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Hornbills – revered but endangered
Posted on October 21, 2012, Sunday
THE rhinoceros hornbill is one of nine species of hornbill in Sarawak, all of which can be found in Mulu.
Hornbills are now totally protected species under the Wild Life Protection Ordinance (1998).
Totally protected species are defined as species in danger of extinction due to hunting and habitat destruction. Penalties for keeping one as a pet, killing, hunting, capturing, selling, trading or disturbing them, or possessing any recognisable parts of these animals are severe – a RM25,000 fine and three years’ imprisonment.
According to Ahmad Ampeng, there have not been any studies done in recent times to determine the population status of hornbills in Sarawak although it is widely accepted the birds are particularly vulnerable to forest destruction and logging activities.
Feasting mainly on fruits such as figs, they live primarily in secondary forests. During nesting season, the female hornbill will seal herself into a treehole with mud, where she will lay and incubate her eggs.
She will not leave the nest until her eggs are hatched, depending fully on her mate to bring her food which he passes to her through a small opening in the mud wall.
While in general, all hornbill species are revered, the rhinoceros hornbill seems to hold a special place in most Sarawakian native cultures.
It is closely associated with the god of war and of bird-omens Singalang Burong, a significant figure in Iban legends and folklore. The festival of Gawai Burong is held in his honour.
Anglican author Eda Green noted in Borneo: The Land of River and Palm that Iban warriors would make a feast to him after taking the heads of their enemies.
According to Ahmad Ampeng and Daud, the Orang Ulu community believe the casque (the distinctive curved, bony growth from the head of the rhinoceros hornbill above its beak) holds mystical powers and whoever owns one could use it to control and influence another person. The horn could be worn as a pendant on a necklace around the neck or carved into a ring to be worn around a finger.
In the past, this hornbill was hunted for its unique black and white tail feathers which were used to adorn traditional head-dresses and regalia, some of which can still be seen in some of the traditional longhouses where these precious heirlooms have been carefully preserved and passed down from generation to generation, to be used only during the most grand and sacred of occasions.
Today, the monetary and historical value of these traditional regalia are priceless.
For recently created traditional garments, the native community have had to make do with recreating the trademark black and white feathers out of other materials such as synthetics.
This widespread reverence for the rhinoceros hornbill is one of the reasons why the bird forms part of Sarawak’s state crest and is the state bird.