SUKAU village offers a majestic view of the Kinabatangan river in Sandakan, Sabah.
At most hours of the day, there is a deafening silence but once in a while, it is broken by the clanking sounds of a tourist boat against the floating pontoons down the small jetty.
About five minutes away, Eddie Ahmad, the head of the Wildlife Survey & Patrol unit for French non-governmental organisation HUTAN based in Kinabatangan, drills camera traps on upright wooden planks facing a tree that houses a nest for Oriental Pied hornbills.
The camera traps are to monitor the birds’ nesting activities. Eddie is one of the HUTAN researchers who help Ravinder Kaur, her husband Sanjitpaal Singh and Helson Hassan, the winners of the 2017 Future Conservationist Award by UK-based Conservation Leadership Programme.
Ravinder and her team are working on the ongoing hornbill project, which commitment goes towards building artificial nesting boxes for hornbills and studying nest-hole crisis.
Their work is to complement Ravinder’s PhD thesis, of which some chapters include building nesting boxes for hornbills and monitoring their natural cavities and nesting behaviour.
HUTAN started the Orang-utan Conservation Project in Kinabatangan (KOCP) in collaboration with the Sabah Wildlife Department and established a conservation centre at a small village located in the Sukau Kinabatangan floodplain area, now known as the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
The 43-year-old Eddie who was born and bred in Sukau, located about 120km south of Sandakan Airport, knows every inch of the village and is sought after for his skills as a tree climber.
Eddie oversees HUTAN’s Wildlife Survey Protection Unit, which monitors endangered species such elephants, orang utans, carnivorous animals, and hornbills, specifically within the boundaries of Kinabatangan.
Eddie honed his skill as a tree climber in 2010 to help HUTAN with the KOCP.
But for the hornbills, he uses this to his advantage by climbing huge trees as high as 20m to seek out the hornbill natural cavities, to assess how to fix the data loggers and motion sensors cameras to gauge their nesting activities for the hornbill project.
He monitors the camera traps when Ravinder is in University Malaya working on her thesis, which makes him an expert bird watcher as well.
Ravinder not only relies on Eddie to retrieve important data for her study, but carpenter Helson who freelances for HUTAN as a field assistant to build artificial nest boxes.
Twenty-seven-year-old Helson is from Libaran village and is an expert in woodwork, so much so that he has built a boat and a house with his bare hands.
“It’s exciting to work on this project, because I love nature and bird watching,” Helson enthused.
The sprightly youth had no idea that hornbills were endangered until Eddie engaged him to help on the project.
It was in 2013, with the help of representatives from Chester Zoo in northern England, Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, United States, and Beauval Zoo in France when HUTAN pioneered the artificial nest box initiative.
They built five artificial nest boxes along the river in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
The boxes are made out of plastic drums coated with cement, inspired by the ones from Chester and Phoenix zoos.
Chester Zoo deputy curator of birds Mark Vercoe and Phoenix Zoo collection manager of birds Bryan MacAulay were in Sandakan for the second time to build more nest boxes, since the box that was placed in 2013 has been occupied by a wild pair of Rhinoceros hornbills.
This is the first ever record in the wild, and the Rhinoceros hornbills are back to nest again for the second year.
To-date, Ravinder and her team have made three more prototypes of artificial nest boxes, and have five more to build. It takes three to four days to construct one box.
The prototype box from Phoenix Zoo looks natural and is lightweight.
The 208-litre (55-gallon) drum is made out of locally sourced wood and hung on a Shorea tree outside the HUTAN office. It stands at 21m high.
Phoenix Zoo has had success in breeding the Rhinoceros hornbills through these prototype nest boxes, which MacAulay brought here for the project.
Like Phoenix Zoo, Chester Zoo houses hornbill species.
They spent a week in Sukau building the nest boxes, made to look like natural ones, where they apply epoxy resin and cocoa peat outside of the boxes.
“It makes a good surface for things to grow on it so it is natural looking,” said MacAulay.
Phoenix Zoo has supported HUTAN in its conservation projects for five years, while Chester Zoo has also been a partner for more than 15 years.
“We have had success in building enclosed boxes in the UK where we breed all kinds of hornbill species. There are 40 Rhinoceros hornbills in Europe,” said Vercoe.
At Beauval Zoo, located two and half hours from Paris, they manage a European Breeding programme for Rhinoceros hornbills. Its science, collection and conservation head Laure Pelletier and birds head zoo keeper Remy Figueira were also in Sukau to work on the nest boxes.
“We have supported HUTAN for a very long time. This project is very important for the future of hornbills,” says Pelletier.
HUTAN’s Dr Marc Ancrenaz, a wildlife veterinarian and PhD, says the hornbill population is affected because of massive deforestation, although some of the birds can live up to 40 to 60 years. Eight species are found in Kinabatangan.
“When the big trees are chopped down, it affects the hornbills.
“Conservation is hard work and these big trees provide the natural nest cavities. With the lack of natural cavities for breeding, we engaged the three zoos to tap into their expertise to help design the boxes,” says Dr Ancrenaz.
HUTAN’s main goal, he says, is finding ways for wildlife and people to live harmoniously. For details, visit xploregaia.com