As cities on the island of Negros went into lockdown, cars came off the roads, people stayed in their homes, and the endangered species living in the Kabankalan and Negros Forest Park breeding centres started to breed. In the newly calm and quiet surroundings, even the most challenging species have had breeding success, which is providing a tremendous boost to the populations of some of the Philippines’ rarest species.
What does ‘lockdown’ mean for hornbills? While we will now forever associate lockdown with the months spent indoors, listening to news stories about the escalating COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, for hornbills it is a breeding strategy. When a female hornbill finds a mate and is ready to lay her eggs, she seeks a suitable hole in a tree and begins to close the entrance with a wall made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. When she is ready to lay her eggs, the entrance is just large enough for her to squeeze herself in, and then the remaining opening is sealed but for a small hole through which her mate can feed her and her chicks.
This unusual self-imprisonment is useful for several reasons: it prevents rival hornbills from taking over valuable and limited nesting sites; helps protect young from predators; and provides a space which can be kept at a moderately stable temperature – shaded during the day, but insulated at night. During the incubation period the female undergoes a complete moult, thought to be triggered by the darkness of the cavity. Once her chicks are too large to fit in the cavity with her, she breaks out and both parents feed the chicks.
Challenges breeding a rare hornbill
There are 59 known species of hornbill, and these typically tropical birds with their distinctive sheath-like bills can be found in tropical and subtropical Africa, Asia and Melanesia. One of the rarest and most endangered hornbill species is the Rufous-headed hornbill, or Talarak, a Critically Endangered species living in the rainforests on the islands of Negros and Panay in the Philippines. The Talarak reproduces very slowly and has therefore struggled to adapt to high hunting pressures and habitat loss due to deforestation.
Partly due to the hornbill’s nesting requirements (which make creating artificial nest boxes for hornbills a real challenge!) and also because they mate for life (and are therefore understandably picky about choosing their mates) the Talarak is a notoriously difficult bird to breed in captivity, and therefore a complex species to conserve.
However, our partner Talarak Foundation Inc. (named after this fiery-coloured species, of course) seem to have finally cracked it with their first captive-bred fledgling named Valentin taking flight last year, the first successful breeding of this species in captivity in 9 years. There are only just over 30 of these birds in captivity anywhere in the world so even just one extra is a huge boost. Then in May 2020, two chicks emerged from one of their nest boxes!
What is even more exciting is that Valentin and this year’s chicks came from different parents, and as hornbills mate for life, this means they now have two breeding pairs in the captivity.
“The keepers noticed the sealed nest box on January 7, 2020, and hoped for the best,” said Fernando “Dino” Gutierrez, President of Talarak Foundation. “The first chick hatched on February 27, and to our surprise, a second chick hatched on February 29. It’s very rare that these Rufous-headed hornbills have two successful hatchings. We are overjoyed that the two made their way into the world together!”
Bucks and boars
Talarak Foundation have even more good news from their captive breeding programme. In July they have been able to do their first release of Visayan spotted deer and Visayan warty pig in Danapa Nature Reserve, Negros Oriental – the first conservation reintroduction on the island of Negros!
The Visayan spotted deer is one of the rarest and most narrowly distributed mammals in the world, with only a few hundred wild animals thought to remain in the rainforests of the Visayan islands of Panay and Negros. As the females have a gestation period of eight months and usually give birth to a single calf once a year, it could take a long time for the wild population to recover their numbers, which is why a release of captive-bred individuals could really boost this species in the wild. This first release was 12 bucks, with females to be released in early August.
The Visayan warty pig is Critically Endangered and also only currently known in Panay and Negros. Like the Visayan spotted deer, because there are so few surviving in the wild, there is a lack of knowledge about their behaviour and characteristics outside of captivity which has been a challenge for conservation organisations like Talarak Foundation.
A combined conservation effort
Expanding and pooling knowledge about these species has been a priority for Talarak Foundation to create the best possible conservation strategies for rare and endangered Philippine wildlife. In June 2019, Talarak Foundation hosted a West Visayas Conservation Workshop with over 80 attendees from local government, local NGOs, Indigenous peoples’ communities, international zoos and researchers from across the globe, to create action plans to protect and save the “West Visayan Big Five”, namely the Visayan warty pig, Visayan spotted deer, Talarak, Tarictic hornbill, and the Negros bleeding heart dove.
The captive breeding programme and releases to strengthen wild populations are a big part of these strategies and the success so far speaks to the importance of national and international cooperation to share knowledge and resources in conservation.
“Finally after almost thirty years of captive breeding we have taken the next step,” said Dino of the recent releases. “This would have never been possible without everyone’s help and we would like to thank everyone who has supported us.”
Talarak Foundation have placed feeding stations in strategic points around Danapa Nature Reserve to help the newly released Visayan spotted deer and Visayan warty pigs adapt to their new home. The team have placed camera traps near these stations and throughout the reserve to keep track of their progress. Follow Talarak Foundation on Facebook for the camera trap images and updates on their captive breeding and release programme.
Synchronicity Earth supports Talarak Foundation through the Asian Species Programme, which particularly supports conservation efforts for Southeast Asian species through direct efforts (such as captive breeding and release), advancing knowledge (such as collaborative conservation workshops) and building capacity of organisations like Talarak Foundation.