Indonesian experiences

Dr Jennie Showers (BVSc 1976) writes about her experiences volunteering as a Wildlife Rescue Vet in North Sumatra.

I was fortunate to be a volunteer in Indonesia with Australian Volunteers for International Development an Australian Government Initiative. The position was with an Indonesian NGO, The Sumatran Rainforest Institute (SRI), in North Sumatra near the Batang Gadas National Park, very close to the Equator. I suspect they were disappointed to find their “Crocodile Dundee” turned out to be an older, small, white-haired female, when I finally arrived in Northern Sumatra.

Initially much of my time was spent writing proposals to raise funds to purchase basic veterinary equipment and medications, and to purchase or build enclosures as temporary holding facilities. Another role was to provide veterinary expertise for their wildlife rescue team which aimed to “rescue”, “treat” and rehabilitate Sumatran wildlife that had been caught in traps or snares.

Sumatran tigers are a critically endangered species. I had the opportunity to be involved in a rapid response team for the treatment and care of two tigers, a female adult caught in a snare trap, and a juvenile female caught in a pit trap. To prepare for such events I had been lucky to receive support and advice from staff at Melbourne Zoo and Wellington Zoo and later was very thankful for more advice and support from Australian and international veterinary colleagues.

My work also involved assessing confiscated pets, mainly gibbons, which were often very young juveniles, and establishing temporary facilities to care for and treat these animals. I would also assist with advice on husbandry and treatments for domestic animals belonging to local villagers.

The gibbons had been raised in a similar way to human babies, which unfortunately meant they were fed sweetened milk and human food such as fried noodles, rice etc., all very high in fats, sugars and carbohydrates compared to their diet in the wild. Time mentoring and training SRI staff on husbandry, feeding balanced diets, opportunities for enrichment, and appropriate quarantine procedures, involved lots of wildlife contact hours with a wide variety of species.

When I was suddenly confronted with the “rescue” of a three metre crocodile in the middle of the night, it was wonderful to receive help and advice from a number of Australian vets more experienced with these large reptiles, such as Annabelle Olsen from Cairns. The unlucky reptile had been captured by locals who weren’t keen on their new neighbour, and was bound so tightly that I felt sure its circulation would have been compromised. It had been left exposed in the sun for an extended period of time and actually seemed comatose. We were able to safely get the animal back to the National Park Office, four-hours’ drive away, on the top of my vehicle, a very elderly 4WD. Much to my surprise, after fluids and a few days of rest, it was able to be transferred to Siantar Zoo in Medan and apparently made a full recovery.

One of the other wonderful animals I was privileged to care for was a juvenile Pangolin (the most trafficked species in the world). I initially assumed the scaly creature was a reptile, but after examining it, realised it was a mammal. Once on a bottle it initially did well, but then unfortunately developed pneumonia and died after about six weeks. I learnt as much as possible about the “most trafficked species in the world” which is extremely difficult to care for in captivity with very little known about its physiology.

I also demonstrated to, mentored and encouraged several Indonesian veterinarians and to train the rescue team in basic first aid and capture methods. It was sometimes difficult living in a different culture, but my increased knowledge and experience living with the very friendly, generous and kind Islamic community was very rewarding.