Conservation news

In Borneo, building a nest box — and a future for conservation (commentary)

  • Every day, tourists to lodges along the Kinabatangan River catch glimpses of Borneo’s “Big Five”: orangutan, proboscis monkey, pygmy elephant, rhinoceros hornbill, and estuarine crocodile.
  • I wish I could tell you this reflected their thriving populations. In fact, the narrow strips of land that abut the river are the last remaining forest patches in the area, loosely protected from expanding palm oil plantations. There is nowhere else for the animals to go.
  • It was with mixed emotions that I visited the river in July, hoping to see the Big Five for myself. While I didn’t see them all, I did get to witness something even more inspiring: a team of rising conservation leaders that has been working tirelessly and with abundant creativity to create more space for these amazing animals.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Every day, tourists to lodges along the Kinabatangan River catch glimpses of Borneo’s “Big Five”: orangutan, proboscis monkey, pygmy elephant, rhinoceros hornbill, and estuarine crocodile.

I wish I could tell you this reflected their thriving populations. In fact, the narrow strips of land that abut the river are the last remaining forest patches in the area, loosely protected from expanding palm oil plantations. There is nowhere else for the animals to go.

It was with mixed emotions that I visited the river in July, hoping to see the Big Five for myself. While I didn’t see them all, I did get to witness something even more inspiring: a team of rising conservation leaders that has been working tirelessly and with abundant creativity to create more space for these amazing animals.

For 35 years, the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) has offered seed funding, training, and networking support to hundreds of teams of conservationists all over the world. The core team for the group I visited in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo are a trio of CLP alumni conserving hornbills. Ravinder Kaur brings the scientific expertise. I’ve gotten to know her through my role managing parts of the program for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

Ravin’s partners include her husband, Sanjitpaal Singh, and Helson Hassan. Amidi Majinun recently joined them. Sanjit provides the photos and videos that capture public attention. The team shares responsibility for monitoring hornbill nests eight hours a day, six days a week. They track what and when hornbills eat, how long the male spends at the nest cavity (where the female and chick are almost completely encased), when the chick hatches and fledges, and more.

Rhinoceros hornbill and nest box. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/jitspics.com.

This data is collected in silence in cramped, hot, and humid conditions. Mosquitoes are everywhere. The team knows the work is hard but the larger purpose of this data drives all four of them. As the team builds the scientific foundation for hornbill conservation, they also learn what hornbills need to survive. There are eight species of hornbill in Kinabatangan, six of which are considered vulnerable to extinction.

When they are not making short-term trips to Borneo, Ravin and Sanjit work from Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. They are ingenious fundraisers and take advantage of any opportunity, no matter the size. They’ve developed a local bar drink for which a percentage of sales goes to their research and conservation efforts. It seems, no matter the situation, the team’s approach is “Sure, just try.”

When Ravin learned I would be visiting their field site, she immediately asked Helson, who lives in the area, to meet me and my colleagues. Ravin was eager to share work on the construction and installation of artificial nest boxes for hornbills. This effort is important since there is a shortage of natural nest cavities suitable for large-bodied hornbills.

The artificial nest boxes are the brainchild of this hornbill team working together with HUTAN-KOCP (Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project), the Chester Zoo, ZooParc de Beauval, and the Phoenix Zoo. In 2013, HUTAN-KOCP piloted a set of artificial nest boxes, which, after four years, attracted their first pair of Rhinoceros hornbills; in July 2017 a pair successfully fledged a chick! This was the first ever wild pair of Rhinoceros hornbills to nest in an artificial nest box

Eddie Ahmad and Sudirman from HUTAN/KOCP placing a nest box in the tree. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/jitspics.com.

With funding from CLP in 2017, the team set out to design and pilot a new nest box that would attract diverse nesting pairs faster. The trick is to mimic the temperature and humidity conditions of a real tree cavity. Lacking formal training, Helson drew inspiration for the box design from his father, a fisherman whom he had helped build boats. In the end, the team’s box weighed 180 pounds (about 82 kilograms). It was lifted 20 meters (about 66 feet) and secured to a tree.

I am pleased to report that five of these boxes were installed and are being visited by four hornbill species! Hornbills aren’t the only ones to visit the boxes — three of them were taken over by other species, including the red giant gliding squirrel, civet, and stingless bees.

Looking to the future, the team intends to re-wild forest fragments. Helson showed us the modest nursery the team set up in his backyard, where they are growing trees that hornbills favor. While this team recognizes the challenge, their just-try attitude prevails. Since my visit this summer, the team has grown 270 seedlings that have already been transferred to the forest through HUTAN’s reforestation team. These trees will eventually provide important food for hornbills.

A new, five-year commitment to the Conservation Leadership Programme from Arcadia — a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin — will help hundreds more conservationists across the globe work to conserve the natural world. The work of Ravin, Sanjit, Helson, Amidi, and the rest of their team demonstrates powerfully what this initiative can accomplish and the obstacles it has inspired young leaders to overcome.

Rhinoceros hornbill chick fledged from nest box in 2019. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/jitspics.com.

Christina Imrich is a program manager with the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). CLP is a partnership between WCS, Fauna & Flora International, and BirdLife International. Learn more about this hornbill team at http://xploregaia.com/ and contact them at info@xploregaia.com.