On a leaf-covered dirt path overlooking lush paddy fields in western Indonesia, the world’s rarest rhino had left a trail of hoofprints in the soft mud and bite marks on foliage.
For people seeking a glimpse of the Javan rhino — revered in local folklore as Abah Gede, or the Great Father — such small signs are likely to be the closest they get.
There are an estimated 50 of the rhinos left in existence, all living in the wild in Ujung Kulon National Park, an area of stunning natural beauty on the western tip of Indonesia’s main island of Java.
However, conservationists are hoping that the country’s first ever Javan rhino sanctuary, which will open in the park in the coming months, can pull the animal back from the brink of extinction.
The shy creature, whose folds of loose skin give it the appearance of wearing armor plating, once numbered in the thousands and roamed across Southeast Asia.
However, like other rhino species across the world, poaching and human encroachment on its habitat has led to a dramatic population decline, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) saying the animal is “making its last stand.”
The new sanctuary will encompass 5,100 hectares of lush rainforest, freshwater streams and mudholes in the park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It is not scheduled to open until March next year, but park officials say that from hoofprints and bite marks, they believe nine rhinos have already wandered into new areas set aside for them.
“It means our scheme to turn this sanctuary into a comfortable home for them is working,” said the park’s habitat manager Rusdianto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
The rhinos were already living mainly in one corner of the park. However, the new sanctuary has expanded the area suitable for them and relocated farmers who were living there to reduce the chances of animal-human conflict.
An electric fence is also being constructed — the final piece of work that needs to be completed — to mark the boundary and prevent the rhinos from straying out of the sanctuary, and humans from coming in.
Park officials, who are government employees, have also been planting suitable food for the rhinos. During a recent visit by reporters, workers were seen clearing palm trees from the area and replacing them with shrubs and small trees.
“We hope this sanctuary will hasten breeding and lead to more births of this treasured rare animal,” park boss Moh Haryono said. “In a more enclosed space, the male and female rhino will have more opportunities to frolic and mate freely.”
Yet setting up the sanctuary, which is government-run, but fully funded by the US-based charity the International Rhino Foundation, has been no easy task.
It was originally due to open in 2011, but was held up due to red tape, a common problem in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, which has a huge and often inefficient bureaucracy.
However, all obstacles now seem to have been overcome and, barring any last-minute hold-ups, the sanctuary should officially open soon.
Nevertheless, it is just a small step in an uphill battle to save the Javan rhino. Officials in Ujung Kulon believe there were 51 of the rhinos last year, including eight calves, basing their estimate on images captured by hidden cameras.
They hope the true figure may be in the 70s and will have a new estimate once data for this year has been collated.