click of a rifle being cocked ready for firing. One of the poachers shouted: ""I'm a soldier!""

The poachers may well have opened fire had it not been for the speedy and professional response of the RPU commander, Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai. He told the hunters that they'd been surrounded by forest guards whose duty was to protect the national park. The tension eased and both sides lowered their weapons.

Negotiations were then continued in Susukan Baru village in the Sukadana subdistrict of East Lampung, around 90 kilometers east of Bandarlampung and not far from the national park.

It was then revealed that nine of the 16 poachers were members of the Indonesian Military. One was a Navy lieutenant commander who at the time was the commander of the North Lampung region. The others were civilians.

The other serving members of the armed forces caught by the RPU were a Navy captain, three second lieutenants, a sergeant first-class, a lieutenant, a private and a private first-class.

All the poachers were later handed over to the East Lampung Police. The sailors and soldiers were arrested by the military police. One of the men was charged in a military court in Palembang for misusing a service weapon.

Although he has often met hunters who are soldiers, for Suhadi the experience of catching nine heavily armed poachers from the military in the Way Kambas National Park was an experience he wouldn't want to relive.

""We were worried because their weapons were more powerful and modern than ours,"" he said. ""Although our team of rangers was almost equal to them in numbers, it was clear that in any shooting we were bound to lose. If we had been careless many people could have been shot. The situation was also compounded by the poor light that made identification difficult.""

But tension in the forest has become almost routine in Suhadi's job. He's been a member of the RPU for 11 years, regularly patrolling the national park and its perimeters.

""We take our duties in turns,"" he said ""I work five days on, five days off. When I'm not on duty I spend time with my wife and two children in our home.

""Before starting patrols we prepare enough food and drink to last us five days in the forest, where we cook our own meals.""

According to Suhadi, working for the RPU isn't easy. It's also a job full of temptations. The most common is being offered bribes by illegal hunters who are caught by the rangers.

""I've been offered tens of millions of rupiah by poachers who have wanted us to turn a blind eye to their activities,"" he said.

""But for us, conservation of the wild animals is far more important than money. We don't want to negotiate. It doesn't matter who they are; if they go hunting illegally we'll catch them.""

Suhadi is the most senior of the RPU rangers and has been protecting the animals in the park since the unit was established in 1996.

He has always been close to animals. Before taking his present job he was employed as a forest police officer in Way Kambas for eight years. Before that he was an elephant tamer at the park's elephant training center.

Suhadi said that although as a government officer he had many protection and conservation duties, his main -- and most personal concern -- was for the Sumatran rhinoceros, a rare beast close to extinction. He said he felt satisfied when he caught poachers or chased away others who planned to hunt in the national park.

The two-horned Sumatra rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus Sumatrensis) is the smallest of the rhinos. It was once widespread in Southeast Asia but is now reported to be confined to Sumatra and Borneo. It has the most fur of all the rhinos so can live at high altitudes.

It has been placed on the critically endangered animal list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

The population of the rhinos is very small, and their forest habitat is shrinking as more land gets cleared for farming and trees are felled by illegal loggers.

The rhino can now be found in the wild in Sumatra only in four protected forests: Leuser Mountain National Park in Aceh, North Sumatra, Seblat Kerinci National Park in Jambi, Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Way Kambas National Park in Lampung. These areas are the last remaining natural habitat of the Sumatran rhinoceros.

To help raise public interest in the preservation of this animal, the Indonesian Rhino Conservation Program was started in 1998. This is an initiative of the Forestry Ministry and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), along with the Rhino Specialist Group and other conservation bodies.

Suhadi said that though his main task was to guard the Sumatran rhinoceros against poachers, members of the RPU were also responsible for protecting the forest and the other animals who lived there.

""We also watch out for illegal loggers and land clearing,"" he said. ""Our patrols don't just protect the rhinos, but other species like the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran tapir, scaly anteaters and deer.""

A survey carried out by the Rhino Conservation Program in 2005 showed that the total population of rhinos in the four protected parks was between 60 and 80 beasts. In Way Kambas National Park only about 20 rhinos remain. Other authorities report a world population of less than 300.

Since the intensive patrols began the hunting of rhinos has decreased. In 2006 it is believed that there were no cases of rhino poaching in the national parks.

""I could sleep well if I knew that all the rhinos inside the national park were safe and comfortable, and not under threat by hunters,"" said Suhadi.

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