PETALING JAYA: In September 2019, a female helmeted hornbill named Halley went missing after having chicks in a tree cavity in Kundasang, Sabah, and was never seen again.
Her mate Max was left as a single father and had to raise and feed two chicks which caused the offspring to exit their cavity and live independently a month later.
As a result, the chicks lacked nutrition which stunted their development.
“She vanished without a trace. Knowing her behaviour, she’s very protective over her young ones. Every time she leaves the cavity, she would perch nearby the nest.
“I suspect that her disappearance had something to do with poachers,” said Dr Ravinder Kaur, scientific director of Explore Gaia, a social enterprise that conducts research and conservation work to help save endangered hornbills.
Around the time when Halley went missing, Dr Ravinder recalled that they were not alone in the forest.
“There was a lingering smell of cigarettes.
“While we were on their way to observe the chicks, a poacher fired a warning shot to her group to steer clear of their way,” she said in an interview.
Dr Ravinder said they then reported the matter to the local authorities but no one was caught.
“This is one of the hindrances the hornbills have to face in the forest, besides the lack of tree cavities to nest,” she added.
Hornbills, a unique species, nest in tree cavities that are formed naturally due to fungal infections or holes that were created by woodpeckers or sun bears.
They require a selected type of natural tree cavity to nest and reproduce and this is a hindrance to their population.
Realising this, Dr Ravinder and her husband Sanjitpaal Singh set up Explore Gaia in 2015 to conserve the hornbills as Malaysia is home to over 10 species.
The helmeted hornbill, which they are very keen to observe, is a critically endangered species and little is known about them.
“I remember going to the Companies Commission of Malaysia to register Explore Gaia. I was doubtful if I should do it but I’m glad l did.
“One of the biggest challenges was funding. Conservation was a hobby. We spent most of our time on conservation and doing this out of sheer passion,” she said.
When asked why she specifically chose hornbills, Dr Ravinder said it was hornbills that chose her.
“When I started out at the Malaysian Nature Society, I was assigned to a hornbill project.
“If it were up to me, I would have chosen frogs or orangutans. But the more I learnt about hornbills, the more I was fascinated by them.
“Hornbills are nature’s gardeners. They consume big seeds and regurgitate them, usually undamaged and deposit them far from the parent tree. They help grow more trees in the forest,” she said.
Currently, the team have been searching for natural nesting sites of endangered hornbills, monitoring and protecting active nests and innovating artificial nest boxes alongside Hutan, an NGO, based in Kinabatangan.
Explore Gaia and Hutan are the only entities providing nesting opportunities for endangered hornbills in Malaysia.
They spent around RM30,000 to install the latest nest boxes by hiring climbers, botanists and carpenters in Terengganu.
“In the beginning, we piggybacked these established NGO. We didn’t have much money but together, we could do more.
“Eventually, with collaborative efforts, more funders were willing to assist. That’s when in 2021, we got a big funding from Yayasan Sime Darby,” she said.
To date, over 30 artificial nests were built and installed in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve with the help of Chester Zoo and Beauval Zoo.
Dr Ravinder said six cavities of hornbills were restored through basic carpentry works which led to more breeding opportunities, including nine Oriental Pied Hornbill chicks fledging.
Not only Explore Gaia restore cavities, but they also list out food lists for forestation projects so that hornbills can find food in the forest.
“When we travel, we always find trees with cavities and lock down their locations.
“We are doing work not only in Sabah but in Datai, Langkawi and Terengganu. We have three sites now,” she said.
They also sell handmade key chains, pendants, earrings, bezels, paper weight, rings and colouring books on the hornbills of Malaysia.
“All of these are to support wildlife conservation and educate children on hornbills.
“To create a safe environment for the hornbills, we conduct talks, outreach campaigns with locals and activities with children so that they will see the type of hornbills and get excited about it,” she said.
For their noble efforts, Explore Gaia is recognised as one of the 10 winners of the Star Golden Hearts Award 2022 (SGHA) under the organisation (environment and wildlife) category.
SGHA is an annual award by The Star and Yayasan Gamuda that celebrates everyday Malaysian unsung heroes. For more details, visit sgha.com.my.