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Native birds under threat

Habitat destruction and illegal poaching are pushing many Thai birds towards extinction

altW ings are usually a great means of escape. Yet, many winged creatures cannot fly away from the formidable grasp of extinction. In Thailand , five species of bird are already confirmed extinct, while several more are critically endangered, and, considering the current situation, have a slim chance of survival.

Habitat destruction and hunting are the major causes of the bird decline in Thailand , but poaching of live birds to be sold as pets is also threatening some species. Many of them, such as the Red-whiskered Bulbul in the south of Thailand , have been caught and caged in such great numbers that few are now left in the wild.

Rising public concern for our vanishing birds is evident in the recent addition of three species – the Sarus crane, the White-eyed River Martin and Gurney’s Pitta – to the country’s reserved animals list.

The move, however, comes too late to be effective. The graceful Sarus Cranes virtually disappeared from Thailand 30 years ago. The White-eyed River Martin was last spotted in the wild in 1980, and chances are that this elusive bird is already gone from the face of the Earth. The few pairs of Gurney’s Pitta that remain in Krabi province seem to be on a final countdown, too, as their forest habitat is rapidly diminishing.

GURNEY’S PITTA

Native to Thailand and the southern tip of Burma , the Gurney’s Pitta was one of the most common birds in the region 30 years ago. The population, however, has suffered a rapid decline due to hunting by humans and a loss of its forest habitat.

The bird was last seen in the wild in Thailand in 1952, when Herbert Deignan, author of Birds of Northern Thailand, captured a female Gurney’s Pitta in Prachuap Khiri Khan province.

After that, no sighting of the Gurney’s Pitta was reported, and it was believed to be locally – perhaps globally – extinct until two bird watchers and researchers, Philip Round and Uthai Treesukhon, searched for and found it again 34 years later.

“The Gurney’s Pitta may seem to have disappeared from the eyes of bird watchers, but in a wildlife market, they were still available,” Uthai once told Outlook. A rare and resplendent song bird, the Gurney’s Pitta is a victim of its own beauty. The bird is a favourite pet among wildlife fanciers and lucrative merchandise for traders.

At present, Gurney’s Pittas are restricted to Khao Nor Chu Chi lowland rainforests in Khao Pra-Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary, Krabi province. A survey conducted by the Biological Conservation Centre, Mahidol University, and Birdlife International from 1986 to 1989 revealed that the Gurney’s Pitta population had declined from around 40 to no more than 25 pairs.

Habitat destruction is the number-one threat to the rare pitta. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the lowland areas where the majority of the birds thrive cannot be incorporated into the nearby sanctuary because it was claimed for agricultural use and homesteading. (Khao Pra-Bang Khram was upgraded from a non-hunting forest to a wildlife sanctuary in 1993.)

The need for land leads to further migration, settlement and encroachment into the vulnerable sanctuary. Logging and clearing of the forest are done openly and defiantly, sometimes with the assistance of influential local figures.

Last month, a tractor was hired to clear a patch of secondary-growth forest where six pairs of Gurney’s Pitta lived. Some 563 rai of forest was gone before the border patrol police could halt the operation.

Some people may wonder why there is so much fuss about this so-called lowland rainforest. Apart from being the last one in our country, this unique ecosystem is home to over 70 kinds of mammals, more than 100 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 300 species of bird. If the forest goes, so does the irreplaceable wealth of biological diversity.

With the assistance of the Royal Forestry Department and Birdlife International, Mahidol University ‘s Biological Conservation Centre was established in 1990. It aims to end the encroachment into the Khao Nor Chu Chi rainforest by developing alternative sources of income for local villagers and promoting conservation awareness, especially among children. It is also trying to reforest the area.

Diversity of birdlife is a good indicator of the health of the whole ecosystem. The Forestry Department’s latest survey found that the number of Gurney’s Pittas in the sanctuary is down to five pairs, and with coffee and palm plantations replacing more and more of their rainforest habitat, their future looks bleak indeed.

Those who would like to help save the Gurney’s Pitta and the lowland rainforest can do so by visiting the area or by contributing to the Gurney’s Pitta scholarships, which will be forwarded to impoverished students and schools in Krabi. For more information, contact the Khao Nor Chu Chi Conservation and Rehabilitation Project, PO Box 2, Muang district, Krabi province 81000, or Biological Conservation Centre, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Mahidol University, Rama VI, Bangkok 10400. Tel 247-7051.

GREEN PEAFOWL

The green and gold, fan-like tail of the male Green Peafowl attracts not only female peafowls, but also human persecution. So many green peafowls have been hunted down that it is feared their population will no longer be viable.

Peafowls normally roam around stream banks, usually ones with sand bars, in mixed-deciduous forests in Thailand . Since the peafowls’ habitat is also the prime spot for human settlement and cultivation, the birds are pushed out of their home.

Large and magnificent, the Green Peafowl is a coveted pet and the eggs are often poached to produce offspring for sale. At the current rate they are disappearing, it will not take long before they vanish from every forest in Thailand except the Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary.

Recently, it was found that Mae Yom river, along with its tributaries, is another place that supports the Green Peafowl. Mae Yom is one of the last rivers in Thailand that remains uninterrupted by dams. While traces of peafowls were found in Mae Yom National Park , a flock of up to 30 peafowls were spotted in the adjacent Doi Phunang forest reserve.

Associate Professor Veena Mekvichai, who is researching Green Peafowls in the Doi Phunang area, said that the habitat, feeding patterns and behaviour of peafowls in Doi Phunang are quite different from those in the Huai Kha Khaeng area. The information, however, is not enough to indicate whether they are a different subspecies.

The newly-found habitat is far from being a safe haven. Encroachment, hunting and theft of eggs are rampant, and harvest fire is also a threat to the peafowls’ propagation areas.

Plans to upgrade Doi Phunang to a national park have been up in the air for a while. The most worrisome threat to the whole Mae Yom ecosystem comes from the Kaeng Sua Ten dam proposal. Should the dam be built, not only will a lush teak forest be inundated, but more than 40,000 rai of forest that supports a variety of wildlife, including the endangered Green Peafowls, will also be destroyed.

HORNBILL

A prominent bill and thick casque are characteristic of hornbills, the loyal lovers and remarkable parents of the wild.

The hornbill mates for life. During the breeding season, the female bird will dig a hole and seal it with a mud-and-dropping paste, leaving an opening large enough for her bill to poke out. She locks herself in the hole for several months to lay her eggs and hatch them.

During that time, the whole family is dependent on the father bird, who shuttles back and forth bringing them food. If something happens to him, the whole family will starve to death.

Hornbills share the same plight as other distinctive birds, that of being relentlessly hunted down by poachers. The most vulnerable time is reproduction time when the mother bird is in the nesting hole with her eggs. She throws her faeces from the hole to clean her nest and the presence of faeces near a tree alerts poachers to the presence of the birds.

The Hornbill Research Foundation classifies as critically endangered the Wrinkled Hornbill, Plain-pouched Hornbill, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Helmeted Hornbill, Black Hornbill and White-crowned Hornbill

LIMESTONE WREN-BABBLER

Every time a loud blast echoes through the countryside of Saraburi province, another part of the limestone hills is being blown up to produce raw materials for cement production. As the construction business grows, almost every inch of the limestone hills has been granted as concessions to mining companies.

The potential profits of over a thousand billion baht easily overshadow the imminent termination of a small bird – the Limestone Wren-Babbler.

There are two types of Limestone Wren-Babblers in Thailand : crispifrons found in the North and West of Thailand, and calcicola found only along the limestone range in Kaeng Koy district of Saraburi province. These hills are covered with mixed deciduous forest where herb and medicinal plants are found in abundance.

H.G. Deignan spotted the bird first in 1939. Several sightings were later reported, especially around the Bhothisat cave. The Limestone Wren-Babbler, however, was reduced in number when rock-blasting concessions were granted around the cave. After the last sighting in 1982, ornithologists assumed that it was extinct.

The recent sighting of several Limestone Wren-Babblers in Kaeng Koy district confirmed the bird’s survival. Yet, this last flock may replicate the fate of their ancestors. The whole area where they live is already due to be blasted for cement production.

Needless to say, these hills are the last home for the Saraburi Limestone Wren-Babbler. If the rock-blasting is allowed to go on, we can count on adding another name to the growing list of extinct birds.

Seub Nakhasathien Foundation and Bird Conservation Society of Thailand are conducting a campaign requesting the Department of Mineral Resources and Ministry of Industry to revoke the rock-blasting concessions in the Limestone Wren-Babbler area. Those who would like to take part can send postcards with your opinions to Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, Alumni Association Building , Kasetsart University , 50 Phaholyothin Road Jatujak, Bangkok 10900. Tel 561-2469-79. Or the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, 69/12 Ram-intra 24, Jarakhebua, Ladphrao, Bangkok 10230. Tel 930-1271, 510-5921

MALAYSIAN PLOVERS

Sam Roi Yot National Park is a mosaic of diverse ecosystems, from grasslands, meadows, mud flats, mangrove forests, sandy beaches and islands, to wetlands and deciduous forest on limestone hills. It is not surprising, then, that there are as many as 316 different kinds of birds in the 61,300-rai area.

The park’s Khao Dang beach is the last remaining propagation and nesting site of the Malaysia Plover – a diminishing white-and-rufous-coloured wader.

Waders do not weave their nests from leaves like forest birds. They simply dig a shallow hole in the sand and lay their eggs there. So far this year, dozens of Malaysian Plover’s nests have been located in the national park, a positive sign that their numbers are increasing.

The Malaysian Plover’s reproduction hinges almost entirely on the state of Khao Dang beach. But luck is obviously not on the bird’s side, since the park is constantly plagued by encroachment from shrimp and fish farming.

Last year, Khao Dang beach was chosen as the location for the planned Riviera Beach Resort. The resort is questionably close to the national park’s boundary and parts of the resort are within reach of the seawater. The law does not allow land like this to be privately owned.

According to press reports in June this year, provincial authorities and forestry officials inspected the site and found that about 30 rai of the resort land encroached into the park. Diamond Group, the resort operator, however, insisted that it acquired the land legally. The Natural Resources Conservation Office will conduct another survey to verify the encroachment before prosecuting the land developer.

The finding comes a bit late. From an ecological point of view, the Khao Dang beach is already severely disturbed by the construction of Riviera Beach ‘s office. Mr Philip Round, a British bird researcher and co-author of A Guide to the Birds of Thailand, remarked in bewilderment:

“This is definitely not about giving more importance to birds than human beings. It is about your country and your heritage. I don’t understand why Thai people don’t love the common property – the public land that everyone owns.”