In Borneo, building a nest box — and a future for conservation

By Christina Imrich


This blog has been adapted from a version originally published on the Mongabay website, which can be found here.


The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Borneo is a regenerating forest, home to eight species of hornbills including populations of the Critically Endangered helmeted hornbills and Near Threatened rhinoceros hornbills. The loss of suitable natural cavities for these hole-nesting, large-bodied birds is one of the key reasons for their decline. Luckily, a team of CLP alumni has intervened to provide a safe home for these extraordinary birds using artificial nest boxes. In a recent trip to the area, I had the privilege of seeing the team at work—and what an eye-opening experience it would turn out to be!

Rhinoceros hornbill chick fledged from nest box in 2019. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/


Every day, tourists to lodges along the Kinabatangan River catch glimpses of Borneo’s “Big Five”: orangutan, proboscis monkey, pygmy elephant, rhinoceros hornbill, and estuarine crocodile.

I wish I could tell you this reflected their thriving populations. In fact, the narrow strips of land that abut the river are the last remaining forest patches in the area, loosely protected from expanding palm oil plantations. There is nowhere else for the animals to go.

It was with mixed emotions that I visited the river in July 2019, hoping to see the Big Five for myself. While I didn’t see them all, I did get to witness something even more inspiring: a team of rising conservation leaders that has worked tirelessly and with abundant creativity to create more space for these amazing animals.

The core team for the group I visited in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo are a trio of CLP alumni working to conserve hornbills. The team was originally granted a Future Conservationist Award in 2017 to help improve breeding opportunities for hornbills. Along with support from the Sabah Wildlife Department and Sabah Forestry Department in Malaysia, the team used the CLP grant to design nest boxes that mimic the natural nest cavities that these birds need for breeding.

Team leader Ravinder Kaur brings the scientific expertise. I’ve gotten to know her through my role managing parts of the program for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Ravin’s partners include her husband, Sanjitpaal Singh, and Helson Hassan. Amidi Majinun also recently joined the team. Sanjit provides the photos and videos that capture public attention.


In front: Sanjitpaal Singh (left) and Ravinder Kaur (right). At the back: Amidi Majinun (left) and Helson Hassan (right). Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/


Building the foundations for hornbill conservation

The team shares responsibility for monitoring hornbill nests eight hours a day, six days a week. They track what and when the hornbills eat, how long the male spends at the nest cavity (where the female and chick are almost completely encased), when the chick hatches and fledges, and more.

This data is collected in silence in cramped, hot, and humid conditions. Mosquitoes are everywhere. The team knows the work is hard but the larger purpose of this data drives all four of them. As the team builds the scientific foundation for hornbill conservation, they also learn what hornbills need to survive. This is critical considering that six of the eight species of hornbill found in Kinabatangan are considered vulnerable to extinction.

When they are not making short-term trips to Borneo, Ravin and Sanjit work from Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. They are ingenious fundraisers and take advantage of any opportunity, no matter the size. They’ve developed a local bar drink for which a percentage of sales goes to their research and conservation efforts. It seems, no matter the situation, the team’s approach is “Sure, just try.”

When Ravin learned I would be visiting their field site, she immediately asked Helson, who lives in the area, to meet me and my colleagues. The team was eager to share their work on the construction and installation of artificial nest boxes for hornbills.


Eddie Ahmad and Sudirman from HUTAN/KOCP placing a nest box in the tree. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/


Building a safe home for hornbills

The artificial nest boxes are the brainchild of this hornbill team working together with HUTAN-KOCP (Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project), the Chester Zoo, ZooParc de Beauval, and the Phoenix Zoo. In 2013, HUTAN-KOCP piloted a set of artificial nest boxes, which, after four years, attracted their first pair of rhinoceros hornbills; in July 2017 a pair successfully fledged a chick! This was the first ever wild pair of rhinoceros hornbills to nest in an artificial nest box.

With the 2017 CLP funding, the team were able to design nest boxes that would attract diverse nesting pairs faster. The trick is to mimic the temperature and humidity conditions of a real tree cavity. Lacking formal training, Helson drew inspiration for the box design from his father, a fisherman whom he had helped build boats. In the end, the team’s box weighed 180 pounds (about 82 kilograms). It was lifted 20 meters (about 66 feet) and secured to a tree.

I am pleased to report that five of these boxes were installed and are being visited by four hornbill species! Hornbills aren’t the only ones to visit the boxes — three of them were taken over by other species, including the red giant gliding squirrel, civet, and stingless bees.


Rhinoceros hornbill and nest box. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/


Future re-wilding of forest fragments

Looking to the future, the team intends to re-wild forest fragments. Helson showed us the modest nursery the team set up in his backyard, where they are growing trees that hornbills favor. While this team recognizes the challenge, their ‘just-try’ attitude prevails. Since my visit this summer, the team has grown 270 seedlings that have already been transferred to the forest through HUTAN’s reforestation team. These trees will eventually provide important food for hornbills.

A new five-year commitment to the Conservation Leadership Programme from Arcadia — a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin — will help hundreds more conservationists across the globe work to conserve the natural world. The work of Ravin, Sanjit, Helson, Amidi, and the rest of their team demonstrates powerfully what this initiative can accomplish and the obstacles it has inspired young leaders to overcome.


About the author

Christina is a Program Manager based at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York. She joined the CLP team in April 2011 and is committed to developing connections between people and the environment. She has a Master’s in Environmental Studies and a BA in Biology.


Voices of rare ‘talking’ turtles may prevent their extinction

Turtles breeding & Camila © Camila Ferrara

Camila Ferrara is an aquatic turtle specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Brazil Programme. Here she tells us about her ground-breaking work to conserve Brazil’s most threatened river turtles.

Years ago in the Brazilian Amazon, I was exposed to an unexpected but prevalent philosophy for how humans viewed animals. To the indigenous riverine people I encountered, an animal’s primary purpose was for food. Many of these people had never considered that such animals could become extinct. This perspective both scared and motivated me.

I made the decision to move to Manaus in the Amazon and have since devoted myself to working with science colleagues and local communities to conserve wildlife, especially turtles. Since the time of the Portuguese Empire, Amazonian turtles have been an important source of protein in the Amazon, but due to the uncontrolled consumption of their eggs and meat, turtles are now among the most threatened animals in the region.

Turtles that “talk”

Studying the reproductive behaviour and sexual selection of red-headed Amazon River turtles (Podocnemis erythrocephala), one of the five most endangered species in the Amazon, fuelled my interest in these species and I began research on the acoustic communication of giant South American River turtles (Podocnemis expansa).

During this study, my colleagues and I found that these aquatic turtles use several different kinds of vocal communication. After two years collecting 2,122 vocalizations we realized the turtles were using sounds to coordinate social behaviours, including female turtles calling to newly hatched offspring. Such communication begins as early as the turtles’ embryonic stage, about 36 hours before the babies leave their eggs. This discovery led to a second, as this is the first time scientists have identified post-hatchling parental care in turtles.

We also discovered that hatchlings call to synchronize their births as well to their mothers, and adults call to synchronize reproductive behaviour when migrating to common nesting and feeding areas. We are now developing a growing body of evidence that suggests that sound is essential for this species to exchange information.

Hatchlings © Camila Ferrara

Can river turtles be saved?

These new findings are supporting and strengthening conservation models for the river turtles, now considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Since 2013, I have worked for WCS Brazil as an aquatic wildlife ecologist with an emphasis on saving the Podocnemididae family of turtles. This family is not only native to northern South America but also Madagascar. It includes the giant South American River turtle, the red-headed Amazon River turtle, the yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle, the six-tubercled Amazon turtle and the big-headed side neck turtle, the most commercialized species in the Amazon.

Amazon turtles are a major source of protein for riverine communities, but turtle dishes are also very popular in northern Brazil. There are now laws prohibiting people from eating turtles but demand has not ceased, particularly in big cities.

Preserving populations

Early in my work in the Amazon, I had the opportunity to develop a turtle conservation project in the Unini River, a tributary of the Rio Negro in Brazil. The purpose of the project was to implement a conservation programme for freshwater turtles at breeding sites. The project was funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) and I received their support to help develop my project and undergo training in Beijing, China.

In addition to studying the Rio Negro turtles, I worked with youngsters in the region to teach them about the importance of conservation. Five years after completing the project, people still remember and understand the unique role of turtles in their environment. Recently CLP also supported me again with a scientific writing course in São Paulo, Brazil.

Through turtle population monitoring, beach management and environmental education work in the Abufari Biological Reserve (located in the Purus River, another tributary of the Amazon) my colleagues and I at WCS are now helping protect the largest turtle reproduction area in the Amazonas. Incorporating an important waterway connecting the western Amazon to Manaus, the reserve hosts nearly 2,000 nesting females annually, a number that has remained steady in the last few years.

In several protected areas along the nearby Negro River, monitoring involves local residents as their involvement is essential to conservation. Working with all ages we educate people in these areas about the importance of biodiversity, building upon local traditions with the aim of shrinking the turtle trade.

I am just beginning my career as a conservationist and while it may take years, one day I hope to see the status of turtle populations in the Amazon move from declining to stable and hopefully, expand. To get there requires more than my work; the next generation of conservationists in the Amazon region will need inspiration to become more aware of the environment and to have respect for the myriad of species here. Without this, conservation cannot continue.

Turtles sunning © Camila Ferrara


Dreaming of prosperity and sustainability in the Himalayas

Malari tribal village in NDBR

After finishing his Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation, Conservation Leadership Programme Alumnus Pramod Kumar Yadav embarked on an enthusiastic career studying the biodiversity, topography and spirituality of the Himalayas. Here, he shares his experiences and reveals his delight at being granted a 2015 CLP Award…

The first time I visited the Himalayan Mountains was with my school friends for an educational expedition when I was 14 years old. Before then I had only read about the mountains, having been born and educated in the plains of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

This trip was the first time I got to experience the high mountains, deep gorges, beautiful valleys of the Himalayas and meet the people who lived there.

During this expedition, I pondered a lot about the education of the region’s children and about the livelihoods and prosperity of the mountain dwellers because I did not see any signs of agricultural fields, industry setup or educational infrastructure in those areas.

To me this seems strange, because I was born and spent my childhood in a village surrounded by vast agricultural lands without mountains and forests.

During my Master’s dissertation, I got an opportunity to work with the indigenous Garo community in the eastern part of the Indian Himalayan region. The people here live in poverty, relying on shifting cultivation (which gives little return) and a collection of forest products as the main livelihoods in an area that lacks basic facilities for education, health care, or most importantly any alternative avenues for income generation.

I believe it was these early experiences that brought me closer to the profession of conservation biology and inspired me to work for the prosperity and sustainability of the people and towards an eco-friendly Himalaya.

Caterpillar fungus

I started my professional career by exploring biodiversity, environmental issues and scarcity of local communities in the Indian central Himalayas in 2012. In July last year, I visited the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve with my colleagues Mr. Subhajit Saha and Dr Ashish K. Mishra (both are team members of the CLP project) to assess different environmental issues arising from several development projects in the area.

We met with the local communities and tried to assess the impact of the developments on both the people and the biodiversity of the Biosphere Reserve. It was during this assignment that we came to hear about another issue in the area: the harvesting and trade of the caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) locally known as Kira Jari, which is used as an aphrodisiac and to treat a range of health problems.

Collecting the fungus from its natural habitat is not an easy task. According to those we spoke to, some people climb to altitudes as high as 3,500 to 4,000 meters to obtain the rare fungus.

Much like gold, it is worth a lot, but the work required to obtain the Kira Jari is not for the meek.

But as one of our respondents asked us: “Why would I migrate to Delhi or Dehradun to work in hotels when I can earn in one season what I can make over there in two years?”

But there is a dark side to the fungus collection. In addition to having to brave harsh climates to find it, its rarity means that there are no guarantees that a collector will find anything substantial at all.

Some villagers return with nothing to show for their weeks of hardship in high altitude snow fields and many even fall ill as a result of the exertion.

Searching for the fungus involves lying on your front, elbows dug into the scree and snow, scouring the ground in front of you for nothing larger than the stalk of an apple. It is freezing cold and there is a howling wind, making your lungs ache. People often return to the village with snow-blindness, painful joints and breathing problems.

The business is also generating rivalries between collectors and the competition is often violent. Entire villages battle one another for the right to collect Kira Jari in certain areas. There are other risks too as although it is legal to collect the fungus, it is not legal to sell it.

Last year, after tireless efforts from all of our team in preparing an application, we were thrilled to receive an e-mail from the Conservation Leadership Programme to tell us that we had been awarded the funding we needed to start exploring the impacts of fungus harvesting activities on both the mountain communities and ecosystems.

My reaction to the news was, “Oh! Finally we made it!”

Our dream is for a sustainable and prosperous Himalaya and at last I felt like we were making progress towards this dream.

I have a very special place in my heart for the CLP award because it will provide us the first international platform to interact with other leading conservation professionals around the world, not to mention a huge boost in morale. We all are young natural resource professionals and this award will be immensely constructive towards our greater research goals.

They say that the greatness of India is a gift from the Himalayas. This is quite logical given the immense influence that the world’s greatest mountains have on everything from climate to culture that is Indian.

It is also a well-known fact that if we adversely change the ecology and the topography of these mountains, it might just trigger several disasters that could have the potential to change the demography of the region towards a catastrophic collapse. Phenomena like floods, droughts, changing river courses, the retreat of glaciers etc. have already been observed in the region.

Sustainability therefore, is paramount when we plan to exploit the natural resources of the Himalayas – to make sure that these remarkable mountains can continue to give its wonderful gift.

This post was originally posted on Fauna & Flora International‘s website.

Poop – a non-invasive key to flying fox DNA


Tammy Mildenstein tells of her team’s slightly unusual flying fox research technique.

Our team has recently discovered a new technique for learning about flying fox populations, and it is all about poop!

Bat Count Philippines has been working in the Philippines for more than eleven years on flying fox research and conservation (Pteropus vampyrus). In that time, the team has surveyed numerous bat roosts, generating important baseline data on the Philippines’ flying fox populations. The next step for effective conservation management is to learn how these populations are connected and interact with each other. In other words, what are the dynamics of the Philippines’ flying fox metapopulation?

Genetic tools are the obvious answer to metapopulation questions, but genetic samples often come from tissue, making this type of research invasive and often detrimental to sensitive species. Determined to find a way around this problem, our team has spent two years developing a method for getting flying fox genetic material without disturbing the bats: from their droppings.

Although genetics research labs have been using fecal samples to extract DNA for scores of species, many were skeptical whether the process would work for flying foxes. They noted that food passes quickly through the guts of these bats and the amount of any one feces is small, so the chance of finding sufficient intestinal cells seemed unlikely.

Our team decided that it was well worth a try. The team collected flying fox droppings under roost trees and sent them to our teammates at the University of Montana, where we have spent the past year tweaking fecal DNA-extraction kits to obtain and analyze flying fox DNA from the tiny splats. The result is a new protocol for collecting and extracting genetic material from flying fox feces.

The use of fruit bat feces as a source of genetic information is a big break through for our team and for international flying fox conservation. By getting DNA from bat droppings, researchers can study flying foxes and support conservation management without having to capture, handle or harm flying foxes. In addition to being completely non-invasive, fruit bat droppings are abundant, simple and inexpensive to collect, and much easier to get permits for than tissue. Our team is excited about how this new technique is going to open up the powerful toolbox of conservation genetics for the protective management of sensitive flying fox taxa throughout the Old World!