Race to conserve few remaining Sulu hornbills on

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 3 Oct) – With an estimated 27 mature Sulu hornbills left in the wild, ecologists are rushing to save one of the world’s rarest birds endemic in the Bangsamoro region, officials said Thursday.

The Sulu hornbill. Photo courtesy of Bim Quemado.

Theresa Mundita Lim, executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, said a project was launched in Tawi-tawi province in cooperation with the local government units and the Philippine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation (PBCF) to save the critically endangered species.

The project, launched in Tawi-tawi’s Panglima Sugala municipality, also seeks to establish the ecological links of the Sulu hornbill (Anthracoceros montani) with other bird species in the ASEAN region, she added.

“Sulu hornbills have a genetic connection with other hornbills that can be found in other countries in Southeast Asia,” said Lim, a former executive at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She added that by tapping into Tawi-tawi’s biodiversity, they “hope to gain a deeper understanding of the evolution of species in the rest of ASEAN.”

Aside from the Philippines, the countries within ASEAN are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Lisa Paguntalan, PBCF executive, noted that Tawi-tawi plays a vital role in ASEAN’s biodiversity conservation efforts.

“Tawi-tawi lies along the borders of the faunal regions of the Philippines and Wallacea,” she said.

Wallacea, located between Indonesia’s Borneo island in the west and Papua province in the east, “is a place of wonder, a living laboratory for the study of evolution and a melting pot for faunal genetic diversity,” Paguntalan said.

Wallacea was named after Alfred Russel Wallace, the 19th century English explorer and naturalist.

Paguntalan noted that more than 60 per cent of the remaining forests in Tawi-tawi are concentrated in Panglima Sugala, considered the home of the iconic Sulu hornbill.

Endemic to Sulu Archipelago, Sulu hornbill has been listed as a critically endangered bird, with only 27 of them left in the wild, according to a recent count of the BirdLife International.

Lim said that Tawi-tawi is known to host terrestrial birds and endemic and migratory water birds.

However, the knowledge that we have about them, including their behavior and distribution pattern, is limited, Lim said.

The ACB and the PBCF will work with local government units in identified sites of documented threatened species, line agencies, and schools and universities within the province to monitor the threatened birds and update their status in important forest and migratory sites, she said.

In a statement, Lim said the baseline knowledge from Tawi-tawi will have a significant impact on the ongoing biodiversity conservation on a regional level.

The ACB intends to replicate the project’s best practices to other ASEAN member states, she said.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Sulu hornbill, a non-migratory bird, is “common to abundant in the late 19th century” and persists with certainty only in Tawi-tawi.

Assessed in October 2016 but published only last year, IUCN noted that the species is suspected to have undergone a very rapid decline over the last 10 years,” apparently due to forest loss.

The international conservation watchdog estimated there were fewer than 20 pairs of Sulu hornbills in the main mountain range of Tawi-tawi, which belongs to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Juan Carlos Gonzales, bird curator and University of the Philippines professor, said Tawi-tawi still hosts several bird species that are endemic to the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia, such as the Asian koel and mangrove blue fly-catcher.

Apart from the Sulu hornbill, among the threatened species that can be found in Tawi-tawi are Christmas island frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi), Chinese egret (Egretta eulophotes), Great knot (Calidris tenuirostris), Sulu bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba menagei), and Tawi-tawi brown-dove (Phapitreron cinereiceps).

The others are Grey imperial-pigeon (Ducula pickeringii), Philippine spinetail (Mearnsia picina), Sulu boobook (Ninox reyi), Rufous-lored kingfisher (Todiramphus winchelli), Sulu pygmy woodpecker (Picoides ramsayi), Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia), Sulu racquet-tail (Prioniturus verticalis), Celestial monarch (Hypothymis coelestis) and Sulu bulbul (Hypsipetes haynaldi). (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)