malaysian naturalist, january 2015
And it would surprise many, as it did these ladies, that Peninsular Malaysia is home to 10 species of hornbills: the plain-pouched hornbill, Oriental pied hornbill, black hornbill, bushy-crested hornbill, white-crowned hornbill, great hornbill, helmeted hornbill, rhinoceros hornbill, wreathed hornbill and wrinkled hornbill.
The focus of HVP is the plain-pouched hornbill, which is only found in Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar, and which is threatened at a global level by habitat loss and degradation, as well as hunting and poaching. In June this species flocks to Belum-Temengor from its northern habitat, flying home at the end of the year, and the programme each August and September monitors instances of flight or perching, which helps in studying its population. Since there is still much to know about this species’ biology, ecology and conservation needs, MNS is currently addressing this situation in partnership with the Thailand Hornbill Project team and Wildlife Conservation Society Myanmar Programme by monitoring the birds’ movement and locating their nesting sites to enable more detailed observations.
Shirley: The interns were briefed about HVP by MNS’s Head of Conservation, Balu Perumal, who encouraged us to join up for a session. Incidentally, the programme ran through our internship, so several of us signed up to be part of this interesting and meaningful conservation project.
The kick-off point was Pulau Banding, in Perak, several hours’ drive from the city, where we met our Field Camp Manager, Lim Kim Chye, before taking a boat to our “homestay” in Kampung Tebang, home to the Jahai and Temiar indigenous peoples. There we stayed in bamboo huts, with no WiFi, electricity, piped water or even fully enclosed bathrooms. I quite enjoyed it: I didn’t play on my smartphone as the connection was weak, and we chatted at night by candlelight, washed dishes and bathed using river water and learnt about indigenous cooking methods. Everything was back to nature.
Nurul Ain: Indeed, that was one of the hardest parts of my stay: No Candy Crush, as I had to conserve my phone battery. At the jetty, Lim told us to send all the messages that we needed to send and make all the calls we needed to make, as we were entering a place completely away from civilisation. Entering Kg. Tebang can be described as time travelling to Malaysia in her past life, with no shops and most of the villagers preferring to barter for goods. We saw this for ourselves when we arranged to have Toman fish for dinner; one of the villagers delivered it and just wanted fruits and eggs in exchange, completely rejecting our fresh-from-the-city bills.
The sounds “tak tak tak” accompanied us whenever we walked inside the house. To be honest, this was my first experience living in a bamboo house with bertam roof, and I felt really worried one night when it was buffeted by strong winds and pummeled by heavy rain. Amazingly, the house remained standing, and even kept us warm throughout the storm. It was the floor that gave me problems, as I could not sleep well owing to the curve of the bamboo, even with a mattress under my sleeping bag. How do the locals do it?
The routine of cleaning dishes in the lake was an experience too, with a basin-load of dishes carried to the water twice a day, and only during daylight hours, as the beam of torchlights or flicker from surrounding fireflies were not enough to keep us from the dangers of the nighttime jungle. And then there was the bathing, in the lake accompanied by various other people, or by carting water into a shower room, which was a walled area open to the sky. There was a risk of skin and health reactions to the water, so we had an option of putting in a few drops of purifier for peace of mind. Imagine all that trouble for a shower! I knew I would not look at my home shower, piped from a clean source, the same again.
Shirley: The hornbill observation was conducted twice daily, at 7am and 5.30pm, for two hours each time, at an elevated area just five minutes from the huts. On the first day, Lim briefed us on the call sounds and physical descriptions of the different hornbills, and it was interesting to learn that some male hornbills were prettier than the female. Then, armed with binoculars – and Lim with a telescope – we set to watching the skies and the trees. I was excited to see the hornbills, but felt disappointed when Lim told us that up to our visit, there had been no plain-pouched hornbill sighting, unlike in previous years. This he could not explain, saying, “I don’t know why, maybe they found enough food over there.”
There was our inexperience, of course, and then there was also haze, which set in on the second day. Honestly, I had low expectations of sighting the plain-pouched, and settled for seeing any type of hornbill. Added to that, we were overly excitable and making mistakes, but Lim was a patient teacher. “Hornbill! Hornbill! Over there!”, one of the volunteers shouted, pointing to a bird flying across the lake, to the calm comment from Lim: “No, that is not a hornbill, that’s a white-bellied sea eagle.” “What is that sound? Is that hornbill calling?”, another volunteer asked, and Lim’s answer: “No, that is a type of primate, the siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus).”
Finally, a shout of “Hornbill!” as a giant bird flew across the lake to the forest cover. It was a great hornbill, big and beautiful, and the first hornbill I had seen in my life. We also saw four black hornbills perched in trees, and in the days that followed, noticed more around us – the Oriental pied hornbill, rhinoceros hornbill and two large ones we could not identify. I liked the rhinoceros hornbills because they were huge, colourful and beautiful, and their calls were special. Usually when there are two such birds, one will make a “gok! gok!” sound, and the other will answer the same way, but when they start to fly, their calls are like the words “enggang! enggang”. The helmeted hornbill’s calls were also interesting, sounding just like human laughter. Unfortunately we just heard the calls and did not spot the birds.
Life in the wild
Shirley: Another activity during the programme was jungle trekking, accompanied by Yuso and Makao of the Jahai/Temiar tribes. Their guidance was invaluable, as it allowed us to see things that we would have missed: elephant and deer footprints, the sign of a tiger clawing the ground and bears climbing on trees to get honey, lantern bugs and various types of herbs and trees.
Lim told us that the number of trees was falling because of forest clearing and logging, and perhaps the population of birds would be reduced as a consequence. He explained that fig trees were very important as they provided the fruit that hornbills searched for, and their wanton destruction could contribute to the dearth of hornbill sightings in the future.
Nurul Ain: The one thing that really opened my eyes and mind was when one of the locals spoke about the forest being logged just beside their village. He said that their “property”, inherited from their ancestors, was being “raped”, with nothing being given to them in return.
I found this so disappointing, and felt a bit bitter that there were other parties so happy with all the money they made from clearing these jungles.
I truly believe that the indigenous peoples will lose their source of food and herbs, not to mention their homes, if logging, legal or otherwise, were allowed to continue unchecked.
What is really funny is that the loggers will clear huge swatches of jungle, but only keep the Tualang trees for timber. The rest are just discarded. Each tree has its own special advantage, or use, for people as well as animals, and keeps biodiversity on track.
Shirley: Unfortunately, the count of the plain-pouched hornbill remained zero until my last day as a volunteer [and also at the end of my stay in late September – Nurul Ain], and I fear for them, as they are already listed as Vulnerable, with losses to their habitat and being hunted for human decoration. My hope is that they return to our jungles, in greater numbers than before, and that I might see them some day.
That is the beauty of HVP, in trying to get more information about the species, and also to educate people about hornbills, and nature in general. I was happy that I managed to see the other species of hornbills, having not even known that my country hosted all those birds. I am glad that I had the chance to join HVP, because it was the most interesting event I had been a part of, and I learnt a lot from it.
Nurul Ain: The MNS Hornbill Volunteer Programme is an opportunity for the public to assist researchers in monitoring the plain-pouched hornbill, in an effort to save the species and its habitat. No matter your background, anyone can “be the voice of the hornbills of Belum-Temengor” – HVP’s tagline – by understanding the species and spreading the word on how hornbills are essential to a healthy forest.
Why do plain-pouched hornbills visit Belum-Temengor in the summer months? Is it for food? Is it to mate? There are still many questions, and volunteers play a big part in answering them with programmes such as HVP. I do not begrudge these beautiful creatures one moment looking at the skies or peering intently among the trees, as I consider those four days educational and time well spent for the love of nature.