I had never noticed that badminton was something like that in Indonesia.
It’s not really a sport that I’ve ever followed. I had seen the UK mixed doubles team, Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson, win silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and I had made the occasional attempt to get a seat, a willing friend, a net, racket and shuttlecock ( but generally at least one if not all of them is missing). So the excitement on Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park in Indonesia, as my friend and wildlife photographer Nick Garbutt Playfully agreed to take over one of the rhino owners was a surprise.
It was late September 2019, and I was just on vacation with Nick, my husband, and a group of avid game watchers to spot crested black macaques in the Tangkoko Reserve in northern Sulawesi and Komodo dragons on the islands of Komodo and Rinca (the former was an ambition since an amazing portrait with a wing mirror of a car in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, the latter since reading Douglas Adams’ last chance to see it.
Since I was already in Indonesia because Save the Rhino has been supporting the protection of Sumatran and Javan rhinos since 1995 and 2006 respectively and I hadn’t made a work trip to Sumatra since 2007, it made sense to add a few days to visit the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (or SRS). The SRS is home to seven Sumatran rhinos and is closed to tourists. However, there are plans to restrict access to one of the animals if Covid-19 allows. I had negotiated special permission to visit Nick in exchange for donating professional-quality photos. At the same time we would meet with CeCe Sieffert, Chief Conservation Director at the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), which works for the conservation of Sumatran rhinos of the Indonesian government, with Inov, the Indonesian rhino manager of the IRF, and with Widodo Ramono, who Executive Director of Yayasan Badak Indonesia (YABI) to learn more about the progress of the Sumatra Rhino Rescue Project.
Inov had organized a couple of days for us: a tour of the SRS, which had changed dramatically since my last visit 12 years ago, with additional enclosures for the rhinos, a new visitor center, expanded veterinary facilities and new accommodation for the zookeepers; a visit to the reforestation project on the borders of Way Kambas National Park; a boat trip along the Kanan River to one of the Rhino Protection Unit’s patrol bases; a meeting with the owners of the nearby Satwa Elephant Eco-Lodge to learn more about the tourist opportunities for visitors to the park; and of course as many visits as possible to see the stars of the show: Bina, Rosa, Ratu, Delila, Andalas, Harapan and Andatu.
We had great conversations with a wide variety of people – not just those from the Rhino Protection Unit Program members and committed zookeepers from the SRS, but also the staff of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the lodge managers and the community members who were hired to work on the reforestation project. YABI and IRF are great at sending us formal biannual grant reports and informal updates in between, but there’s nothing like spending a few days talking about the successes and challenges of dealing with an endangered species like the Sumatran rhino.
Our days were long: showering at dawn and having a quick breakfast before rushing to one of the stalls to wait for a Sumatran rhinoceros to come out of the forest to do its daily veterinary checks, then go to the field and finally close come back at dusk to get clean again, check for urgent e-mails (if the WiFi worked), have a beer and wait for the barred eagle owl to emerge from its sleeping place in the big tree in front of the SRS . That might not sound like a hassle – after all, Sumatra is on the equator, so there is only 12 hours of daylight a day year round – but the heat and humidity made us feel like wet rags every evening.
I was all the more impressed when Nick, after discovering the badminton court behind the SRS guest rooms, asked Inov if someone would take him out one evening. Nick explained that he had played badminton at university all those years ago and was very interested; He still has good hand-eye coordination for games like billiards and golf. Inov spoke to the SRS staff and they happily agreed to double play after praying in the tiny mosque between the keeper’s dining area and the badminton court. It is rare for the SRS to have visitors; seldom even that a visitor is hasty enough to challenge the employees to a match.
Nick is 6 feet 1 inches tall, with an advantage of about 6 or 8 inches over the Indonesian rhino keepers. I fondly imagined that his size would give him a great tactical advantage on the net. This was before I learned that the Indonesian male badminton team is currently third in the world badminton rankings and second in the cumulative medal of the Summer Olympics and World Badminton Championships. Badminton is a national obsession.
While the four players warmed up (not difficult in 30 degrees heat), other SRS employees walked over from the kitchen and dining room and We all took our positions around the courtyard. A few last training serves, and the match began, supported by partisan cheers from the audience.
Nick and his partner played well; Both halves of the square warmly confirmed the winning shots from the other sides. But the Indonesians were impressive: fast, agile, seemingly insensitive to temperature, and the end result for the home team was 21-13. Quite a respectable performance from our Yorkshire wrestler. Congratulations all around, the third shower of the day for Nick and “just another day at the office”.
It’s now about 17 months later and I’ve been thinking about our time at SRS. For us it was a wonderful escape to the Sumatran rhinoceros area for a few days, a real privilege to be able to see such amazing animals up close.
It was also a glimpse into the daily life of the SRS staff: the zookeepers who look after the seven precious rhinos, the veterinarians who monitor their health, the team that goes into the forest every day for extra rummaging around Harvest rhinos. These are tasks that need to be done every day of the year. The employees live on site and change their shifts every few days during normal times in order to have some time at home with their families who live in villages outside the park.
Thanks to Covid-19, however, the rotations had to change: it’s much safer to have people on duty longer and then turn them off for longer before re-quarantining them to minimize the risk of catching the virus and passing it on to colleagues . That means two weeks at SRS. There is work to keep them busy, of course, but there is no mobile signal in the evenings and slow or patchy WiFi. There is the community TV. And there is the badminton court.
No wonder the SRS employees are all so damn good at badminton.