Women for Conservation

Protecting Hornbills and Building a New Coalition of Women Conservationists in Malaysia

Rhinoceros Hornbills utilizing an artificial nesting box. Photo by SANJITPAAL SINGH / JITSPICS.COM©.

Living within the degraded rainforest of Malaysia’s Kinabatangan region can be found eight species of hornbill, including the Vulnerable Rhinoceros and Great Hornbills and the Critically Endangered Helmeted Hornbill. Increasingly threatened by human-caused habitat destruction and poaching, the survival of these magnificent birds will be largely determined by effective conservation intervention. Dr. Ravinder Kaur recognized this need in 2006 and has been working to protect hornbills in Malaysia since. 

Hornbills are cavity nesting birds that depend on other species, like woodpeckers and sun bears, to create hollows high in trees in which they can safely protect their eggs and raise their young. To help sustain hornbill populations, Kaur and her team have worked to design man-made nesting boxes with the hope of encouraging these birds to breed in the wild.

Kaur’s team has learned much in their careful observation of the different species of hornbills in Malaysia over the years, collecting a wealth of data to inform their conservation efforts. As a research ecologist, Kaur remains on the cutting edge of science, which allows her to incorporate new information as she discovers it. Kaur’s innovations and improvements upon early nesting box designs led to the first ever known pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills to raise chicks in an artificial nesting box. She says, “When we put up artificial nest boxes for hornbills with our partner NGO HUTAN/KOCP and the local community and then see hornbills using our nest boxes, or even just visiting them, it gives me tremendous joy…I feel the fire in me burn brighter and I am compelled to do more for these animals.” Kaur’s encouraging success with the hornbills in Kinabatangan and her dedication to protecting these species leave no doubt that her career will yield even more benefits for struggling wildlife populations in Malaysia. 

Though Covid-19 has presented unique and unprecedented financial challenges for conservationists, Kaur continues to forge ahead in her work to protect imperiled wildlife. She was recently awarded the Terrestrial Conservation Leadership Award from the Marsh Christian Trust, an important source of support for her team during a time when funding for conservation has been scarce. In Kaur’s opinion, the pandemic has made clear the need to take action to protect our natural world, save species, and prevent habitat destruction. Fueled by this belief and her passion for protecting the charismatic birds of Kinabatangan, she plans to do just that.

Dr. Ravinder Kaur (second from right) and her team working in the field. Photo by SANJITPAAL SINGH / JITSPICS.COM©.

Kaur is now embarking on a new project to launch a coalition of women working in conservation in Malaysia. Founding members of the group will include pangolin expert Elisa Panjang, otter expert Leona Wai, and elephant researcher Dr. Farina Othman, who inspired Kaur to pursue this project. Kaur hopes that other women working in conservation in Malaysia will join the coalition over time. She says, “When we meet and talk, we realize we are facing similar challenges; securing long term funding and trying to change human behaviors. We realize we need a support group, as it helps us keep strong on our respective paths.”

As an early project, the coalition is seeking funds to publish a book with stories about each of the female conservationists in the group “to empower young girls by sharing our stories from the field.” Women for Conservation is especially excited about the coalition’s work, because we know from firsthand experience that empowering women to become environmental stewards results in incredible outcomes. Providing women with networking opportunities, support, and inspiration to engage with the difficult environmental issues facing the world today may be just the solution needed to protect ecosystems and our global biodiversity for future generations. By uniting women in efforts to conserve habitat and protect species, Kaur and her new coalition will help weave a safety net for the rich biodiversity of Malaysia while illuminating new pathways for girls to become involved in conservation and follow in their footsteps.

Header image: Hornbills in flight. Photo by SANJITPAAL SINGH / JITSPICS.COM©

Article by Lizzie Rose, Communications and Outreach Volunteer