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Dive into the adventures of Philovenny Pengiran, who studied one of the majestic bird species in the world - the hornbills - for her masters degree at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, before joining WWF-Malaysia. She joined WWF-Malaysia as a wildlife conservation officer based in Sarawak. Philovenny has always been fascinated by hornbills which are culturally important to Sarawakians as well as their ecological roles in the tropical rainforests. In conjunction with Love Hornbill Day which falls on 13 February, this young conservationist reminisces her first time successfully photographing a rhinoceros hornbill in the wild.
Hornbills are no stranger to the people of Sarawak. The rhinoceros hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros), locally known as kenyalang, in particular, is regarded as a bird of significant importance in Sarawak’s local cultures. It is also used as the state’s emblem.
To see a hornbill, especially in the wild, is an unforgettable experience for people in the conservation field. I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to study the distribution status and conservation awareness of all eight species of hornbills in western Sarawak during my study.
Unlike in Peninsular Malaysia which has 10 hornbill species, Sarawak or rather, the whole Borneo island has eight species only. The eight species are rhinoceros hornbill, helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), black hornbill (Anthracoceros malayanus), bushy-crested hornbill (Anorrhinus galeritus), white-crowned hornbill (Berenicornis comatus), wrinkled hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus corrugatus), wreathed hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus), and oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris). Thus, the great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) and plain-pouched hornbill (Rhyticeros subruficollis) do not occur in Borneo.
All hornbill species are totally protected birds under the Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998. Most hornbill species feed mainly on fruits, especially fig species and lipid-rich fruits. They are often referred to as “farmers of the forest'' as they play a vital role in the regeneration of our tropical rainforest by dispersing viable seeds of large fruiting trees.
Some hornbill species are omnivorous, which means they prey on smaller animals such as lizards, rodents, tree frogs and even some small bird species. More interestingly, their breeding ecology is considered unique, given their monogamous trait - meaning having one mate in life. It’s no wonder that Love Hornbills Day falls on the eve of Valentine’s Day.
Hornbills use tree cavities as their nests. As a female hornbill gets sealed up in their nest cavities to lay eggs, the male hornbill will take the responsibility of looking for food for its lifetime mate and even for their chicks after the eggs have hatched. This continues until after the hornbill chicks are ready to fledge.
From August 2018 to July 2019, I joined a rapid assessment on the distribution of hornbills in three certified natural forest management logging concessions in Kapit division in interior Sarawak.
During one of the surveys, I managed to capture pictures of a rhinoceros hornbill that was perching on a tree at a ridge. It was a really exciting moment for me as it was the first time for me to observe the species up close without using binoculars and taking some decent pictures of it using my simple digital point and shoot camera with super zoom function.
Since I started my study on hornbills in 2017, it was really challenging to actually have the hornbills captured on camera. This is because of the rough conditions of the terrains in my study sites coupled with thick tree canopies, and the elusive nature of these bird species. Most of the time, I could hear their calls more often than sighting them. Only experienced local guides have the knowledge on locating their whereabouts and nests.
I will always be grateful to have the opportunity to learn about these majestic birds. Being a native myself, it makes me appreciate these state-pride species of Sarawak more, knowing their strong relation with my own culture, from our carvings, traditional dance, motifs to even the celebration of Gawai Kenyalang. In the past, hornbill feathers and casques were used as decoratives in traditional costumes and headgears, which posed a direct threat to their survival. This is now substantially replaced by the use of synthetic feathers and casques given the increase in conservation awareness of these birds.
My hope for the hornbills in Sarawak is that viable populations of these birds can be maintained. It is essential for us to look at the larger picture of role and responsibility sharing by both ecological biologists and the general public, in improving the conservation efforts for hornbills.
I believe that apart from increasing research to infer ecological information of the hornbills, more awareness activities should be carried out through socio-cultural studies, especially with the local communities that have significant cultural relation with these species. This in turn would allow the sharing of important conservation messages and knowledge on hornbills. Happy Love Hornbills Day.