malaysian naturalist, june 2019
Hornbills are no exception in these threatening times. In 2004, only one out of 10 hornbill species in Malaysia was classified as threatened. Fast forward to 2019, seven more have joined the list. Yet, there could be hope, as a generation of para-biologists are being created and fostered within the Belum-Temengor forest landscape, and among the Orang Asli (indigenous peoples) community living under the same canopy.
Once the domain of mainly ecologists and conservationists, field (or ecological) surveys and researches are now embracing these new champions. Parabiologists are not “real” biologists in the professional sense, but are mainly indigenous peoples and local community members who are involved in protecting and monitoring any forms of biodiversity.
By doing so, they have documented and uncovered many species in their area. The Mro para-biologists were able to set up camera traps to survey and monitor biodiversity, monitor hunting and consumption of bush meat in their village, protect hornbills and act as community leaders. Their role in these activities are formally recognised through co-authoring of scientific papers (Dasgupta 2018).
Are para-biologists “recognised” or even encouraged in Malaysia? The answer lies within our National Policy on Biological Diversity 2016-2025 of which Target 2 of Goal 1 says “by 2025, the contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities, civil society and the private sector to the conservation and sustainable utilisation of biodiversity have increased significantly”. This explicit mention of “indigenous peoples and local communities” clearly shows our national policy supports not only their participation but also to “increase significantly”.
The Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) supports the national policy and its recommendations and this is demonstrated through its work alongside indigenous peoples and local communities in conserving some of our iconic fauna such as fireflies, Malayan sun bear, Malayan tiger and hornbills. The Belum-Temengor Forest Complex (BTFC) is one of Malaysia’s 55 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) and holds the distinction of having all 10 hornbill species within its landscape. Only two other sites in the world share this distinction.
BTFC and MNS are connected historically since the 1990s, when the Society organised the first scientific expeditions in the forest complex. These expeditions later catalysed the establishment of the MNS Hornbill Conservation Project (MNSHCP) in 2004. Fifteen years to date, the MNSHCP is still going strong, signalling MNS’s long-term commitment towards improving the conservation of BTFC and its hornbills. The MNSHCP owes much of its success and longevity to our para-biologists – our Jahai/Temiar MNS Hornbill Guardians.
Protecting hornbills by indigenous peoples and/or local communities is not new. This idea was pioneered by Dr. Pilai Poonswad and her team, who managed to persuade hornbill poachers in southern Thailand to turn over a new leaf and become hornbill nest protectors. Today, they “guard” more than 100 nests and at the same time monitor them to collect nesting data. Their efforts are rewarded financially through the Hornbill Nest Adoption Scheme.
In India’s Nagaland, the Naga tribe emulated this model under Dr. Aparajita Datta, successfully reducing hornbill hunting levels. A hornbill festival is also held annually to celebrate this bird, much like Raptor Watch in our own coastal forest of Tanjung Tuan, Melaka.
Closer to our shores, Rangkong Indonesia, an NGO dedicated to hornbill conservation, is attempting to engage the Dayak villagers in Kalimantan through “hornbill tourism” as an alternative to hornbill hunting. Collectively, these efforts would only bear fruit if engagement with the indigenous peoples or local communities are sustained, consistent and built upon trust.
Para-biologists are no longer just boatmen, porters or translators. Like the Mro para-biologists, the MNS Hornbill Guardians are also “co-authoring” hornbill reports, research papers and/or presentations from BTFC. This is an important step in recognising their vital contribution as indigenous peoples and elevating their status in conservation as MNS Hornbill Guardians.
Over a period of 14 years (2004-2018), the MNS Hornbill Guardians and other indigenous informants have located 110 nests of nine hornbill species (with the exception of the plain-pouched hornbill). Many of these nests have yet to be described for these species. For example, a wrinkled hornbill nest was first discovered in the 1970s in Peninsular Malaysia with no mention of nest tree dimensions. It wasn’t until three decades later, in 2018, that a nest was located.
Most of the recorded nests belong to the Oriental pied, rhinoceros and bushy-crested hornbills. This is not surprising, considering they are the most commonly encountered hornbill species in BTFC. Close (nest) monitoring of some hornbill species also showed us their preferred food resources during a crucial time of their lifecycle. Consistent annual monitoring of plain-pouched hornbills has given us deeper understanding on how these seasonal, long-distance flyers utilise the BTFC landscape and its population numbers. These long-term, consistent field efforts are invaluable in developing better conservation strategies for hornbills.
Developing indigenous peoples and local communities as para-biologists is gaining momentum globally in conserving sites and species, many of which desperately need local champions. Para-biologists know their “own backyards” best. Proper training in conservation skills and knowledge can only enhance their ancestral tracking skills, allowing these Orang Asli to be better equipped to tackle conservation challenges in their respective sites (or for specific species).
To recognise the para-biologists’ roles in protecting and/or conserving biodiversity, species action plans and national policies need to take cognisance and embed them as one of their strategies. For example, the regional Helmeted Hornbill Action Plan calls for more key sites to develop hornbill guardianship.
Species conservation is no longer confined to only researchers, politicians and policymakers. For wildlife to have a future, living in the midst of changing landscapes, we will need more local champions to “speak out” for them. Para-biologists fits the bill perfectly.