Hornbills' release ruffles feathers

David Ee Straits Times 11 Jul 13;

THE release of three more captive-bred oriental pied hornbills into the wild yesterday has ruffled the feathers of ecologists.

They have urged the Jurong Bird Park and the National Parks Board (NParks) to stop boosting the number of the birds, and to begin a thorough study into the possible impacts.

The hornbill, with its distinctive yellow beak and black-white body, is a prized sighting for bird watchers, but it is also a predator at the top of its food chain.

Besides fruit, it feeds on small animals such as squirrels and lizards, and other birds. Occasionally, hornbills raid nests of other birds for chicks and eggs.

An artificial increase in hornbills could upset ecosystems here, and lead to a decline in the species they prey on, the ecologists say. Explained wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai: "During their breeding season from December to April, they need a lot of protein for their young, so they will take many animals they find."

Ecosystems here also need to be managed more carefully due to their small size, he added.

NParks director of conservation Wong Tuan Wah said it will be "happy to collaborate with ecologists to study the effects of (the hornbill) population on the ecosystem". But he also said that the board had not observed any adverse impact.

Nature Society Bird Group committee member Yong Ding Li said he did not see any problem with the increasing number of hornbills here as fruit, not animals, made up more than 80 per cent of the bird's diet.

Since 2009, the bird park has released nine birds from its collection into Pulau Ubin and the mainland.

Today, there are about 100 hornbills in the wild, up from around 20 in 2004.

The once-common species had disappeared with urbanisation in the 1920s, but returned in the mid-1990s.

Mr Rajathurai pointed out that the hornbill population had already "established itself quite well on its own", and needed no extra help.

Both he and former Nature Society president and Bird Ecology Study Group co-founder Wee Yeow Chin also took issue with the authorities championing the bird's proliferation because of its draw as an "iconic" species.

In 2004, the Government and universities got together to begin the Singapore Hornbill Project, aiming to help the bird thrive here. In 2010, NParks' Mr Wong said one reason for the project is that the birds are "a large, spectacular native bird which the public can really appreciate".

But protecting the ecosystem should take top priority, said Mr Rajathurai.

"We are looking at... getting more of these birds so the public can see them easily. We are doing it for the wrong reason."

Added Dr Wee: "I love the birds too, and everybody gets excited. But in the end we need studies to find out how many the ecosystem can sustain."

Three hornbills released into the wild at Pulau Ubin
Tan Qiuyi Channel NewsAsia 10 Jul 13;

SINGAPORE: Three hornbills were released into the wild at Pulau Ubin on Wednesday.

The birds are native to Singapore and were once extinct here.

The release is part of a conservation project started in 2004 by the Singapore Avian Conservation Team, Wildlife Reserves Singapore and National Parks Board to strengthen their numbers.

It is the fourth time the conservation team is releasing Oriental Pied Hornbills into the wild.

Previous locations include the Sungei Buloh wetlands and the Istana grounds.

This time, the destination is Pulau Ubin and the latest effort will bring the total released so far to nine.

The Oriental Pied Hornbill disappeared from Singapore in the mid-1800s due to habitat loss.

It was only in 1994 when a pair was once again sighted at Pulau Ubin. Today, Pulau Ubin has a population of about 60 hornbills.

Introducing new birds diversify the gene pool, making the species stronger and less prone to disease.

The hornbills chosen for release - two males and a female - are from the Jurong Bird Park.

Two were a bonded pair that were captive bred at the Jurong Bird Park, while the other was a rescued male.

In a surprise turn of events, they were joined by a fourth wild hornbill.

Dr Minerva Bonco-Nuqui, Curator, Avian, Jurong Bird Park, said: "Our female is a little bit playful. Because (instead) of joining her partner, she joined instantly the other wild male here in Pulau Ubin. So that means they are welcome!"

The birds had been given a thorough check-up just two days before.

In March, NParks rangers rescued three abandoned hornbill eggs from Pulau Ubin, which later hatched at the Jurong Bird Park.

It made the Jurong Bird Park the first in the world to successfully incubate and hatch Oriental Pied Hornbill eggs.

While the chicks stayed on, these three adults are taking their place at Pulau Ubin.

Mr Wong Tuan Wah, Director of Conservation at NParks, said: "These three birds have coloured rings on them, and our rangers and staff will be watching out for them, to monitor their movements over at least the next one year or so."

There are an estimated 100 of these majestic birds in all of Singapore today, and NParks says they have room to grow in numbers.

The hornbill population is doing very well in Singapore," said Mr Wong.

"We did not detect any adverse impact, so we feel the population can still grow," he added.

- CNA/de