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Why birds are the answer to saving Malaysian forests

Often dressed in bright colours and with absurdly bulky bills, hornbills are remarkable-looking birds. But their value goes far beyond their aesthetics: they have become the key to saving some of Malaysia’s most precious forests.

By Yeap Chin Aik, Balu Perumal & Woo Chee Yoong

Hornbills are one of the most iconic bird families in Asia. Their range is enormous, extending across 19 countries from India in the west to the Solomon Islands in the east, but the centre of hornbill diversity lies in South-East Asia. Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam and the Philippines support the world’s highest diversity of hornbills per country, ranging from 10-13 species in each. Their large, curved bills may be what characterises the family and gives it its name, but all 32 Asian hornbill species share another important bond – they all depend upon forests. Although some species can adapt to human-modified landscapes such as orchards, agricultural lands and secondary forests, most are invariably linked with intact, old growth tropical forests. And that is where our challenge begins.

Tropical forest cover in Asia continues to decline, fuelled by logging (both legal and illegal) and the expansion of agriculture, primarily for oil palm. Consequently, forest habitats are becoming increasingly fragmented and degraded. In recent years, the poaching of Helmeted Hornbills, especially in Indonesia, has compounded the situation. There’s little surprise that now 71% of Asian hornbills are globally threatened.

Malaysia has ten species of hornbill – ten in Peninsular Malaysia, eight in East Malaysia. The future survival of these hornbills depends greatly on how we govern our forests, including the protected areas within them. At Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), we believe it is key to empower civil society – from local communities and indigenous peoples to the grassroots NGOs – to play a role in monitoring their forests. This community-based approach is integral to our involvement in the European Union-funded Asia-Pacific forest governance project*, led by BirdLife International.

But empowering such a broad spectrum of civil society can be a daunting and laborious task, and stakeholder involvement will always be influenced by levels of awareness, interests, commitment and capacity. In addition, the disparity between forest policies and processes in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak complicates the matter, because there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Yet, citizen science is becomingly increasingly important in biodiversity and natural resource use. Some of Malaysia’s newer national policies and programmes now actively encourage Malaysians to engage in citizen science. If by monitoring biodiversity and forests we can influence how our forests are treated, it is surely worth the effort.

Broadly, we use two approaches at MNS to monitor forests. One uses GIS tools (digital mapping of forest data), whilst the other uses a particular species as a surrogate, whereby conservation efforts of a representative species benefit the wider ecosystem. Birds have proven to be effective indicators of wider environmental health in many parts of the world. The Belum-Temengor Forest Complex (BTFC) in northern Peninsular Malaysia holds a special place in the history of MNS, and since our work began there in the 1990s, its conservation is one of our utmost priorities. Not only is it an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area and a Forest of Hope, it also holds the distinction of being one of only two sites in Malaysia to support all ten of the country’s hornbill species. This lends us an ideal opportunity to employ hornbills as surrogates to protect this precious site, since healthy hornbills depend upon healthy forests.

Generally, a healthy forest will provide adequate nesting and food resources, and this will be reflected in successful nesting seasons. So, in 2004, MNS began working closely with local indigenous peoples in BTFC to find and monitor nesting hornbills: a vital step in understanding their ecological and conservation needs. We trained a group of Hornbill Guardians from 8 different indigenous peoples with the necessary skills and knowledge to find and monitor hornbill nesting sites. At the same time, we have also learned from them, benefitting from the Hornbill Guardians’ intimate knowledge of the forests. Now, from January until August every year, MNS and its Hornbill Guardians survey parts of the BTFC to find new nests, check known nests and conduct detailed monitoring of certain species.

Fifteen years of hard work have narrowed the gaps in our knowledge of Malaysia’s ten hornbill species. As of 2019, we have located over 100 hornbill nests of nine species in BTFC and found that most of the hornbills that breed successfully produce chicks, and chick mortality rates seem to be low. As well as this, we have built up a database of the species of nest trees and food trees that hornbills rely on. This feat has yet to be replicated elsewhere in Malaysia.

Gathering this hornbill knowledge is not just crucial to protecting hornbills, but to conserving the whole of BTFC. Firstly, part of managing the protected area (Royal Belum State Park) within the landscape is monitoring its key biodiversity ‘assets’ and this helps to fulfil that requirement. But besides this, the information can be used to advocate for better forestry practices within BFTC’s Forest Reserves, by highlighting their high conservation value and proposing wildlife sanctuaries.

A recent anecdote demonstrates how hornbills can influence forestry decisions. In September 2019, several indigenous villagers were out collecting rattan when they found a Rhinoceros Hornbill nest in an active logging concession in Temengor Forest Reserve. This discovery was relayed to MNS, and we despatched our Hornbill Guardians to verify the information. There was indeed a nest tree which had been identified for logging, so MNS told the district forestry office of our investigation. Swift action by the district forestry office soon followed and thankfully, the nest tree was spared.

Using hornbills to improve Malaysia’s forest governance, policy and processes is still in its infancy stage. In South-East Asia, mammals such as tigers, elephants and lesser apes are more commonly used in advocating for protected areas and better forest management. But with almost all hornbill species and populations across South-East Asia under increasing pressure, there is a need to embed forest birds such as hornbills into forest governance processes. Time for hornbills to emerge from the shadows. For the health of Malaysian forests is dependent upon them.

*More about the project

TitleStrengthening non-state actor involvement in forest governance in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea
Lead Partner: BirdLife International
National Partners: Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Indonesia); Malaysian Nature Society (BirdLife Malaysia); Haribon Foundation (BirdLife in the Philippines); Tenkile Conservation Alliance (Papua New Guinea).
Training and Technical Partners: University of Papua New Guinea; Centre for International Development & Training
Funded by: European Union

The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of BirdLife International and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.