Kenyir’s hornbills invaluable for ecosystem conservation

The presence of a large hornbill population in Kenyir Lake, according to expert, is an indicator of their habitat’s healthy ecosystem


WALKING on the tarred road under the lush forest canopy near Pengkalan Lawit, not far from the Kenyir Lake, we were startled when some of the branches on the huge tree behind us started shaking vigorously, followed by the sound of flapping wings.

We turned back to see what the “commotion” was all about and caught a glimpse of a black coloured bird whose wingspan was as wide as an adult’s outstretched arms. Within five seconds, it disappeared from our sight.

“That bird,” pointed out Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) lecturer Wong Chee Ho, “is the Black hornbill. We’re lucky we got to see it this morning.”

This writer was among a group of Bernama journalists and cameramen who were recently invited to UMT to cover their ongoing research efforts in the Kenyir Lake area.

While the 38,000ha Kenyir Lake — South-East Asia’s largest manmade lake — is well-known for its scenic beauty and hydroelectric power generation capacity, the value of the 171,199ha of pristine rainforests that surround the massive waterbody is lesser-known. The truth is, the area is a biodiversity treasure trove.

Having realised the importance of preserving Terengganu’s natural heritage, UMT — whose campus is located in Kuala Nerus — has chosen the Lake Kenyir area as a focal point of its research work.

The university has set up a basic field research station at Pengkalan Lawit for the use of researchers based at its Centre of Excellence. In the vicinity of this station, a new building has been erected which, when fully completed, will serve as UMT’s permanent facility for research purposes.

The new station will be equipped with research laboratories, lecture halls and even comfortable lodgings for the use of the scientists and students.

Ongoing on-site studies include collecting data on the myriads of birds, trees, predators, reptiles and amphibians found in this area.

Nine Hornbill Species
Wong, who is attached to UMT’s Department of Fundamental Studies and Entrepreneurship at the Centre for Fundamental and Continuing Education, said the forests surrounding the Kenyir Lake is home to nine out of the 10 hornbill species found in Malaysia.

Hornbills are categorised as an ‘umbrella’ species, which is expected to confer protection to a large number of naturally co-occurring species

“The probability of seeing all nine species on the same day is very high in this part (of the country). Hornbill populations are hard to identify (and enumerate), and it’s even more difficult to come across their nests,” he said.

Besides the Black hornbill, other species found in the Kenyir Lake area are the Rhinoceros hornbill, Great hornbill, Oriental Pied hornbill, Wreathed hornbill, Bushy Crested hornbill, White-Crowned hornbill, Helmeted hornbill and Wrinkled hornbill.

The only species not found here is the Plain Pouched hornbill. The presence of a large hornbill population in Kenyir Lake, according to Wong, is an indicator of their habitat’s healthy ecosystem.

Hornbills are categorised as an “umbrella” species, which is defined as a species whose conservation is expected to confer protection to a large number of naturally co-occurring species.

“If you come across large numbers of this particular bird, it means that the area’s ecosystem is healthy and still has the capacity to accommodate (other species of) wildlife,” Wong said.

This is why any forest endowed with an umbrella species, such as the hornbill or tiger, should be declared as a protected area to safeguard it from human encroachment.

Keystone Species
However, Wong said, the umbrella species alone is not responsible for conserving wildlife. Pointing to a nearby pokok ara (a ficus tree species), the researcher said the tree is categorised as a keystone species which plays an equally important role in the conservation of ecosystems.

“The ara tree may not look attractive, but it bears fruit all year round and is an important source of food for birds and small mammals which, as per the jungle food chain, serve as food for predators,” he said.

Hence, the chopping down of keystone species can cause ecosystems to collapse and deprive wildlife of food sources. In scientific terms, he explained, the carrying capacity (the maximum number of organisms of a particular species that can be supported indefinitely in a given environment) of the forest will slowly decline and eventually perish.

“When this happens, we will see huge tracts of forest, but with no more animals left as they would have all ‘migrated’ to other areas in search of food.”

The hornbill, meanwhile, is unique as it is not only considered an umbrella species, but is also a keystone species because it disperses seeds throughout the forest.

Dr Nurulhuda Zakaria, a senior lecturer at UMT’s Faculty of Science and Marine Environment, said her team has successfully recorded 18 reptile and 16 amphibian species in the area surrounding the Kenyir Lake since January 2018.

“Several of these species are found to have near-critical status and are recorded in the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). With our data in hand, we can propose to the authorities to protect their habitats,” she said.

Nurulhuda said if no observations are carried out on the habitats of species mentioned in IUCN’s red list, their populations may shrink further, pushing them into the endangered list.

One particular recorded species, whose numbers in the Hulu Terengganu area have dwindled over the last two years, is the Giant Asian River Frog, which is sought after by humans for its meat.

Other species whose populations are also declining due to human interference is the reticulated python and water monitor lizard. — Bernama