Malaysia: Treasuring A National Treasure-The Great Hornbill

Wan Shahara Ahmad Ghazali Bernama 12 Apr 13;

KUALA LUMPUR, April 12 (Bernama) -- On a trip to Langkawi, nature lovers would be able to enjoy a 360-degree view of the Langkawi group of islands from two mountain peaks, namely Gunung Mat Cincang, which is accessible via a cable car, and Gunung Raya, where one can drive up to.

And if one is lucky, one might get a glimpse of the priceless national treasure - the Great Hornbill - the world's largest hornbill that resides in these mountainous regions.

Most visitors usually miss the sight of the bird, although the hornbill with the scientific name of Buceros bicornis is a large bird that measures 1.5 metres when it spreads its wings.

The weight of the bird can reach up to four kilogrammes, which probably also explains why the bird does not fly as freely as other birds and is usually seen hopping on to the highest branch of a tree before taking flight in a ski-like fashion as it spreads its wings in the air.

The size of the Great Hornbill, also known as Enggang Papan locally, is another factor why there needs to be preservation of its natural nesting place -- usually trees with huge diameters, which themselves are in danger of being sacrificed as timber for trade.


The endangered Great Hornbill builds its nest within the natural cavities of trees that are large enough to house both mother and baby hornbills for a period of three months.

Within the tree hole, the mother-to-be will stay cocooned, with the opening of the crevice almost completely sealed by a mix of bird droppings, mud and saliva, leaving only a small hole where the partner bird is able to pass on food to the nesting mother.

Major food for the bird includes wild fruits, which are also an important source of water for the body, while the birds' usual diet consists of small animals, birds and insects.

Within the tree cavity, the mother hornbill prepares a nest using some of her own features and will go on to hatch her eggs, while her partner flies out to bring food for all three.

This also means that should the tree, in which the mother and her baby are nesting, be cut down, both the mother and baby hornbills will die trapped and hungry, while the partner will also suffer, as hornbills are known to be monogamous or partners for life.


In fact, a bird watcher and member of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), Langkawi branch, Irshad Mobarak, tells a tragic story involving a hornbill.

He said he had once witnessed a hornbill wailing loud and long upon seeing the felling of a tree and the destruction of the nest in the tree that had housed its partner and baby.

It was even more painful to see the hornbill regularly returning for several years to the place where the tree had once stood.

"Unfortunately, in Langkawi, the hornbill does not only face the threat of losing its habitat due to illegal logging activities, clearing of hills or indiscriminate development, but it is also hunted and killed illegally by irresponsible people just to cater to the demands of foreign tourists seeking aphrodisiac food," Irshad lamented.

Meanwhile, should one want to watch the sheer magnificence of the Great Hornbill, taking up a spot in Gunung Raya, just after the fajar prayers or before the twilight hour, would be the best bet to personally witness the great birds flying.

One could also witness the birds flying across from one forest area to another in Pantai Kok, Langkawi, late in the evenings and before the sun sets.


Currently, world records show that there are only 55 hornbill species existing, including 31 species in Asia and the rest in Africa.

Only 12 of these species are found in South East Asia, but an interesting fact is that Malaysia is the sanctuary for 10 of these species -- a rich heritage indeed.

Even more interesting is that all these species of hornbills can be found in the Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex (BTFC) in Perak, which encompasses the Royal Belum State Park and the Temenggor forest reserves.

Bird watchers have the opportunity to see all the 10 species, including the Plain-pouched Hornbill, which is already classified as vulnerable to extinction by the Merah International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These birds are presently found only at the BTFC.

The irony is that Malaysia did not even know that it was home to the Plain-pouched Hornbill, till researchers from MNS identified them and confirmed their identity in 1998 as the 10th specimen of the Hornbills found in the country.


During a recent visit to the forest, a conservation officer at MNS, specifically for the hornbill conservation project, Ravinder Kaur, explained that prior to the finding, the 10th specimen was said to be seen only in Myanmar and Thailand, with a population of about 1,000. The figure has come down though since, she said.

"When MNS made the efforts to organise the second Belum-Temenggor scientific expedition in 1998, they made a discovery that went beyond their expectations, which was the group of Plain-pouched Hornbills," she said, further explaining that the physical features of the bird were also similar to that of the Wreathed Hornbill.

In 2008, history was also created, with the recording of an impressive number of 3,000 Plain-pouched Hornbills at one count.

The number had astounded the researchers as scientists had estimated that only a total of 10,000 adults of the hornbill species could have existed worldwide at that time.

This finding also further underlined the importance of the forest complex, which comprises 266,170 hectares that should be a priority area and accorded due protection, especially the Temenggor forests that were yet to be fully protected.

There is no denying that many would want the Belum-Temenggor forest complex, which has been acknowledged as an Important Birds Area (IBA) in the world, to be given continued protection so that it would remain a tourist attraction and also a centre for bird watchers to gather every year, while generating small time businesses for the local people.


Meanwhile, in Sabak Bernam, the villagers of Kampung Parit 13 Sungai Panjang, have established their own way of helping to conserve the Oriental Pied Hornbill, with the help of Universiti Putra Malaysia's Department of Biology Science.

These species of hornbill, the smallest among the hornbills found in the country, have adapted to living in village environments and indeed, are often the focus of tourism activities in these villages. They also contribute to raising awareness towards their conservation.

Initially, the loss of habitat had forced the birds to live within the ecosystem of humans living in the same areas. This distressed the people, who had to put up with disturbances to their crops, but eventually, they ended up adapting and accommodating each other.

Curiously, the birds have also adopted the earthen pots, made by villagers, as their nesting ground for laying eggs and protection during the breeding season.

Once the female hornbill enters the pot to prepare for hatching eggs, its partner will seal up most part of the pot's opening with clay, leaving only a little space for the passing on of food.

However, although the hornbills seem to have adjusted to the environment of human beings, a nesting mother hornbill will not accept any food from humans and will only accept food from its partner.

The remaining of the hornbills found in Malaysia are the Enggang Bulu (White Crowned Hornbill), Enggang Kawan/Buluh (Bushy Crested Hornbill), Enggang Berkedut (Wrinkled Hornbill), Burung Kekek/Burung Gatal Birah (Malayan Black Hornbill), Enggang Badak (Rhinoceros Hornbill), and Burung Tebang Mentua (Helmeted Hornbill).