[Letter to the Editor] The land of hornbills with no hornbills in the future

From top left to bottom right: Hornbill species found in Sarawak includes the Rhinoceros Hornbill, Helmeted Hornbill, Oriental Pied Hornbill and Black Hornbill.

Letter to the Editor

By Voon Yeu Nen and Aristarchus Ho

(Note: This was originally an article submitted to a biodiversity essay competition in Sarawak.)


Biodiversity is a term used to describe the enormous variety of life on Earth. It can be used more specifically to refer to all of the species in one region or ecosystem. Biodiversity refers to every living thing, including plants, bacteria, animals, and humans.

From countries to states, even to a small local living area, there would be their own unique ecosystem. It is presented to the world in different forms based on the different environmental conditions.

In this article, we will bring you deeper into the issues that we face with the biodiversity of my hometown, which is known as the ‘Land of Hornbills’, Sarawak. There are 10 species of hornbill in Malaysia and 8 of them can be found in Sarawak. In the Dayak community, hornbills are often seen as a sign of purity and strength. Some Bornean tribes believe that hornbills are the messenger of the spirit while others even sing songs likening men who went into battle to hornbills — ‘Lambai nu sangang’ which means ‘may our men be as warlike and swift as a hornbill’. They will often communicate with their ancestors through hornbills too.

We are now facing a critical issue which is the drastic decrease in the number of Helmeted Hornbills (Rhinoplax vigil) in Sarawak, the largest and one of the hornbill species which can only be found in the evergreen forests of Southeast Asia. It is clear that protecting these birds is not only necessary for the conservation of the species but also the preservation of the traditional cultures.

Local zoologist Jason Teo had warned that the survival of these hornbills is under threat due to years of poaching and the destruction of their natural habitat. The helmeted hornbills are killed by poachers who remove and sell their unique casques on the black market. According to a WWF report, due to its attractive golden-red colour, as well as being made of relatively soft keratin, the casque of the helmeted hornbill is sometimes used for ornaments and jewellery (Collar, 2015). From about 700 AD onwards, casques
were sent to China and later Japan for this purpose, often as gifts for royalty. By the 1950s, the trade appeared to have died out, after a steady decades-long decline in demand, and was made illegal in the 1970s.

But now, hornbill casque products are back in fashion as a status symbol for an increasingly affluent middle class in China (Lazarus, 2018), where the black market price for them can be five times higher than that of ivory (Collar, 2015).

“This is a serious issue because helmeted hornbills breed very slowly,” said Jason. The slow-breeding birds are particularly vulnerable to poaching because they mate for life. The male plays an important role in feeding the female and chicks, which means that when the male dies due to hunting, the whole family will starve. Meanwhile, logging activities across Southeast Asia are destroying the pristine forests helmeted hornbills need to survive.

“Hornbills play a significant role as “mobile link” species in the rainforest ecosystem,” according to hornbill-expert Shumpei Kitamura. They are herbivores, helping to disperse immobile fruit seeds throughout the rainforest so they can grow. These indigestible seeds will be discharged through faeces which are then decomposed by billions of fungi and bacteria, producing and recycling nutrients to create rich soil.

However, the rapid decline in the number of hornbills causes less seeds to be disseminated, which means less tropical trees can grow too. Trees, the producers in food chains, provide shelter and food source to the wide variety of species in the rainforests.

Undeniably, the entire rainforest ecosystem in Sarawak will be marred if there is a huge loss of tropical trees.

“Hornbills are important, not only as seed dispersers, but also in regeneration of ecosystems or even the whole biodiversity,” said Shumpei Kitamura.

Nowadays, people have sensed the seriousness of protecting this endangered species. Hence, efficient actions have been implemented to ensure the continuity of their survival. Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), a team of passionate and dedicated professionals
formed under the Sarawak Forestry Corporation Ordinance 1995, has contributed much to the biodiversity conservation in Sarawak for the past few years. One of their major devotions is supporting a newly launched helmeted hornbills conservation strategy with Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), which was organised by Asian Species Action Partnership (ASAP), Hornbill Research Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Birdlife International in 2017, and this plan was expected to be executed within the years of 2018 to 2027.

Through the cooperation and teamwork among such outstanding organisations, The Helmeted Hornbill Working Group was established, and
yet four aspects are clearly delivered as a guardian to rescue the life of helmeted hornbills, including increasing financial resources, eliminating trafficking and trade, habitat protection as well as community empowerment.

“We serve for the state to look after the heritage we have, not only for the current generation, but also for the future generation,” said Zokipli Mohamad Aton, CEO of Sarawak Forestry Corporation.

“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for—the whole thing—rather than just one or two stars,” said David Attenborough in the nature documentary “Our Planet”.

Sarawak, the Land of Hornbills, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, is no longer biodiverse due to human activities. The helmeted hornbills, the endemic and critically endangered birds in Sarawak, are not the victims crying under a falling tree. We, on the other hand, should be vigilant in tree-cutting lest we disrupt the habitats of the wildlife. Let’s work hand-in-hand, keeping our selfishness and arrogance at bay, to shape a better Sarawak, a better Land of Hornbills forever!

This is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of DayakDaily. Letters to the Editor may be lightly edited for clarity.

— DayakDaily