Protecting hornbills from total wipeout by Rintos Mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted on April 13, 2014,
The Rhinoceros hornbill enjoys an exalted status as the Sarawak state emblem. — Photos courtesy of SFC.
HORNBILLS (bucerotidae) have many ornithological admirers – with their long eyelashes (modified feathers), dark eyes and an almost comically large, curved bill.
They range from the size of a pigeon to a large bird with a 1.8m wingspan. You can easily pick out hornbills from other birds by a special body part atop their bill called casque.
Hornbills have long tails, broad wings and white and black, brown, or gray feathers. This contrasts with the brightly coloured necks, faces, bills, and casques in many species. Females and males often have different coloured faces and eyes.
I had seen a hornbill – possibly from the Oriental-pied species – flying above Logan Bunut Lake in Lawas while I was making a boat tour around the lake in 2010.
Actually, it’s not uncommon to find hornbills in the forests or see them winging across the land in search of food or back to roost in the hollowed out part of a tree trunk.
There are 10 hornbill species in Malaysia, eight of which are found in Sarawak, according to Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC).
The two species found in the peninsula are Plain Pouch and Great Hornbills while the eight indigenous to Sarawak are Oriental-pied Hornbill (anthracoceros albirostris), Black Hornbill (anthracoceros malayanus), Bushy-crested Hornbill (anorrhinus galeritus), White-crowned (crested) Hornbill (berenicornis comatus), Rhinoceros Hornbill (buceros rhinoceros), Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), Wrinkled Hornbill (aceros corrugatus) and wreathed Hornbill (aceros undulatus).
Sarawak is known as the Land of Hornbills because these birds can be found in most parts of the state. The Black Hornbill is the most common while the Rhinoceros Hornbill is the largest of the bucerotidae family in Sarawak.
An adult Rhinoceros Hornbill is about the size of a swan – 91-122 cm long and weighing two to three kilogrammes. It’s found in lowlands and montane, tropical and subtropical regions, and mountain rainforests up to an altitude of 1,400 metres in Borneo, Sumatra, Java, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore and southern Thailand. It can live in captivity up to 90 years.
State bird of Sarawak
The Rhinoceros Hornbill is the state bird of Sarawak. For some Dayaks, especially the Ibans, the hornbill represents the chief of worldly birds or the supreme worldly bird, and its statue is used to welcome Sengalang Burong, the god of the augural birds, to the feast and celebration of humankind.
The Rhinoceros Hornbill is noted for the loud ‘whooshing’ sound of its huge wings and the rasping harshness of its haunting call. Today, it still enjoys the exalted status as the Sarawak state emblem.
But is Sarawak still truly the Land of Hornbills?
Widespread logging and poaching are allegedly threatening to push some of the popular species to the brink of extinction in the forests of Borneo. Moreover, hornbills are reportedly also hunted for food.
The Jakarta Post (November 2012) reported that hornbill body parts had been smuggled out of Kalimantan, Indonesia. As many as 285 bills from enggang gading (Helmeted Hornbill) were confiscated in smuggling attempts foiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Center (BKSDA) of West Kalimantan.
Describing the seizure as “unusually large,” the Centre said this had, without doubt, resulted in a reduction of the male hornbill population in the area.
The casques, bound for China, are processed into objects of art such as sword handles and other items. Middlemen buy them for between 1 million rupiah (US$105) and 3 million rupiah apiece while the price can escalate on the international market, the report said.
On borrowed time
It seems the hornbill is on borrowed time with hunting and habitat loss posing as major threats to a potential wipeout of this particular avian species, not only in Sarawak but also other parts of the world such as Thailand, Indonesia, India, Africa and the Philippines.
The Rhinoceros Hornbill population especially is under a cloud, being a much sought after hunting and poaching target.
According to native folklore, this species holds mythical powers. When offered for sacrifice, its yellow-orange beak slightly curved out shape is taken out, and when carved and worn as a necklace, possesses the power to “control other people.”
The feathers are used for traditional costumes or some kind of ornaments to be hung on a warrior’s weapon such as spear, blowpipe, wooden shield and machete. Such weapons, it is believed, have magical powers to invoke durability, tenacity and courage during a battle.
The traditional costumes and talismans are preserved from generation to generation and used only during the grandest occasions such as marriages and other auspicious festivities.
To conserve the species, the Wild Life Protection Ordinance, 1998, has classified the hornbill as totally protected. A totally protected species is defined as one in danger of extinction due to hunting and habitat destruction.
Section 29 of the Ordinance metes out the penalty of a maximum RM25,000 fine and two years’ imprisonment for keeping hornbills as pets, killing, hunting, capturing, selling, trading or disturbing them, or possessing any recognisable hornbill parts.
According to SFC, the most recent incident of hornbill-related offence was the well-publicised poaching of the Oriental-pied Hornbill named Faridah in Miri. A 20-year-old man was jailed three months and fined RM20,000 in connection with the case.
No specific data
SFC chief executive officer Datu Ali Yusop said in Sarawak, hornbills could be seen in most totally protected areas such as Similajau National Park, Santubong National Park, Tanjung Datu National Park, Gunung Gading National Park.
Other areas where they can commonly be spotted include Gunong Mulu National Park, Pulong Tau National Park and Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary.
However, Ali, said there is presently no specific data on hornbill population in Sarawak.
“We are still in the early stages of a population survey although information on the distribution of the eight species is available and a database is being developed.
“Now, we can’t tell you exactly whether the population of any of the species is declining but none of the eight species is extinct and we are earnestly intensifying efforts to ensure their habitats are well protected,” he assured.
Ali said threats to hornbill existence may be due to loss of habitat and deforestation, lack of food source as well as nesting sites.
He stressed habitat loss posed a severe threat to hornbills since they only used large tree cavities for nesting – for example the dipterocarpus species, one of the most valuable timber types in Sarawak.
“Hornbills are also dependent on the forests for their food source. Most are dependent on primary forests and only two species – the Black and Oriental-pied Hornbills – can be found in disturbed areas such as at the proposed Piasau Nature Reserve in Miri,” he added.
Ali said there were many ways to save hornbills, adding that with available data, conservation was not only about protecting the species, but also their habitats.
However, he pointed out that all these required funds and other resources.
He said hornbill habitats must be protected through land gazettement while population survey and monitoring should be conducted from time to time.
“Donations to buy artificial nesting boxs are also needed.”
On conservation, Ali said SFC had taken proactive action, including gazettement of Piasau Camp as a Nature reserve-urban park for a population of Oriental-pied Hornbills nesting there; setting up of Fig Garden at Kubah National Park (habitat enhancement) and conducting a population survey.
He disclosed a five-year programme had been drawn up, encompassing studies on hornbills in the totally protected areas of western Sarawak.
“We are yet to see the effectiveness of our initiatives as holistic population surveys have not to be conducted. But at least, these steps are useful for hornbill conservation – in particular, the species involved.
“As for Piasau Camp, the public must have heightened awareness of hornbills to portray their love for Nature which, in return, will benefit the long-term survival of the species,” he said.
Hornbills are primarily frugivorous, eating a variety of fruits, with figs being predominant in their diet. They also eat a variety of animal prey.