Our Krakatau trip took us close to Ujung Kulon, a national park on the southwestern edge of Java. It was the first proposed national park in Indonesia. Technically, the islands that make up Krakatau are part of the park. But Ujung Kulon is best known for its largest section on the mainland, where the rhinos live.
The Javan Rhinoceros once had a broad range that included Indonesia, most of Southeast Asia and into India and China. But today they are limited to just two spots – a population of less than 50 in Ujung Kulon, and less than ten in a national park in Vietnam. It is perhaps the rarest animal on earth.
The Javan rhino is also called the Lesser One-Horned Rhino because unlike most rhinos with two horns, this rhino has just one horn that is usually less than 25 centimeters in length. Its decline in numbers is linked to poaching and habitat loss. Its horn is valued in traditional Chinese medicine, and is sold on the black market for as much as $30,000 per kilogram, or $13,600 a pound. One horn can bring in more than $100,000, which is a lot of money in a country where the per capita income barely rises above $3,000.
I was not expecting to see the rhino in the wild. Sightings require many days of hiking through the jungle and are still quite rare, although the World Wildlife Fund earlier this year discovered two new babies by using motion-triggered video cameras. But I didn’t want to be this close to a world heritage site without paying a visit.
So we left Krakatau and headed south, down the Sunda Straight, and stopped so the kids could go snorkeling before landing in the early afternoon on Palau Peucang (click here for an aerial shot), a small island just off the tip of Java. This is where we would spend the night.
The landing site was a beach of beautiful white sand, at the edge of a clearing that was ringed by several buildings. As we waded to shore we were greeted by a crab-eating Macaque missing its right hand. The Macaque is one of 35 species of mammals to be found in the park. Walking toward our accommodations, a monitor lizard scurried out of our way while small Javan Rusa Deer grazed in the open field. This was definitely not Bandung.
We shared two rooms in a large cabin sitting on the north side of the clearing. The guest rooms surrounded a wide common area with a table, chairs and a couch. The common area had large windows that looked out onto the field where the deer grazed.
This is a primitive site. Electricity is available for just a few hours each evening, primarily for cooking. The rooms are sparse with two small beds, no bed covers (it’s too hot to need any) and a fan that only works when the electricity is running.
We were able to relax a bit when we arrived, but the kids wanted to swim and I had plenty to read, so we quickly went our separate ways. Just before sunset we took a boat across the narrow channel to a field they called the ‘gathering spot.’ On the edge of the field sat an observation tower, where visitors could watch animals coming to graze.
It was a pleasant evening, although quite hot. Few animals were grazing. The primary focus for us was a herd of Banteng, which is a type of wild cattle found across Southeast Asia. They were difficult to see, because they were gathered in the far right corner of the field. So after scanning the area for a few minutes, we decided to move closer.
Climbing down from the three story tower, we slowly walked toward the Banteng, keeping a clump of bushes between us. While most of the cattle seemed not to notice our approach, one bull on the edge of the group kept an eye on us, so I didn’t want to get too close. We stopped behind a couple of scrawny trees to watch them graze for a bit.
There were other animals. Several large birds were eating something on the ground in another corner of the field. And as dusk fell, bats began flying low across the sky. One incredibly large bat flew right over our heads.
Near our observation spot there was also a large pile of bones, likely from a Banteng that had died there. I was really curious what kind of animals grazed on its carcass, but few other animals were seen during our short visit.
After watching the Banteng graze for a bit, I began to get concerned about the bull, which had continued to watch us. So we made our way back to the boat and the beautiful coastal sunset, and motored over to camp for the night. Dinner included a fabulous fish dish. We spent a restless night because of the insufferable heat.
The next morning we took a hike across the island. The rainforest was quiet but the walk was lovely, including the sudden rain storm that hit halfway into our hike. We reached the opposite shore after perhaps an hour of walking and sat for a bit before returning to camp.
We left for Carita in the afternoon, and along the way stopped to take a narrow wooden canoe up into a small stream that emptied into the ocean. Again we saw few animals, other than a python sleeping on a tree branch just over our heads. But the trip was magical. Paddling through a rainforest is simply a special treat.
As we entered the stream we glided past mangroves. These trees are nature’s second line of defense for coastlines (barrier islands such as the Outer banks in the U.S. and barrier reefs are the first). The roots of mangroves spread out in different ways, depending on the species. Some have Pneumatophores, which are erect roots that grow upward from horizontal roots just below the surface. They look like sticks growing out of the mud. Others have prop roots; roots that grow out of the trunk
and drop down,helping to prop the tree up in the mud. There are also stilt roots, kneed (or knee) roots and plank roots.
All of these root styles serve a major purpose. The mud where mangroves grow is generally somewhat anaerobic, which means there is limited oxygen available. They also grow in tidal areas, where the ground is under water for some time each day. So these aerial roots help to provide oxygen for the trees.
The roots also help the mangroves weather typhoons and tsunamis. They support the trees during periods of high waves and water. Because the roots are spread out and the trees are relatively short, they can withstand high winds, and they slow the inland movement of waves. The land upon which the mangroves stand can also absorb a great deal of water. And the roots themselves help to stabilize the soil.
So it came as little surprise to scientists to discover after the tsunami battered Sumatra in 2004 that those areas where mangrove forests remained suffered the least damage from the tsunami’s damaging effects.
Mangroves are a wonder of nature. In addition to protecting coastlines, their roots are a nesting site for many sea animals, from fish to crustaceans. Their branches serve as rookeries for many species of birds, and droppings from the trees provide food for a range of marine creatures. Humans have been removing them from coastal areas, often to provide a better ‘experience’ for tourists or additional space for expensive housing. From Florida and Louisiana to Indonesia and Africa, hundreds of thousands of acres of mangroves have been lost, but we do this at our own peril.
Once past the mangroves, the stream’s banks became steeper and the growth thicker. Vines wrapped around trees. Large palm branches waved to us. Epiphytes clung to branches overhead. The look was primitive – so much so that I could almost imagine dinosaurs lurking around the next bend. And because it was midday, animals and insects were resting from the heat. It was incredibly silent.
The paddle was a short one. We were late getting back to the car, and we were driving all the way back to Bandung that evening. Sadly, we all too soon turned around and went back to the boat for the two hour trip to Carita.