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.
For more information, visit xploregaia.com and jitspics.com
Behold, hornbills in TTDI