Turning poachers into guardians

Confronting the hostile and suspicious villagers, Pilai Poonswad was characteristically direct: "Your children will dig up your bones and curse them for what you have done to the forests," she told them. There was a tense heartbeat of silence as the assistant headman arose. "That is true," he said. "There are times when I’d like to curse my own parents for what they have done to the forest."

With these few, potent words spoken in February 1994, men who had been plundering the fast-vanishing rainforest of southern Thailand for its rich natural resources began their metamorphosis into forest wardens and ecotourism guides – and a model of social economy in which modern men and women live in harmony with ancient forests was born.

The hornbill: Forests vital for survival

Behind the miracle is a beautiful and regal bird, measuring 1.5 metres in length with a wingspan of 1.9 metres. Feathered in striking black and white and crowned with magnificent casques on their beaks, or feathered in russet, crimson and gold, hornbills are the quintessence of all that is rare, vital and mysterious in tropical forests from Africa to Asia. Their life is interwoven with the woodland which they help to regenerate by spreading seeds. When forests are fragmented, the hornbills too are lost. Thailand has 13 of Asia’s 31 species of hornbill; one may be almost extinct, five are endangered, four are near-threatened and three are vulnerable. A third of the forests in which hornbills dwell have fallen.

It is this combination of the hornbill’s natural beauty and fragility that led Pilai Poonswad into the Thai forests and helped her grasp the enormity of the destruction taking place. It is the hornbill that soars at the heart of the project for which she has been honoured as a Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

Poonswad can still vividly recall her first encounter with a hornbill in 1967 in Khao Yai National Park, near Bangkok. She suddenly heard a terrifying, rushing sound above her: "It was like a locomotive. I was quite scared. I thought it was a wild animal. I started to run like crazy." The powerful beating of the hornbill’s wings – accentuated by its lack of underwing feathers – can be heard a kilometre away. Poonswad mistook it for the snorting of an angry gaur (wild cattle). Her interest in hornbills blossomed 10 years later, when she was asked by her teacher and mentor, famed American ornithologist Dr Elliott McClure, to guide a BBC documentary team who wanted to film hornbills, also at Khao Yai. The search for the birds was frustrating: the jungle was hot and wet; Poonswad slept fitfully in a sleeping bag on the forest floor, was bitten by insects, ate clams she found in a forest stream – and the hornbills stubbornly refused to appear. Then a ranger reported an active nest. Poonswad headed out to it: arriving at first light, she heard the female, hidden inside the hollow of a tree, knocking. Fascinated, she froze as she watched the male great hornbill feed his imprisoned mate on forest fruits, through a tiny gap in the sealed tree trunk.

Hornbills’ vital role in the forest ecosystem

The unique breeding habits that caught her attention are crucial to their plight. Each hornbill pair seeks out a suitable hollow – 15 to 40 metres above the ground in the trunk or branch of a Neobalanocarpus, Dipterocarpus or Syzygium tree – in which to raise a single chick. When a suitable cavity is found, the female walls herself in, using mud supplied by her mate and regurgitated food, to hatch and rear her chick. The male feeds them for the next three months and, if he fails, both mother and chick may perish. The birds consume up to 80 different kinds of fruit, scattering the seeds over many hectares of forest. With other seed-distributing animals such as monkeys now scarce, the hornbill has become pivotal in maintaining the forest. But the birds rarely spread the seeds of the trees in which they nest: if these disappear, the hornbills too will vanish – and the trees and plants they help propagate will follow.

Today, the charismatic, unstoppable professor of biology is acknowledged as the world authority on Asian hornbills, has published prolifically on them and convened several international conferences. In 1994 she established the Hornbill Research Foundation to raise funds for their study and protection. Among conservationists she is honoured as the 'Great Mother of the Hornbills’. Says Anand Panyarachun, former prime minister of Thailand: "I greatly admire her perspectives in working for conservation in the long term and for ecology in general." Dr Timothy Laman, an ornithologist and academic at Harvard University, states simply: "I have never met an individual who has had so much impact on conservation in their country."

The challenges Pilai Poonswad has taken on to save hornbills have never been easy or safe: "At each research site, I encountered various hazards from being chased by elephants, coming face-to-face with tigers, meeting king cobras and Asiatic black bears, to infestation with ticks and leeches. Though there are no fierce large animals where my current project is located, at Budo-Sungai Padi [two mountains on the slim Thai peninsula close to the Malaysian border], there are terrorists, poachers and illegal loggers that I have to deal with." Added to this is the cauldron of unrest in the south of Thailand, into which Poonswad, a Buddhist woman and urban academic, was introducing challenging ideas and proposing a new way of life for impoverished Muslim villagers.

Gaining the respect and support of local communities
Poonswad first visited Budo-Sungai Padi in 1994 in search of traces of the rhinoceros hornbill, with its extraordinary sunset-hued casque, which was believed to be extinct there. The mountains were shrinking islands of intact rainforest amid a sea of developed land, gazetted to become a national park. Here she met Asae Masae, an unashamed and highly professional poacher of hornbills. "The people are so very poor," Poonswad says of her conversations with him and other villagers. "They have almost no income, except what they can make as plantation workers, which is very little. Poaching two hornbill chicks of the rarer species can bring them the equivalent of a year’s pay. It was part of the way they survived."

She visited each villager in turn, explaining her plan to pay them to help her locate hornbill nests, watch over them and collect data. She outlined the economic benefits of ecotourism. She confronted them with the consequences for their children of plundering the forests. Her passion and directness won their hearts, and Masae, with his brilliant forest skills, became her closest assistant – a true poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Success was crowned by finding the rhinoceros hornbill on Mount Budo. By 2005, 41 people from nine villages were watching over 176 nests belonging to six hornbill species.

‘Adopting’ hornbills
The hornbill programme has taken place against a violent background: the threat of terrorism from agitators hiding in the villages and forest, and the government’s counter-action. Yet, Poonswad says, the villagers have mounted a huge effort to keep the project running. When the 1997 Thai economic slump cut the slender funding that was paying them, Poonswad’s ingenious solution was to inspire wealthy Thai city families to 'adopt’ a hornbill family. They paid US$120 a year for protection of the nest by villagers, in return receiving regular reports and pictures of 'their’ birds. Campaigning tirelessly through the media, concerts and art exhibitions, she has raised funds to protect more than 100 nests for 10 years and continue hornbill research. The impoverished villagers responded generously, donating scarce land for an education centre to spread word of the birds and the plan to save them and the forest.

The project to which Poonswad is devoting her Rolex Award funds is visionary. To create a secure supply of hornbill nests, teams of villagers will maintain and repair existing nesting sites and construct artificial ones from weathered timber, fibreglass and resins. To her delight, a pair of hornbills has already used one of the nesting boxes. The villagers will mark, measure and sample the trees that support hornbills. A nursery to produce tree seedlings has been established, and the ugly scars of illegal logging in the forest will be replanted and healed. Men, women and children will work side-by-side at the task.

Living in harmony with the forest

A mobile learning centre and trained educators will spread word of the project to other villages in southern Thailand, while ex-poachers will teach current poachers that a safer future for their families lies in regeneration rather than destruction and extermination. And researchers will document key relationships in the rainforest between plants, birds and animals. Poonswad’s dream is that these initiatives will foster more research into the complex web of life and Thais will learn anew what it means to live in harmony with the forest.

Pilai Poonswad herself compares the future for her project with the hornbill tending his mate: bringing humanity to a closer nurturing of the natural world on which we all, ultimately, depend.

Julian Cribb
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