Hornbills – revered yet risk extinction if not careful

Rhinoceros hornbill

Have you ever thought why Sarawak was nicknamed the “Land of the Hornbills”?

Rhinoceros hornbill

Hornbills can grow larger than one-metre, weigh several kilogrammes and have unique, double-decked beaks and bills – but the beaks and bills aren’t for feeding. Instead, they are quirky evolutionary trait to help find them a mate, and when they do, a single male and female will spend their lives sometimes reaching several decades together.

According to the Dayaks, especially the Ibans, Rhinoceros hornbills (black-and-white plumage with a bright yellow bill) represent the spirit of God. Having a hornbill fly over a household was a sign of good fortune to come.

The birds were also believed to have mythical powers. Superstitious pagans and animists sacrificed the majestic creatures and wore their yellow-orange beak on a necklace.

Feathers from the tail were also harvested to decorate ceremonial headdresses and weapons including blowpipes and machetes.

The magnificent Rhinoceros hornbill is also the state‘s emblem.

Oriental Pied hornbill

The rare and majestic birds enjoy a fully-protected status under the Wildlife Protection Ordinance of 1998 in Sarawak, which is home to eight out of the 54 species of hornbills in the world, including the White Crested hornbill, Bushy Crested hornbill, Wrinkled hornbill, Wreathed hornbill, Black hornbill, Oriental Pied hornbill, Rhinoceros hornbill, and Helmeted hornbill, and where their habitats largely fall within national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries: Piasau Nature Reserve (PNR), Gunong Mulu National Park, Tanjung Datu National Park and Batang Ai National Park. 

PNR, previously known as Piasau Camp, situated in the middle of Miri, has been gazetted as a nature reserve on Apr 3, 2014. The existence of many totally-protected wildlife species like the Oriental Pied hornbill is said to be one of the agents of change for the conversion of the Piasau Camp into a nature reserve.

The camp, built in the 50’s, sports over 200 houses for Shell employees and has become a historical site synonymous with the oil and gas industry.

In 2006, the Oriental Pied hornbill and Wrinkled hornbill were observed by the Rapid Environment Assessment done by Shell consultants. Since then, Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) have continued to monitor the nest.

In 2015, 20 individual hornbills have been observed there and the males were named Jimmy, Anthony, Han, Ibrahim, Munyung, Robert, Kareem, Sam, Abong, Moses, Ah Kaw and Musa while the female hornbills were Faridah, Cathy, Alice, Julia, Ah Moi, Rosita, Juliet and Cecelia.

However, Faridah was killed brutally by poachers on Sept 24, 2013, and this has given rise to a public outcry condemning the killing. Faridah was notable for producing 56 offsprings since 2005.

A 20-year-old man was jailed three months and fined RM20,000 in connection with the case – penalties for killing, hunting, capturing, selling, or trading the animals, or else possessing any recognisable body parts of them can entail three years in prison and/or a fine of RM25,000.

Apart from that, the people also feared that Shell’s decision to relinquish the camp to the government in September 2013 to develop the area into a beach-side attraction with shop houses and condominiums would further endanger the hornbills. Thus, they began gazetting the camp to establish it as a conservation area for hornbills and other wildlife.

The local community, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and political parties aggressively lobbied the state government for the area to be declared a totally protected area.

A gathering specially held in memory of Faridah saw a crowd of over 1,000 people turning up, further showcasing the people’s passion for the hornbills.

Subsequently, Piasau Camp Miri Nature Park Society (PCMNPS) was formed and registered on October 2013 with Datuk Sebastian Ting elected as the first chairman to pursue the cause at the state level.

On May 10, 2014, Head of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud performed the PNR earth-breaking ceremony.

What with extensive habitat loss and intensifying attempts to capture them by poachers across the region, hornbills are being driven even closer to extinction. 

According to SFC, habitat loss posed a severe threat to hornbills since they only used large tree cavities for nesting – for example the ensurai – one of the most valuable wood species in the state.

Conservationists estimate that some of the species might be a mere three generations away from extinction as the long-lived animals’ slow reproductive cycle exposes them to even graver dangers in the face of poaching. Take a minute to reflect on that; within a few short years some hornbill species might become extinct.

To stop that from happening, the giant birds have been granted the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) with no commercial trade allowed. That, however, has not stopped unscrupulous operators from hunting the birds for their casques, which can fetch exorbitant sums on the black market.