Malaysia: PhD student first Malaysian to get UK award for hornbill research

AIDA AHMAD The Star 28 Jun 17;

THE floor of the dense forest off the Kinabatangan River in Sabah is the playground for Ravinder Kaur, who maps her grid in search of natural cavities for hornbills among the thickets of the big trees.

She eats, sleeps and breathes hornbills, and for good reason too, as she and her team have just been honoured with the 2017 Future Conservationist Award by UK-based Conservation Leadership Programme, the only Malaysian to receive the award for 2017.

Her hornbill project is a long-term commitment towards building artificial nesting boxes for hornbills and studying the nest-hole crisis.

Her focus is now on Kinabatangan, in Sandakan, Sabah. It is a degraded forest, she said, as there was a lack of big trees, but it is also a regenerating forest.

“We find bigger species of hornbills living here,” she said, referring to the Rhinoceros and Helmeted Hornbills.

Helmeted Hornbills are heavily hunted in Indonesia for their solid keratin casques, worth four times more than an elephant’s tusks, while other hornbills have a hollow casque.

The illegal demand for this “red ivory” has the independent campaigning organisation Environmental Investigation Agency investigating it as a threat.

Together with her husband, multi-award-winning wildlife photographer Sanjitpaal Singh, Ravinder actively seeks out natural cavities in the trees.

So far, the ones they found could only accommodate the smaller species such as the Oriental Pied and Bushy Crested Hornbill.

In Kinabatangan, 27,000ha of the lower floodplain have been gazetted as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary since 2005.

“That is a great step but they are conserving a forest that is highly degraded because of intense logging.

“The patch of primary forest is only about 15,000ha.

“We have to do something. With the lack of natural cavities, building nest boxes is the best option,” Ravinder said.

Being secondary hole-nesters, hornbills do not create tree cavities. They are dependent on primary cavity-nesting birds such as woodpeckers or naturally occurring cavities for their breeding needs, she explained.

Ravinder and Sanjit have come to the conclusion that natural cavities don’t last long.

They are susceptible to issues such as the tree falling, the cavity floor caving in or the nesting hole closing up, in other words, when the tree heals itself.

“We restore these cavities and plan to look for unoccupied natural cavities to ‘renovate’ them to become hornbill suitable.

“It is not good if the entrance is too big, because Rhinoceros Hornbills prefer narrow, vertical entrances, which can also deter other creatures such as monitor lizards from going in,” Ravinder said, adding that the Helmeted Hornbill needs a specific, knob-shaped nest hole, often found in 50m high trees.

“Normal nests won’t work because its casque is solid, and it needs to perch on the protrusion,” she said.

In 2013, five artificial nest boxes, courtesy of French non-governmental organisation HUTAN, as well as Chester Zoo and Beauval Zoo from the UK and France, respectively, were set up along the river in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve.

They were made from plastic drums coated with cement, inspired by the ones in zoos overseas and Ravinder took on the task to monitor them.

She said they saw four species of hornbills visiting the boxes, and one female Oriental Pied tried to seal itself in by using mud on the entrance. Wasps also took over one of the holes and there were problems of other creatures crowding the space.

“The camera trap facing the box entrance was pushed up by monkeys so we have no idea the outcome of that, or whether the nesting was successful,” said Sanjit.

Unfortunately, the drums were not suitable for the birds as the interior temperature was too hot at more than 35°C.

“From the photos, it’s like the hornbills are saying ‘we are interested but they are not suitable. Work harder’,” Ravinder laughed.

Their next attempt was to build an artificial nest box made from marine wood with the local community in Sukau, attached with camera traps with motion sensors and data loggers to monitor the microclimate conditions.

Last month, the two new boxes were placed 20m above the ground in trees with the help of volunteers.

In natural cavities, the temperature is pleasant and “hornbill-suitable”, ranging between 25°C to 27°C, all day.

With the thicker and heavier nest boxes that weigh up to 100kg each, they provide a better climate for the hornbills as it offers protection from harsh sunlight.

Hard work it is, but Ravinder’s conservation battle goes hand-in-hand with her PhD thesis, of which some chapters include building nesting boxes for hornbills and monitoring their natural cavities and nesting behaviour.

So far, there have not been any systematic studies done to estimate the population of hornbills in Malaysia.

Some of the findings from the river surveys are also flawed.

“If you go around the river looking for hornbills, some species may be more common than others, such as the Oriental Pied Hornbill, which prefers the edge of the jungle.

“We could be missing species that prefer the interior. We need better population estimates and not just boat surveys.”

“In Kinabatangan, you may not be able to see any Helmeted Hornbills between 7am and 9am.

“We went out at 5am and we saw four of the birds,” Ravinder said, adding that the eight hornbill species in Borneo all have different biological behaviours,” Ravinder said.

The only Malaysian representing Asia at the recent international congress on Plants and Knowledge organised by French non-governmental organisation Plante et Planete, Sanjit presented his point of view as a photographer showcasing Malaysia’s natural heritage, and how research and art go together.

Of course, observing how the nest cavities change over time can only be done through photographs.

“I do this not so much for monetary gains but to help Ravinder and as my contribution to science and conservation,” Sanjit said.

He considers himself as the awareness arm of his wife’s hornbill project, to which Ravinder gladly agreed.

“Great photos appeal to potential funders as well,” she said.

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Behold, hornbills in TTDI
VIJENTHI NAIR The Star 28 Jun 17;

WHO would have thought a bustling city such as Kuala Lumpur could be a natural habitat for hornbills.

A pair of oriental pied hornbills have been roosting in Taman Rimba Kiara, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, for at least a decade now.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) president Henry Goh, who is also a birdwatcher, said the hornbills were among 42 bird species found in the park.

“Back then, there was an unlikely pair of hornbills – an oriental pied and a black hornbill.

“Although they were of two different species, both got along very well and park goers often spotted the birds foraging for food together.

“The black hornbill went missing some years back and, shortly after, another oriental pied hornbill appeared.

“So, there is a pair of oriental pied hornbills in the park now, ” he said.

Goh said it was not uncommon to find these species in lowland forests such as Taman Rimba Kiara.

“Malaysia is home to 10 species of hornbills. These species can also be found in Taman Botani Shah Alam in Selangor, Taman Negara in Pahang, Belum-Temenggor in Perak and Tasik Kenyir in Terengganu, among others.

“However, what makes the sighting in Taman Rimba Kiara special is the fact that this park is smack in the middle of a bustling city.

“The hornbills used to roost overnight on a tree near a Hindu temple.

“In recent times, it will visit the park at different times of the day.

“Residents have reported seeing it in and around Taman Tun Dr Ismail.

“Its presence at any one location is unpredictable but from the past record of sightings, the park has the highest potential of getting a glimpse of it.

“It takes a lot of patience and may take two or more trips to spot the birds,” he said.

Goh said these hornbills were highly likely to have been displaced from Taman Botani Shah Alam, which has a number of oriental pied, black and rhinoceros hornbills.

“There was a fire in Taman Botani Shah Alam in the mid-1990s and it is highly likely for big birds to have flown out of the forest to escape the fire and ended up here. I think that was how these hornbills ended up here.

“Although there are not many fig trees, which the hornbills love, Taman Rimba Kiara has many mature green trees including fruit, berry and seed-bearing species, which serve as a food source for the many residents, as well as seasonal migratory birds.

“In the wild, the birds also prey on insects, small reptiles and anything they can find. This may have been the reason they decided to make the park their home.

“Sadly, both the oriental pied hornbills have white eyes, which means they are females.

“The most distinctive feature on a hornbill to determine its gender is its eyes – males have red eyes and females have white eyes.

“So, it explains why the adult hornbills have not bred. Chances for these birds to find a mate is also very slim in this forest.

“Having said that, I believe the black hornbill last spotted a few years ago was a male but there is no record of the two species of hornbills interbreeding in a natural setting,” he said, adding that hornbills can live between 30 and 35 years.

Hornbill conservationist Ravinder Kaur said it was also not unusual to spot a couple of the oriental pied and bushy-crested in secondary forests such as Taman Rimba Kiara and Taman Rimba Ampang.

“But because of rapid development, they are rarely seen nowadays. There are a few big trees for them to nest, roost and fewer food sources such as fig trees. They also need large areas to forage,” she said.

Another avid birdwatcher and Taman Rimba Kiara nature blogger Roselyn Chuah, 58, who lives very close to Taman Rimba Kiara, said she too regularly spotted the two oriental pied hornbills.

“They do fly towards the Taman Tun Dr Ismail side. Sometimes, you can hear them but you cannot see them. There used to be another Black Hornbill too but it has not been seen for a couple of years now.

“I live at the edge of the park and I do get a lot of bird sightings as the park is practically my backyard,” she said.

Long-time TTDI resident Amy J Delph, 45, said she first saw a hornbill at the night market last year.

“I was walking along Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad 2 when I saw people pointing to a tree.

“When I looked up, I saw a hornbill perched on top of a tree.

“I was pleasantly surprised by its presence as I have never seen one, although I have lived here for more than 15 years.

“It was not very big but the distinctive features such as the long beak, black feathers and white chest made it stand out.

“Everyone at the night market was in awe at the sight of the bird.

“After that incident, I never saw the bird again until March this year.

“I was with my children in Taman Bukit Kiara for a scouting activity when I heard a bird call. I knew it was no ordinary bird by the loud sound.

“Moments later, I saw it fly past above us,” she said.

A post on the hornbill sighting by Goh on Facebook garnered about 4,000 likes with many making their way to the park in hopes of spotting it.

One of them was another long-time Taman Tun Dr Ismail resident C.K. Chan.

“Like many people in the neighbourhood, I too was surprised by the sighting of the hornbill.

“My wife and I regularly walk near Taman Rimba Kiara but never saw it.

“Maybe I need to be more alert to its calls and bring a binoculars with me just in case.

“The news definitely raised my interest in looking out for the birds every time I walk near the park,” he said.

Melaka residents surprised to see hornbills
Kelly Koh New Straits Times 28 Jun 17;

Melaka: The recent sighting of three hornbills in the coastal housing estate of Ujong Pasir has bewildered residents here.

The birds, believed to be Oriental pied hornbills, were spotted a week ago by a resident in Taman Aman.

“I spotted the birds roosting on the roof of my terrace house and was quite surprised as they were hornbills,” a resident known as Tan, in her 40s, said at her home near here.

She said the birds later flew off and she thought that was the last she would see of them.

However, on Monday, Tan said the birds were spotted perched on the branches of a Neem tree in front of her home.

“I have never seen hornbills in the wild in Melaka before and wonder how they ended up here,” she added.

Danny Soon, 54, a Klang resident who was visiting his in-laws here, was also surprised to see the birds.

“I have been coming to Ujong Pasir for the last 30 years and this is the first time I have seen hornbills,” he said.

The New Straits Times went to visit the neighbourhood yesterday but the birds were nowhere in sight.

The hornbills were recorded in a 20-second video clip while on the Neem tree in the housing area.

The birds were black and white with large, light-coloured beaks, which fit the description of the Oriental pied hornbills.

This hornbill species can be found in habitats such as broad-leaved evergreen forests, mixed deciduous forests, and island forests.

This species is found in northern India, eastern Nepal, southern China, Myanmar, southern Thailand, Indochina, Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, Java and Bali.