Flight to Extinction

“We are in danger of losing another iconic wildlife”

LANGIT terus tak ada — dilitupi oleh burung ni,” (couldn’t even see the sky for the birds…) the weathered face of the “Batin” or village headman of the Orang Asli village of Chiong in Temengor looks wistful as he stares off into the distance, recalling the long past days where the skies were once filled with thousands of Plain-Pouched Hornbills making their migratory journey across the still waters of the Temengor Lake.

Flocks of hornbills covering our skies were common sight in the deep forests of Belum Temengor in the 1990s and up to the early 2000s. However, in recent years and from the recent Hornbill Survey undertaken by the Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY) at the Royal Belum State Park late last month, there’s an alarming decline in the number of these globally-threatened species making their way past the Belum-Temengor forest complex.

Compounding this dismal result is the recent reclassification of the Helmeted Hornbill by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s main authority on globally- threatened biodiversity, from “Near Threatened” to “Critically Endangered”, pointing to the imminent possibility that our hornbill population is slowly reaching extinction, leaving our skies bare and our forests silent.

FARMERS OF THE FOREST

Hornbills derive their name from the horn-like casque on top of their bills. Larger than most forest birds, they’re striking creatures with their oversized bills, with most species having a brilliantly-coloured pouch of loose skin better known as gular at their throat in which they carry their food.

Called “farmers of the forest”, hornbills play a vital role in the rainforest ecosystem as they disperse the seeds of many tropical trees, keeping the forest alive. Unfortunately, most hornbill species are threatened by habitat loss and wildlife trade. Of the 10 hornbill species here, seven are already listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Hornbills are amazing creatures. Their size, regular feeding patterns, unique nesting, large patterned feathers and head/beak features make hornbills an interesting target for poachers, hunters, ritual decors and collectors alike. This has pushed many of these species into the endangered list across the world,” says Andrew Sebastian, CEO of ECOMY and the driver behind the latest Hornbill Survey carried out at the Royal Belum State Park.

HORNBILL SURVEY

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The cacophony of squawks, barks and honks breaks the silence as our boat drifts across the Temengor lake. We’re here to look for hornbills and we’re not disappointed. The first feeding flock of the Rhinoceros Hornbill (we count 12 — a mixture of juveniles and adults) alights on a tall tualang tree that stands above the forest canopy.

Soon after, they are joined by a flock of 14 Great Hornbills lending to the noisy chorus that echoes through the silent valley.

“This is truly the hornbill capital of the world, with all of the country’s 10 species present at one area, making this place one of the most important and exciting ecotourism sites in this region,” declares Sebastian. He soon points to a pair of White Crowned Hornbills flying across the sky followed by a solitary Wreathed Hornbill.

FRAGILE HOME

As a result of deforestation and logging that have been going on for decades in Temengor, there’s a growing concern that the already fragile ecosystem of the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex will not be able to sustain the survival of these birds. Hornbills are particularly vulnerable to forest destruction and logging activities.

Senior guide and local boatman at the Belum Rainforest Resort, Mohd Basri Marzuki laments: “I’ve noticed the number of hornbills dwindling here. It’s not easy to see them anymore.”

He attributes this situation to the intense logging in the Temengor Forest Reserve. “I hope that the logging will somehow be phased out and stopped. The hornbills draw international tourists who are willing to travel across the globe to Malaysia just to see them.”

MURDER FOR PROFIT

Added pressure comes from an insatiable demand for trinkets in China made out of the casques of these birds, in particular the casque of the Helmeted Hornbill. According to Nigel J. Collar of BirdLife International in his 2015 article, Helmeted Hornbills Rhinoplax Vigil And The Ivory Trade, the species came under terrible new pressure from an exploding illegal demand for its casque in the last five years.

In January 2015, the Environmental Investigation Agency highlighted the threat, indicating that black market prices in China are up to five times higher than for elephant ivory, as increasingly affluent clients seek the keratin-filled structure or casque on the bird’s bill which is carved into luxury decorations and jewellery, akin to elephant ivory.

Closer to home, Peninsular Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) made a massive bust when they seized over 200 wildlife parts in August. This included one helmeted hornbill casque and over 45 tips of hornbill beaks.

“A seizure like this has never before been made here and suggests that our Helmeted Hornbill species might also be targeted,” says Kanitha Krishnasamy, senior programme manager of Traffic Southeast Asia.

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UNCERTAIN FUTURE

So what does the recent classification mean for the future of the Helmeted Hornbills and all other wildlife that have unfortunately fallen into this category?

“IUCN’s reclassification of the Helmeted Hornbills’ status is only a report card. Actual action to protect this family of birds lies with the governments of the day and local communities. Without strong in-situ protection and monitoring, the classification may even prove counter-productive as the more critical or rare an animal is, the more its value to hunters and poachers,” says Sebastian bluntly.

Echoing Sebastian’s statement, Krishnasamy urges: “What needs to be done? Protect these species where they are, protect the forest they call home. Importantly, if anyone is caught hunting and trading in Helmeted Hornbills or other totally protected and critically- endangered species, throw the whole book at them.

“Malaysia has strong wildlife protection laws, including up to five years and RM100,000 fine per section for some species. Make poachers and traffickers an example by meting out the highest penalty. Make a statement that wildlife crime in Malaysia is serious and will not be tolerated.”

FINAL COUNTDOWN

In a space of just two days, we count a total of 14 Great Hornbills, four Helmeted Hornbills, three Wreathed Hornbills, 12 Rhinoceros Hornbills, two White Crowned Hornbills, five Bushy Crested Hornbills, four Black Hornbills and two Oriental Pied Hornbills. We manage to catch the amazing sight of the Plain-Pouched Hornbills’ migratory flight as we stopped over at the Orang Asli Village of Chiong in Temengor.

Still, as the Batin of the village observed, the glory days of sighting thousands of these birds in flight have passed. We count a total of 88 of these species in the darkening sky.

As we make our way back to the jetty, a series of loud hoots culminating into an unearthly cackling pierces the solitude. It’s the call of the Helmeted Hornbill, perhaps reminding us that more needs to be done to preserve this precious piece of paradise and its fascinating inhabitants.

(Published in the New Straits Times, 24th September 2016)

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