Indonesians use puppets to teach the world’s rarest rhinos about threats

On a little Indonesian fishing trip villagea man with a fake rhino head on his head puts on a puppet show for a group of eager children.

Former teacher Samsudin educates children about the plight of the endangered Javan rhinoceros – the world’s rarest – using cardboard cutouts, funny expressions and exaggerated voices to spread his message of conservation one story at a time.

A 50-year-old man asks children in the village of Indramayu in western Java to imitate animals and teaches them the importance of protecting the forest and its unique wildlife.

“I want them to know that rhinos need untouched forest and that humans are not the only creatures on earth,” he told AFP.

“I want children to love nature and grow up as people who know and care about our natural resources.”

Javan rhinos — single-horned mammals that can weigh up to two tons and have armour-like folds of loose skin — once numbered in the thousands across Southeast Asia.

But now they barely cling to existence, hard hit by rampant poaching and human encroachment on their habitat.

After years of population decline, only 75 mammals are believed to be left in the Ujung Kulon Nature Reserve – their last remaining wild habitat – on the westernmost tip of the island of Java.

– ‘Until it’s not too late’ –

Samsudin, who like many Indonesians only uses one name, decided to dedicate his time to the conservation of Javan rhinos and other endangered species in 2014 after learning of their precarious situation.

Since then, he’s traveled around the archipelago on an old bicycle, putting on free puppet shows at stops along the way to introduce children to the animals.

“I want them to learn about rhinos before it’s too late. I don’t want them to only see rhinos from textbooks or cartoons,” Samsudin said.

Samsudin makes his puppets from cardboard because it is readily available and because he opposes the use of leather, which is used in traditional Javanese puppet shows, for conservation reasons.

Using visual storytelling makes it easier for children to absorb information and creates a stronger bond between him and his young audience, he says.

“Children have short attention spans; I have to be creative to distract them from gadgets,” he said.

The conservation of rhinoceros is particularly difficult due to the animals’ long gestation period and their propensity to wander, which often leaves males and females separated during the mating season.

Samsudin is also determined to challenge cartoon depictions of rhinos as being lazy and stupid.

“Rhinos are very shy and have an unusual appearance, but there are not many of them left in the world, so I want to raise their image and make them special and wise creatures,” he said.

After the coronavirus temporarily lowered the curtain on his performance, Samsudin returned to the road performing in front of children.

In his show, the Javan rhinoceros is the protagonist, the macaque and the Sumatran tiger are the helpers, and the hunter is the villain.

One of the happy spectators was Gelar Dwi Titar Syahputro, an elementary school student who was watching a puppet show with his friends.

“It was fun and fun. I learned something new. History told me not to litter and promise to protect nature,” Syakhputro said.

Samsudin wants his young viewers to one day emulate him by joining his mission to spread environmental awareness through folklore.

“I hope that among the hundreds of children I have met, one or two will follow in my footsteps and join me in spreading the word about conservation,” he said.