Opinion

The Hornbills are Falling: Conservation and Dispossession

On World Nature Conservation Day, SEI Postdoctoral Fellow June Rubis reflects on hornbills in peril in Malaysian Borneo and draws parallels to ongoing practices of coloniality experienced by local Indigenous peoples.

Two hornbill birds in treetops.
Pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros) in Borneo, Malaysia via Shutterstock, ID: 1921290794.

My home state of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo is known as the “Land of Hornbills” where eight out of 54 hornbills species of the world reside. The hornbill, alongside the similarly charismatic orang utan, is very much part of the state conservation psyche where the striking rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) is the state’s emblem. Hornbills also play an important cultural role in Dayak culture in shaping the landscape and through bird augury.

To understand hornbills as often described by species or by their local names as named by the Indigenous peoples, I first acknowledge the several demonyms to describe native peoples of Borneo. The Dayak are recognised as (mostly) non-Muslim native peoples of Borneo but is not the conclusive umbrella term for Indigenous peoples of Borneo. My father’s people, the Bidayuh, is another collective term within the Dayak grouping itself, to describe Indigenous minority groups located in southern Sarawak and northern West Kalimantan, who are linguistically diverse from each other, and that are culturally distinct from the more politically dominant native groups.

The complexity of Indigeneity in Borneo and the rest of Malaysia, and hornbills-in-peril, compels me to think about how different epistemic communities or logics would react or interpret the peril as such. That in turn is a cipher for the different ways of engaging or responding to what more-than-humans face in a time of environmental crisis.

Thinking about hornbills-in-peril is an opportunity to understand the different modes of responses or understandings, particularly from various Indigenous and local communities’ responses to acts of conservation or development. It also highlights the deeper complexity of the situation, reminding us that there are still human worlds, entangled with the more-than-humans.

Hornbills, the “farmers of the forest”1

I grew up in Sarawak in the 1980s and 1990s, the same decades when Borneo was experiencing massive deforestation on a rapid industrial scale. Prior to that, Borneo was covered with dense tropical and subtropical rainforests that were shaped by the Indigenous and local communities for centuries. Growing up in the margins of the city, less than two hours’ drive2 from my dad’s community, my recollection of seeing hornbills in flight was of black hornbill sightings in Santubong, about 35 kilometres north from Kuching. It was much later in life, when I started working as a field biologist that I was able to observe a variety of hornbill species elsewhere in Sarawak.

The ability to fly, however, is not limited to the bird world. I have clear childhood memories of seeing flying foxes flying from the nearby peat swamp forest reserve – once protected by law from development, then demolished for a commercial block since – at dusk, a sight I no longer saw after the late 1990s3. The growing absence of beings of flight (and otherwise) while new human infrastructures appeared in place of their habitat, are becoming embedded in many urban natives’ memories.

“Thinking about hornbills-in-peril is an opportunity to understand the different modes of responses or understandings, particularly from various Indigenous and local communities’ responses to acts of conservation or development. It also highlights the deeper complexity of the situation, reminding us that there are still human worlds, entangled with the more-than-humans.”


It is the early 2000s, and I am walking through the peat swamp forests of Samunsam4. I was sent to do a year’s fieldwork on my own, to count diurnal primates along the riverbanks and in line transects in the forests. This information was meant to feed into conservation management planning of the park, and overall documentation of proboscis monkeys and other diurnal primates in the sanctuary. This remains as one of the exhilarating times of my life, as I learnt how to identify primates by their shape and call, and also other animals including the hornbills.

Amongst the impenetrable sounds and sights of the humid forests, the relatively larger size of the hornbills, and their distinctive calls and sounds made them easier to spot. The beauty and dignity of the birds compels one to look closer and longer. As a field biologist, I learnt how to identify hornbills as species, by looking at their casques, calls and at times, the sound of the flight.

There is something distinctive about the flight of the hornbill that allows one to identify a hornbill as such before one sees it. The larger hornbills with their relatively wide wingspan, create a loud whooshing sound when they fly close to the treetops. Otherwise, hornbills are identified by biologists through their markings either in flight or stationary, and their calls.

“How we understand and talk about environmental degradation, rural population environmental impact (vs industrial impact) and ideas of ‘undisturbed nature’ continues to shape and influence conservation and policy debates.”

Hornbills are considered important to biologists for the various ecological roles they play in the rainforests. They travel vast areas and are important seed dispersers. Their ability to regurgitate seeds unharmed and having a long seed retention time5, would mean their absence would lead a change of forest composition6. Biologists also point towards to the intraspecific competition among hornbill species for tree cavities and interspecific competition through cavity occupation by other animals such as monitor lizards, king cobras and flying squirrels7. They point to the scarcity of distribution of nesting sites and how the distribution is not a matter of chance. Hornbills are bound to a specific type of environment that corresponds to their ecological needs. For example, a logged forest may offer adequate food resources for adult hornbills, but there are fewer suitable nest cavities as large mature trees are removed and young trees are left standing. Hornbills may still persist across fragmented landscapes, but in much smaller numbers.

Hornbills, to many biologists and conservationists, are considered among the most charismatic and fascinating birds because of their unique breeding habits and their striking anatomy of great casques that form curved, rhino-like horns on some species. Their elusiveness that creates difficulty with studying hornbills in the field, adds to the mystique. As relatively large, slow-breeding animals dependent on large tracts of undisturbed forests for survival, hornbills are seriously affected by habitat loss and degradation, and potentially from selective hunting.

The Sarawak Wildlife Master Plan, a government blueprint for management of wildlife and protected areas in Sarawak, states that Helmeted and Rhinoceros hornbills are becoming locally extinct in many parts of Sarawak, due largely to hunting8. Habitat loss and degradation due to forestry and other state policies are considered an inevitable part of the development process towards ‘modernity’9. How we understand and talk about environmental degradation, rural population environmental impact (vs industrial impact) and ideas of ‘undisturbed nature’ continues to shape and influence conservation and policy debates.

And perhaps it is a matter of understanding the on-going resistance and other alternative modes of existence, that the way home is revealed.

This article is an excerpt from June Rubis’s upcoming book.

References

1. Kinnaird, M. F., and Timothy G. O’Brien. The ecology and conservation of Asian hornbills: farmers of the forest. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

2. One can now reach the village in less than an hour as new straight roads were built to replace the windy roads that hugged the landscape of what used to be part of the hills.

3. The late 1990s was when large-scale air pollution appeared due to massive burning in Borneo for oil palm plantations, and have since stayed in Southeast Asia in present day.  

4. A designated wildlife sanctuary for the largest population of proboscis monkeys in Sarawak.

5. Kitamura, S. 2011. “Frugivory and seed dispersal by hornbills (Bucerotidae) in tropical forests”. Acta Oecologica, 37 no. 6, 531-541.

6. Kinnaird & O’Brien. 2007.

7. Poonswad, Pilai, Chumpol Sukkasem, Somnoi Phataramata, Sumsuding Hayeemuida, Kamol Plongmai, Phitaya Chuailua, Preeda Thiensongrusame, and Narong Jirawatkavi. 2005. “Comparison of cavity modification and community involvement as strategies for hornbill conservation in Thailand”. Biological Conservation 122, no. 3: 385-393.

8. Sarawak Forestry Department and Wildlife Conservation Society. 1996. Sarawak Wildlife Master Plan.

9. Modernity as a ‘normative ideal and concept’, including a movement from agrarian-based society to market economy and capitalism, industraliation, secularization, urbanization and creation of a nation-state, representative democracy among others’ (see Foucault, 1977, 170-177).


Dr June Rubis began her career as a conservation biologist and has twelve years in hands-on wildlife conservation fieldwork in both Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo. In the last few years of practical work prior to her entry in graduate school, she started working on Indigenous land rights issues in collaboration with Indigenous activists in Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah), and more broadly, participatory democracy with urban youth.

She has carried out research on Bidayuh ritual revitalization, under the guidance of her Bidayuh father and relatives, linking the revitalization with environmental change in her home state of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Her recent PhD research examined a decolonial Indigenous approach to orangutan conservation in Sarawak. Much of her approach to her work follows the teachings of her late Bidayuh father, who in the last couple of decades, followed his grandparents’ journey as a traditional Bidayuh priest and priestess. She holds both an MSc in Environmental Change and Management and a DPhil (PhD) in Geography & Environment, from the University of Oxford.

June Rubis is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute.