It's a sunny day in Perak’s Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex as the boat piloted by Roslan Carang, 49, gently skims the emerald green waters of Temenggor Lake. Seated in the bow is Yeap Chin Aik, 46, occasionally bringing a pair of binoculars to his eyes, scanning the multihued semi-deciduous forest surrounding the lake for signs of life.
Rich in flora and fauna biodiversity, the 339,143ha forest complex — 4.6 times the size of Singapore — is recognised as the largest Important Bird and Biodiversity Area in the northern part of the peninsula, and is part of the vitally important Central Forest Spine.
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Roslan, an Indigenous Jahai from Kampung Chuweh in Gerik, Perak, and Yeap, is a conservation biologist hailing from Butterworth, Penang, are involved in the Malaysian Nature Society’s (MNS) Hornbill Conservation Project, which is now in its 18th year.
The MNS has been using hornbills as the flagship series to promote and advocate for good forest governance in Belum-Temenggor, be it in a protected area of Royal Belum State Park or in the surrounding forest reserves of Amanjaya, Gerik, Banding and Temenggor.
Roslan also roped in his brother Azam, 41, son Dedi, 23, and Temiar neighbour Marisan Pandak, 33, to join the hornbill project. Together with Noordin Asu, 32 and Mustapa Ramlee, 33, from Kampung Sungai Tiang in Royal Belum State Park, the six are collectively known as the MNS Orang Asli Hornbill Guardians.
The boat comes to a stop. Roslan and Yeap are about to begin their survey to check on how many hornbills there are in a controlled area when they both suddenly turn their heads eastwards. “That’s the call of the helmeted hornbill!” cries Yeap excitedly.
According to Yeap, the helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is Asia’s largest hornbill and despite its size — it’s the largest among the 10 hornbills that are found in Belum-Temenggor — it is very secretive.
“It is extremely hard to observe their lives in the wild and even harder to find its nests,” says Yeap, who is also a member of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Species Survival Commission Hornbill Specialist Group and Helmeted Hornbill Working Group.
The helmeted hornbill is critically endangered because it is hunted for its casque, a hard protrusion on its beak, that is carved into jewellery and ornaments prized by collectors.
In August 2021, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks of Peninsula Malaysia (Perhilitan) seized eight live hornbills at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport en route to international markets, including a baby helmeted hornbill, revealing a live trafficking trend in South-East Asia.
Yeap is not aware of any incidents of helmeted hornbills in Belum-Temenggor being poached, but the hornbill sleuths are always on high alert.
Speaking in Malay, Roslan suggests to Yeap they should track the bird whose call they heard. Restarting the boat’s engine, Roslan steers in the direction of the call. Minutes later, they see it in plain sight: not one helmeted hornbill but a pair, flying and then perching on a tree branch, looking like they are in search of a nest cavity. Yeap can hardly keep his excitement in check.
In the 18 years that MNS has been operating, observers have been able to find helmeted hornbill nests only in single digits, with only a single chick per nest.
"Every single nest is an important opportunity to uncover more of their lives, to understand more of their needs so that the information can be translated into conservation actions,” explains Yeap.
In the span of an hour, Yeap and Roslan find a new hornbill food tree, two pairs of helmeted hornbills, an endangered female black hornbill (Anthracoceros malayanus), a family of Oriental pied hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) and a few raptors.
“BTFC [Belum-Temenggor] is without doubt one of the most important sites in Malaysia for globally threatened hornbills and other wildlife,” says Yeap.
Farmers of the forests
When MNS first started working in the Belum-Temenggor landscape in 2004, there was a dearth of information on hornbills.
“We knew very little about where they nested, what kind of nest trees they used, what they ate during the breeding season and outside the breeding season,” recalls Yeap.
“There’s a folklore of our people, the Jahai, and the hornbills in this landscape,” adds Roslan, but sheepishly apologises that he can’t recall the details. But according to his traditional ecological knowledge, he says that one can’t live without the other.
“The Jahai and the Temiar communities live in the forest,” explains Roslan. “Protecting the hornbills is important for our future. For me if there’s no hornbill, no wildlife in the forests, what will become of the trees?”
Forests need hornbills because they consume fruit, dispersing the seeds of many trees which keep the forests healthy.
“It’s true the hornbills can bring seeds anywhere in the forest,” says Marisan, adding that the forest is important to the Orang Asli as a source of income — they sell non-timber forest products like seasonal tualang honey and rattan.
According to the calculations of Thai hornbill expert Dr Pilai Poonswad, one hornbill chick living to adulthood can plant 14,600 trees in its lifetime.
Nine out of 10 of Malaysia’s hornbill species also rely heavily on healthy primary forests for their long-term survival.
“If we humans disturb their nesting trees through logging, how can the hornbills breed again?” points out Marisan.
“Population numbers and breeding productivity in forests where they occur are important indicators,” says Yeap.
“The information can be channelled into forest and/or protected area management plans. The sleuths’ work is invaluable in developing better conservation strategies for hornbills in BTFC.”
Seeking clues to nest sites
Yeap trained his Orang Asli colleagues in conservation techniques, and in return the Orang Asli shared their traditional ecological knowledge with Yeap, for example locating trees with cavities suitable enough to be a nest site.
In total, until 2019, the sleuths have located 110 nests of nine hornbill species. Only the nest of the plain-pouched hornbill remains elusive. And last year, the hornbill sleuths found 77 new nests, the highest number so far compared with 20 nests in 2014.
“If I see the male or female hornbill, I will go look for trees in the vicinity,” says Noordin. “I can surely find it in two or three hours.”
“Last year, I found 10 nests of various species where I would usually find two nests,” adds Marisan happily.
A monetary token and a food basket are given in return for information on every active nest found by an Orang Asli.
Once nests of any hornbill species are found, the hornbill sleuths switch to surveillance mode.
“We watch the birds in their nest all day long, until the chick hatches, anywhere from 90 to 150 days,” says Mustapa.
Azam adds, “After the male hornbill has left the nest to look for food, we can talk but very softly.”
The job isn’t without its dangers: Just a few days ago in Royal Belum State Park, Mustapa and his friends had a close encounter with a panther. “We ran as fast as we could!” Mustapa laughs nervously.
Roslan remembers coming face to face with an Asian elephant many years ago.
“It’s not often, but this is what happens when you go and do a stake out during nest monitoring,” says Yeap. “Indirectly, you happen to be in these animals’ area.”
Up until now, the investigation showed that Belum-Temenggor supports 10 out of 32 Asian hornbills — including the endangered white-crowned hornbill (Berenicornis comatus) and wrinkled hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus corrugatus). It is the highest hornbill diversity per site globally.
The hornbill sleuths have successfully located and monitored over 100 hornbill nests in the landscape. As of 2019, 142 chicks have successfully fledged, including five helmeted hornbills.
“The most amazing thing for me is since I’ve started working with MNS on hornbill conservation I have seen fewer hornbills killed for food,” observes Mustapa. “Before, the Orang Asli would use blowpipes to hunt hornbills.”
According to Yeap, the discovery of the nests of several hornbill species are also landmark achievements — setting first or second records for Malaysia. Belum-Temenggor is currently the only site in Malaysia with such achievements.
Despite all this, though, “It is a constant struggle to keep the longest running hornbill conservation project in Malaysia operational,” says Yeap, adding that he has to find multiple donors every year.
“Now we know a little bit more about the hornbills and how they live in Belum-Temenggor,” says Yeap. “But there’s still so much that we have yet to uncover and so many other places within the vastness of Belum-Temenggor that we have not investigated.”
Safeguarding the Central Forest Spine ensures a future for hornbills, who in turn keep forests healthy for the Orang Asli’s livelihoods. The Jahai/Temiar Hornbill Guardians have also clearly shown that the Orang Asli can be defenders of Malaysian biodiversity.
Find out more about the work
The Orang Asli Hornbill Guardians will be meeting the public to share a firsthand account of building a shared future for the hornbills during their first photography exhibition in George Town in June. The Hep Ka-Wot Enggang Le-Wei (Forests, Hornbills & Honey) Photography Exhibition is on at the Hin Bus Depot. Exhibition Space from June 4 to 26. Admission is free. Visit pokokhutan.my/visit-exhibition for more information.
This feature article was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.