Rhino Protection Units

Rhino Protection Units: the front line for ensuring survival of Indonesia’s critically endangered rhinos

The Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) are a unique collaboration of government officers and community members that work in Bukit Barisan Selatan, Way Kambas and Ujung Kulon National Park’s to ensure the security and management of ecosystems. These brave and committed individuals leave their families behind and sometimes put their lives on the line to protect rhinos.

The Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) face challenges and dangers on a daily basis. In completing their patrols, RPUs must often walk for days on end and face an ever-present risk from hunters. A few years ago, for example, an RPU working in Way Kambas National Park was shot at by hunters. Equally perilous can be efforts to deliver poaching suspects from the base camp to the police station. One RPU member recalls: “Each of us used a big plastic bottle to help us float and swim across the river. We started to cross the river at 6:00pm, almost dark. Unfortunately, as we started to cross, we realised that the current was much higher and stronger that we had thought. We were swept down the river and we just had to float along, using the plastic bottles, trying to survive. We were in the river for more than five hours before we were able to climb out and make it to the checkpoint. It was terrifying”.

Indonesia RPU patrol                                  Indonesian RPU patrol - Credit Stephen Belcher

Encountering rhino, whether Javan or Sumatran, is not a common occurrence for the RPUs; both species are solitary and very rare. When sighting do occur, it is like a bonus for the RPUs but it can also be dangerous, especially if the rhino’s arrival is somewhat unannounced. One of the RPUs working in Ujung Kulon National Park recalls an encounter with a Javan rhino that visited their fly camp twice in one night: “At midnight a Javan rhino came to the camp looking aggressive. As a reflex, we all tried to climb the nearest tree. For about 20 minutes the rhino explored our camp until it slowly decided to leave. After waiting to be sure it was gone, one by one we came down from the trees. But it was not long before, suddenly, from behind our camp the Javan rhino came again this time with even more aggression”. The RPUs take such occurrences in their stride acknowledging that, whilst it’s not an easy job, they are proud to be a member of the RPUs.

In Indonesia there is a rainy season and a dry season and in the past this has brought a whole other set of challenges for the RPUs. During the rainy season, it is relatively easy for the RPUs to find fresh, clean water to drink, but during the dry season, it is very hard to find fresh water. The water that the RPUs had to use during the dry season was often muddy and polluted. There was no choice. They had to use that water to survive. As a result, every dry season, at least one or two members of the RPU become sick, and have to miss patrol days. In 2009, however, with the help of Save the Rhino, we obtained water filters and the RPUs can now easily turn muddy, polluted water into clean water that is safe to drink. We don’t get sick anymore.

In spite of these challenges, the RPUs have made some major successes. For example, through intelligence operations, the RPUs are able proactively to prevent poaching attempts before they take place and closely cooperate with the police to ensure the prosecution of wildlife criminals whilst the RPUs’ community outreach initiatives are working hard to increase the incentives for habitat and rhino protection so that everybody, especially rhinos, wins.

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, Spring 2011, Author: Sectionov (Inov), RPU programme, International Rhino foundation)