It takes a school, and a community, to save this rare Philippine hornbill

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  • The rufous-headed hornbill, known locally as dulungan, is a critically endangered bird found only on the Philippine islands of Panay and Negros.
  • The species is threatened by poaching and habitat loss, but a grassroots conservation campaign over the past decade has sought to put the community in Panay front and center of efforts to save the bird.
  • The campaign has focused on schools; by raising awareness and understanding of the species among children, conservationists hope the message ripples out through the community.
  • Researchers have also emphasized the need to further studies into the dulungan, given how little is known about it, including its flight range and the fruit species it prefers to eat.

The school bell rings for recess and as the students prepare to leave their rooms, a screeching bird call blares through the rooms and hallways of Sebaste National High School, a public school in the province of Antique in the Visayas region of the Philippines.

It initially caught them off guard, says Joenas Tunguia, one of the teachers behind the unusual announcement. The sound, followed by a series of short spiels, forms part of a series of a school-based information campaign to raise awareness about the rufous-headed hornbill or Walden’s hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus waldeni), known locally as dulungan.

The rufous-headed hornbill is one of the 11 hornbill species endemic to the Philippines — and among the most threatened in the wild. It’s restricted to just two islands: Panay and neighboring Negros. Poaching of the live birds and their nests, combined with massive deforestation in what was once a logging hotspot, has placed the species in the critically endangered category of the IUCN Red List and under CITES Appendix II. For almost a decade, groups on the ground have cooked up various community-based interventions to save the species, including engaging the youth in more creative ways.

“The main goal of the radio announcements was to introduce students to the dulungan,” Tunguia says. He was among the teachers tapped by the Haribon Foundation, a conservation NGO, to become an “eco-guardian.” These are individuals trained by the foundation with the aim of passing their conservation knowledge to students and guiding them on hornbill conservation.

A female dulungan or rufous-headed hornbill. Image by David Quimpo / Haribon Foundation

Unlike other hornbill conservation efforts, Haribon’s “Species for Hope” program that started two years ago in Antique is focused on schools. Of the target audience of more than 800 students in the public high school, most “do not know the dulungan,” Tunguia says. This is a curious gap since the province has declared the bird its flagship species almost a decade ago. “Maybe it’s because we haven’t seen a dulungan here,” Tunguia says. “Actually, even for myself … I grew up not being aware of the dulungan so I’m not surprised if the students don’t have any idea on what the dulungan is and what it does for the environment.”

Recognizing the need to raise awareness about the species among the youth, Haribon encouraged students in the villages of Culasi and Sebaste to come up with information campaigns that will attract their peers. The proposals varied: some students played public service announcements over the school’s sound system during recess, while others mounted theater plays and held mural-painting sessions that depict the hornbill’s role as seed dispensers or “farmers of the forests.”

The campaign worked. After daily exposure to the bird’s notorious goat-like call, awareness peaked and students developed a unique fondness for the species when they found out it’s endemic to their province. “The students love the idea that the bird can only be found here in Antique,” he says. “That out of all the forests in the world, the rufous-headed hornbill only lives here. And because of that, they became very proud of the hornbill … they want to take care of it … They began to treasure the dulungan.”

A male hornbill delivering seeds to a hungry, waiting female burrowed inside a hollow tree nest in Sebaste. Image by David Quimpo / Haribon Foundation

“Dulungans are slow breeders,” Berhel Doria of the environment department’s wildlife management bureau, tells Mongabay, adding that hornbills have a unique habit of nesting in hollow trees, unlike other bird species. There were 752 active nest holes found in 2008 in Panay, leading to population estimates of 1,000 to 4,000 individual birds. It’s a wide range, Doria says, as it’s really hard to pin down the exact number of rufous-headed hornbills in the wild. London-based BirdLife International says the species might be “possibly extinct” in Negros, a prospect Doria agrees with, as there has been no recorded sighting of the bird in recent years in Negros, save for a few kept in captivity.

The breeding season is also the hornbill’s “weakest period,” says Ditto de Jesus of Haribon, as females become literal sitting ducks cooped inside their nests, and the males, who tend to fly around looking for seeds and insects, are exposed to poachers. Once the males are nabbed, the females are left without food providers as they nurse their young. This drove the hornbill mortality rate to as high as 52 percent in 2001.

But more than two decades of hornbill conservation on the island have yielded major accomplishments. PanayCon, the Panay Eco-social Conservation Project, which initiated the dulungan conservation program in 1998, developed and mounted artificial nests latched to native trees, in a bid to prevent the remaining breeding pairs from “competing for nest holes.”

Haribon’s team in a survey site. The group also trains locals in counting hornbills. Image courtesy of Haribon Foundation

The artificial nests, combined with community-based livelihood initiatives to veer locals away from hunting the birds, and a strengthening of the province’s anti-poaching and illegal logging crackdown, brought down the juvenile hornbill mortality rate to 5 percent in 2019, Doria says.

“Security was increased in the areas where there are identified nests,” Doria says. “[PanayCon] assigned rangers who conduct regular surveillance and confiscation of illegally traded species. In a way, this made people more aware of the presence of illegal activities in the area.”

Community efforts to protect the dulungan have also increased drastically. The province has “green guards,” says Mari Almeda from the wildlife management bureau. “They now have nest protectors that is not from the government and not from the environment department.” These include former poachers who have since “changed hearts and perspectives” and are now among the bird’s strongest protectors.

The rufous-headed hornbills, despite their loud calls, are the most elusive of hornbills. Conservationists trek and wait for hours just to catch a glimpse of the bird. As a result, the scientific literature on the species is scant, limited mostly to its ecology. Avian experts have yet to agree on the bird’s flight range, which could be wide enough just to cover Panay Island — or vastly greater, potentially allowing the bird to cross the Guimaras Strait and migrate to the island of Negros.

A male rufous-headed hornbill standing alert by a nest hole. Image by David Quimpo / Haribon Foundation

“Because we have no definite flight range, there’s a possibility to double count in some areas,” de Jesus says. “But at least we now know the elevation … and with the flying range estimate that we have, we know that if we protect the dulungan, which has a wider flying range, we are also protecting other threatened birds that [have a] smaller flying range.”

It was only last year that researchers were able to pin down the hornbills’ diet, specifically the kind of seeds it feasts on. For de Jesus, that helps researchers identify which trees to include in reforestation efforts. Haribon has identified 10 seeds so far. “We figured that if we plant the seedlings of these trees, maybe it will help these birds … and maybe, little by little, the numbers will improve,” de Jesus says.

Planting trees that cater to hornbills was a strategy adapted back in Sebaste, where Tunguia and his students conducted tree-planting activities within the school, at the municipal hall, and all the way to the village of Nauhon, the only area in Sebaste that has had sightings of the dulungan. He incorporated the activity in his physical education class for his 11th-grade students, and since 2017 has overseen more than 50 students planting more than 160 seedlings of lauan, a native hardwood under the genus Shorea that’s known collectively as Philippine mahogany.

“We got the lauan seedlings from the community environment and natural resources office,” Tunguia says. “We asked for permission in the community hall and they allowed us to plant the trees.” The school’s management also didn’t scrimp on support and allowed Tunguia and his students to create a “Kamp Likasan,” an education camp focusing not just on the hornbills but also on the other endemic species on the island. Two years on, the members are also eyeing the creation of a youth organization that focuses on dulungan conservation.

A “Biodiversity on Wheels” session where Nelle Godinez, a training specialist, shows children in the communities various endemic Philippine species, including the rafflesia. Image by Dionn Hubag / Haribon Foundation

“Once you start in the school, it goes beyond the community,” Tunguia says. “The school is part of a cell … if you enrich the students, they will eventually go home and go around … The information they know will eventually spread to the community.”

And go beyond the classroom walls it did. The municipality later issued an order that protects five Panay-endemic species: the critically endangered Visayan warty pig (Sus cebifrons); the endangered Philippine spotted deer (Rusa alfredi) and the Panay monitor lizard (Varanus mabitang); the third rafflesia parasitic plant discovered in the Philippines, Rafflesia speciosa; and, of course, the rufous-headed hornbill.

While the project is set to end this December, Tunguia says the school will be continuing it on the basis of its impact. “One time, my student told me a story about how her father caught a rufous-headed hornbill,” Tunguia says. “The father said he’ll kill the dulungan so they can eat it. Do you know what my student said? She said killing the hornbill is illegal because it’s critically endangered. With simple words, she saved the life [of] one hornbill. Even if it’s just one hornbill, it’s important. That’s the impact of a massive information dissemination campaign!”

Banner image of an adult male rufous-headed hornbill with a juvenile. Image by David Quimpo/Haribon Foundation

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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