Biologist receives top honours for his exemplary commitment to the natural world.
Few of us know it, but much of what we know today about swiftlets in Sabah and Sarawak is thanks to a member of the English nobility. Studying the biology and behaviour of the tiny birds which build edible nests has been the lifelong interest of British conservationist Dr Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, Fifth Earl of Cranbrook.
But that is not all that this chartered biologist is passionate about. For over 50 years, Lord Cranbrook has been a global leader in the fields of mammalogy, ornithology and zooarchaeology (the study of faunal remains). He has helped pioneer wildlife research in Malaysia, Indonesia and Britain, along the way raising awareness on biodiversity and ecology. At age 81 today, he is far from calling it a day and continues to participate in field studies and programmes advocating wildlife conservation.
For his exemplary commitment to the natural world, particularly for supporting conservation efforts here, he has been presented with the 2014 Merdeka Award for Outstanding Contribution To The People of Malaysia – a category presented to foreigners in recognition of their outstanding work for the country.
“I was pleasantly surprised by this award, it’s been an absolute thrill,” says Cranbrook, who was born into a farming family in the countryside of Suffolk County, an upbringing which instilled in him a love for nature. He is a descendant of the first Earl of Cranbrook, a prominent politician who was Secretary of State for India in 1878.
Intrigued by swiftlets
Cranbrook started investigating into swiftlets in Niah Cave while employed at the Sarawak Museum in the mid-1950s where he was responsible for tasks such as sorting out bird specimens and proofreading catalogues. He also sorted out animal bones and remains from archaeological excavations and introduced systematic identification.
He went on to pursue his PhD at University of Birmingham in 1958 and completed his post-doctorate on swiftlets in two years – “quicker than anyone has ever done,” he says, chuckling – mainly because he already had two years of research data from Sarawak. He became a post-doctoral fellow in Indonesia for two years before returning to Malaysia to lecture at Universiti Malaya, from 1961 to 1970.
He is credited with helping to establish the university’s field study centre in Gombak, Selangor. Located on 120ha of forest that teems with well-documented flora and fauna, the centre is still used by both local and foreign researchers for their field work and ecological studies. Cranbrook has also organised numerous scientific expeditions – such as to Gunung Benom, Pahang in 1967 and to Gunung Lawit, Terengganu, in 1974 – jointly with the Museum of Natural History.
In 2005, he received the Panglima Negara Bintang Sarawak (Honorary) which carries the title “Datuk Seri”. And just last week, WWF International presented him with the 2014 Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Award for his outstanding service to the environment.
His other publications are: Mammals of Borneo (1965), The Wild Mammals of Malaya and Singapore (1969), Mammals of South-East Asia (1987), Belalong: A Tropical Rainforest (with D.S. Edwards, 1994) and Wonders of Nature in South-East Asia (1997).
When he first learnt about swiftlets, he found them to be mysterious as there was confusion over what birds they were. He was the first person to prove that they navigate by echolocation (using reflected sounds to locate places or move in the dark).
“I often wondered how these birds, which live inside caves in pitch darkness, find their way to nests which they have built. There are these ‘click click, click click’ sounds when they are flying. So I did various experiments. The first one was in a dark room. By turning off the lights, they started clicking instantly, but when I turned the lights on again, they stopped clicking. It led to the conclusion that they are silent when they use their eyes, and will echolocate by way of clicking when they can’t see. At that time, echolocation was only being discovered, and I got to know Prof (Donald) Griffin from the US who had pioneered investigation of echolocation in bats.”
Cranbrook says that in the past, there were only wild cave swiftlets but now, there are semi-domesticated ones reared in “swiftlet houses”. He plans to work out the origins of these house-farmed birds.
“As far as we can tell from the genetics, there are two species (which build the more expensive white nests) that have been domesticated, in Thailand and in Java. Both species seem to have amalgamated in the middle and produced an almost separate breed, which is what I’m trying to ascertain. It’s a thrilling moment in biology where we are seeing the first new domestication of swiftlets as a result of human interaction with the species. Humans are responding to these birds when they build beams and ceilings to gather the nests and the birds are responding (to humans) in return. And because the wild species is the origin and source of this domestication, there’s a pressing need to preserve those in caves for genetic studies.”
Cranbrook lights up at the prospect of using the prize grant of RM500,000 on a research of his choice.
“I should like to use some of the funds to carry out observations on the impact of swiftlets upon swallows and vice-versa in Bentong town in central Pahang. During the 1960s, together with my students from Universiti Malaya, we had recorded visits of migratory swallows in Bentong and Raub.
“They had come from the north by the hundreds and thousands and would make a mess on people’s cars. In those days, there were no swiftlet houses in Bentong, but it’s a new situation now where we have swiftlets feeding in the sky. So it begs the question of whether swiftlets are competing with swallows for food.
“We are talking about an ancient migration system whereby swallows come down from China, Japan and Korea to winter in Malaysia. But if the food resources of these wintering swallows are being taken in excess by swiftlets, what is the ecological impact? This is why I’m very pleased to have funds available for a re-investigation into Bentong.”
He also intends to use the grant for research into the cave swiftlets of Sabah. In 1983, Charles M. Francis had surveyed all birds’ nest caves in the state. Cranbrook reckons 30 years is long enough for an update.
“The 1983 survey gave detailed accounts of the different ways the communities were harvesting the nests … some by families, some by contracts, some in which the whole village came together. Each family owned a different corner of the cave.” He says that in Sarawak, with the exception of Niah Caves where plenty of surveys have been made, the caves are less well-known.
“If you give me any bone with both ends on, I can tell you what (bone) it is, though I can’t tell you what animal it came from until I have done my research,” declares Cranbrook, who likens zooarchaeology to a jigsaw puzzle. “The bones in our body are replicated in the bones of every other mammal. For instance, we have seven bones on our neck and the same goes for the rat or the giraffe.”
There is no mistaking Cranbrook’s depth of grasp on zooarchaeology, a discipline that has been ingrained in him from early on. He used to carry bones in his pockets – just in case he spots something that can help him identify the fragments. He once carried around a part of a hornbill casque (the growth on the upper bill), not knowing what it was, until he spotted the stuffed bird in a museum. He had also carried bones of a tapir and a giant pangolin which was already extinct about 50,000 years ago.
“By looking at skeletons, we have been able to demonstrate that there were tigers roaming in Borneo. How else can you explain the bone of a tiger in a cave if it wasn’t from the very tiger that was killed and buried there? We can also show that tapirs were previously in Borneo because of its distinctive toe bone. Today, they have become extinct there and I hope to reintroduce them in Sabah, which has big wildlife reserves. Historic records show that there was mention of the tapir (in Sabah) up till 1974, in a last sighting at Ulu Segama. When I visited Sungai Dusun (tapir conservation centre in Selangor) two years ago, I was told that there were 1,000 in the peninsula and seven of them get hit by vehicles on the road every year. The displaced ones are rescued but there isn’t a future for them to be restored to the wild unlike in Sabah.”
Scrutiny on bones
Cranbrook also hopes to promote archaeology in Sarawak as a lot of fossil specimens retrieved from Niah Cave have still not been properly sorted and studied.
“We need the right person with the right interest to continue on, because frankly, you have to be a little bit mad to enjoy this old-fashioned business of looking at bones. So those with a degree (in zooarchaeology) pursue a molecular biology career instead, because anyone who has chosen to follow this route is not considered smart science, is it? But zooarchaeology really is an exciting process,” enthuses Cranbrook, who has, since 1960, remained as Sarawak Museum’s honorary curator of mammals.
He also co-wrote the first environmental management plan for Mulu National Park in the late 1970s, following a joint expedition between the Royal Geographical Society and Sarawak Forestry Department. He recalls how he discovered the mountain giant rat – the species’ only record in Sarawak – during the trip. “It was a nasty encounter as this animal leaped on me twice at night while I was camping. I had to hit it which killed it. It was a sad sight when I saw it in the morning,” Cranbrook says of the long-tailed rat that elsewhere, is only found in the montane areas of Sabah. He also received the Society’s Founder Gold Medal in 1995 for his work “that encourages and promotes geographical science and discovery”.
In 1989, he led a 10-man delegation from the International Tropical Timber Organisation to study whether logging practices complied with Sarawak’s management plan (following criticisms by anti-tropical timber logging groups). The report became a policy-setting document for Sarawak’s forestry management.
Cranbrook has also distinguished himself as a strong voice in civil society. He was a parliamentarian, assuming the family’s heritage line of seat in the British House of Lords, the sixth generation in his family to ascend to the position. However, after he had served in Parliament for 21 years, the Labour Government in 1999 under Prime Minister Tony Blair removed the rights of inherited seats.
“The government was opposed to the hereditary principle, that I shouldn’t be in Parliament just because it was a family seat. I think I was quite useful during my time, where I was three times chairman of the environment committee. It was quite hard work that took up two days a week and there were no monetary rewards … simply because Lords don’t get paid. But it was very exciting as I got to investigate all sorts of interesting subjects and debate on different reports.
“I had also introduced various bills, and the 1981 Wildlife Act was one of the important series of acts which I had participated in. What was also interesting was me trying to work on the interface sans politics, and you could see politicians closing their minds when it came to scientific subjects,” quips Cranbrook, whose past posts include chairman of the Nature Conservative Council for England, chairman of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, trustee of the Museum of Natural History, and continues to be president of the Suffolk Wildlife County Trust.