Lindsey Paretti’s debut film Blood Island has been nominated for two Wildscreen Panda Awards: Emerging Talent and Shorts. This 12-minute film tells the story of chimpanzees in Liberia which were infected with hepatitis and underwent testing in order to ‘unlock the mysteries of human diseases’. The experiments lasted for three decades before ending in 2007, however the remaining chimps – raised in captivity and still infected – were transported to remote islands in the West African country. Blood Island tells the powerful story of the chimpanzees, their captors and the people still fighting to save them.
We spoke to Lindsey about how she found making her first film and the recognition it has received.
Blood Island is your first production as a filmmaker but you have previously worked for almost 10 years as a journalist. What made you decide to put down a pen and pick up a camera?!
I picked up a camera, an iPhone actually, while I was living and reporting in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution. There were days when thousands of people were out protesting but state TV channels were broadcasting footage of empty streets. A lot of times you could only find out what was really going on by being physically present at any event, and even then it was chaotic with so many conflicting agendas and narratives. I realised that I had to go back to the basics of a journalist as a witness. Video evidence seemed both the most accessible and least controvertible way to show what was happening. It’s still why I love film; films have the power to reach everyone regardless of language or background.
The story behind the chimps and their banishment to remote islands is shocking, how did you first hear about it and come up with the idea for the film?
Actually it was right here in Bristol. I was looking for an idea for my master’s film when I attended a conservation talk at Bristol Zoo. The topic of the talk had nothing to do with the chimps, but I just heard someone say “blood chimps” and “Liberia” toward the end and it immediately piqued my interest. When I got home and started researching the story I just kept unearthing more and more surprising layers.
We heard you only had 2 and a half days to film in Liberia! How did you find filming in the country and did you have to contend with any interesting situations or unexpected curveballs?
I was actually terrified during the entire planning and filming process that it might not come together. Working to tight deadlines as a journalist definitely helped me to get what I needed on location, but the humidity did play with the cameras and mics. The drone stopped working (we ended up just using it handheld for some of the shots). It certainly wasn’t ideal but in other ways I was really lucky, especially with how strong the human and chimp characters turned out to be.
How does it feel to not only have won a BAFTA for your debut film, but also have two nominations for the ‘Green Oscars’ of natural world storytelling?
Pretty surreal. I was a volunteer at the last Wildscreen when I was just starting my MA in Wildlife Filmmaking in Bristol. I absolutely loved it and it was amazing hearing from the best people in this craft about their work, but I had no idea then I’d be returning as a nominee. It’s wonderful being embraced by BAFTA and the wildlife film industry here in Bristol. I’m just taking it as a sign we should keep pushing for more environmental impact stories on screen.
We are running an environmental film competition with Earthwatch Europe for 14-17 year olds; what advice would you give to a budding wildlife filmmaker just starting out?
Judging by the work of the young natural history photographers I’ve seen I don’t think they need my advice! I guess I’d say everyone has a different path to follow so use your own strengths to pursue your passion. Be generous, share your skills and don’t be afraid to reach out to people for help. I think we could take inspiration from young people – at that age you think you can change the world. We’re all going to need some of that passion and conviction if we hope to make a difference.
You can find out more about this incredible story by watching the entire film below:
Lindsey Parietti will be speaking at Wildscreen Festival 2018, held in Bristol later this year: join host, Emanuelle Biggi, as he meets Lindsey and other emerging storytellers to discover what drives them to use their work to inspire stewardship of our wild things and wild places.
Rise Of The Warrior Apes is the award-winning wildlife documentary and a Panda Award nominee at this year’s Wildscreen Festival. The film, by James Reed, tells the twenty-year story of the largest and most powerful chimpanzee society ever known. Through the extraordinary lives of four unique chimps we experience an intense political drama and bloody conflict in the African jungle. Using previously unseen footage, and witness testimony from the scientists who have observed and filmed them since 1993, the film reveals a story of unbreakable friendship, fierce rivalry and unparalleled ambition that gave rise to the warrior apes of Ngogo.
John Mitani, a primate behaviourist and university professor, is one of the scientists featured in Rise of the Warrior Apes. John has studied the chimpanzees of Ngogo for over 20 years, after his first visit in 1995, and shares with us some of his experience.
John Mitani, University of Michigan Professor, in the Ugandan forest, home to the Ngogo chimpanzee community
During your years studying primate behaviour, what separates the chimpanzees from the other primates groups you have studied?
I started my career 40 years ago studying the two Asian apes, gibbons and orangutans. Gibbons live in small, socially monogamous groups, and orangutans often roam the forest by themselves. This limits the number and types of social relationships they can form.
Chimpanzees are quite different as they live in relatively large groups, ranging anywhere from 20 to 200 individuals, called “communities.” Male chimpanzees live in their natal communities their entire lives and form strong long-lasting social bonds with each other reinforced through a variety of behaviors, including grooming, helping each other in fights, and sharing scarce and valuable resources such as meat obtained in hunts.
Beyond this chimps also display a suite of unusual behaviors not often found in other primates. These include the previously mentioned hunting vertebrate prey, tool-making and use, and quite shockingly, killing other chimpanzees.
What were you looking for when you first followed the Ngogo community?
I had been conducting fieldwork with chimpanzees at the Mahale Mountains National Park for several years prior to visiting Ngogo in 1995. I was working with one of the pioneers in the study of wild chimpanzees, the late Toshisada Nishida.
I had every intention of continuing to work with Nishida, as he was a mentor, colleague, and dear friend, who taught me the ways of wild chimpanzees. I wanted to come to Ngogo because it was in Kibale National Park, one of the world’s legendary primate field sites, established by another friend, Tom Struhsaker. I just wanted to see the place. But after only a few weeks at Ngogo, I realized that there was something very strange there. There were a lot of chimpanzees, and they were everywhere! As things turn out, there were well over 100 chimpanzees in the Ngogo community. This was an order of magnitude larger than any other chimpanzee community that had been described before.
So the first question to address was how did so many chimpanzees manage to live together? And by doing so, would they reveal secrets of their lives that had not been documented elsewhere?
The initial challenge of studying the Ngogo chimpanzees was that they were not used to human presence. They would run away every time we would encounter them, it took considerable time to habituate them so that we could follow and observe their behavior. In those early days there were times I wondered if habituating them was the best use of my time. In retrospect, though, it was fun, stimulating, and ultimately rewarding.
What is your favourite aspect of your research?
Behavioral research on chimpanzees has been, and always will be, an observational science. So I enjoy spending long periods following chimpanzees and watching what they do. Occasionally, patience pays off with an “aha” moment that leads to a new discovery.
But now, having studied wild chimpanzees for nearly 30 years, I relish some magical, almost spiritual-like moments that are hard to describe. Imagine this: I am out alone with a large party of chimpanzees. There is an abundance of food, and there are perhaps 40, 50, maybe even 60 chimpanzees together. And it’s a glorious, dry, sunlit day. The chimpanzees have settled down to rest and socialize. Everywhere I look, there are chimpanzees on the ground. A few adult males groom. Moms relax and begin to doze off as their kids start to play. Some of the youngsters wrestle, laughing noisily in the process. Others chase each other in small saplings and then drop to the ground with a thud. I have experienced countless times like this, and as I survey the scene, I am overcome with utter joy.
I am astonished that the chimps permit me to be a part of their world, and I feel that I am the luckiest person on Earth. Moments like these may be the most important reason I continue to study chimpanzees at the ripe old age of 64!
“I am astonished that the chimps permit me to be a part of their world”
What has been your most surprising observation? We have been able to document many surprising findings based on our study of the Ngogo chimpanzees, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to decide which observation has been the most astonishing. One obvious candidate is the split that has recently occurred.
Toward the end of Rise of the Warrior Apes we allude to the fact that the Ngogo chimpanzee community had grown to an astronomical size, with over 200 individuals. Since 2015, and during 2016 while James Reed filmed part of the documentary, males from two subgroups started to fight with each other in the same way members from different communities do. Like many other animals, chimpanzees are territorial. For three years as this was happening, some males would continue to move back and forth between the two subgroups. This stopped earlier this year; males from both sides now show a clear allegiance to one group or the other.
The defining moment that signalled a split in the Ngogo chimpanzee community occurred earlier this year in January 2018 when males from one group killed a young adult male from the other group. Because chimps are territorial, intergroup encounters are hostile, but sometimes hostilities escalate to the point where someone falls victim.
Why did the initial split occur? That’s an issue we are currently grappling with now. It’s complicated as it involves, ecological, demographic, social, and genetic factors. It’s also a story that deserves a follow-up documentary! Stay tuned.
Why is your research important and what are the applications to what you have found?
Chimpanzees fascinate scientists and non-scientists alike, in part due to their evolutionary relationship with us. Along with their sister species, the bonobo, chimpanzees are humankind’s closest living relatives. We shared a common ancestor with them sometime between 6 to 8 million years ago. Because of this evolutionary relationship, we share many features in common with them, anatomically, genetically, and as I’ve alluded to before, even behaviorally. Our research on the Ngogo chimpanzees continues to shed new light on wild chimpanzee behavior, often in surprising ways that reduce the gap between them and us.
Chimpanzees are endangered everywhere they are found across the African continent. Sadly, research on them continues to show, time in and time out, that they are extremely vulnerable and at risk, with populations declining. Happily, the story from Ngogo is different and indicates that when living in specific ecological conditions, chimpanzees can live a very long time, thrive, and actually increase in numbers. We will have to identify areas similar to Ngogo and work hard to protect them and chimpanzees so that our children, our children’s children, and generations into the future continue to share this planet with these fascinating creatures.
“An increased understanding of chimpanzees is likely lead to more interest in protecting and conserving them”
What impact to do you hope Rise of the Warrior Apes has upon the field of primate studies?
Primate field research is a small and esoteric discipline. Not many are lucky to be able to do what I do. If the discipline is to grow and thrive, we must educate the public about what we do, why we do it, and why it’s important. Knowledge is power, and an increased understanding of chimpanzees is likely lead to more interest in protecting and conserving them.
There are multiple ways to engage the person on the street to learn about chimpanzees and other primates. Films like Rise of the Warrior Apes are perhaps the best way to teach the public about these animals because wildlife documentaries attract broad attention from people worldwide. So my first hope is that the film will translate in greater understanding of chimpanzees. This is bound to help the study of primates for the reason mentioned above.
Rise of the Warrior Apes was made by James Reed, a brilliant young filmmaker and master storyteller. All the credit for the film goes to him and to the Ngogo chimps. The film has already received some critical acclaim, and my second hope is that this will provide more opportunities for James to do what he does best, namely make and direct extraordinary wildlife films that educate the public. In doing so, he will be able to contribute to primate and animal behavior studies and conservation in a significant way.
This sounds incredibly exciting, we look forward to seeing what is released next – thank you John for your time!
John Mitani, alongside James Reed, will speaking at Wildscreen Festival 2018, held in Bristol later this year. You’ll be able to hear more of his work with The Ngogo Chimpanzee Project and James’ experience filming this amazing community.
Since its inception in 1982 each Wildscreen Festival has utilised wildlife photographs or illustrations to provide each year with a unique and memorable visual identity. As the 2018 Festival draws closer, we are incredibly excited to introduce the illustrations will become the face of this year’s Festival!
The 2018 Festival focusses on telling the story of biodiversity – the amazing diversity of life on Earth, from species to ecosystems. We value the world’s more underappreciated and endangered species and habitats, and have therefore chosen five to showcase as the 2018 Festival Mascots!
Muller’s mushroomtongue salamander. Illustration by Lorna Leigh Harrington
In July 2014 I was lucky to join an expedition to the cloud forests of northern Guatemala in search of lost salamanders. Among our team were Paul Elias and Jeremy Jackson, who had discovered and described many of our target species some 38 years previously, and Carlos Vasquez, a young Guatemalan biologist who had rediscovered two of these salamanders over three decades later.
Elias first ventured to Guatemala in 1974, when he made discoveries so remarkable that he was compelled to return. He writes of that first visit, “I was 18 years old and had a chance to visit Guatemala, and so I went to eminent herpetologist Dave Wake to ask what would be of use to him. He gave me a one-page photocopy of a map of Guatemala and circled the Cuchumatanes.” The Cuchumatanes mountains were, according to Wake, a final frontier for exploration in Central America.
After being dropped off by his parents at a road rising sharply up to a karst plateau, Elias hitchhiked as far as he could away from civilization and into uncharted territory, sleeping nights on a dirt floor among “bugs, predatory spiders, scorpions and centipedes that had gathered”. He found a couple of hundred salamanders in three weeks. “I had no guide to the species in Guatemala so I had no idea if I had anything of value or not,” he says.
His hard work and discomfort paid off. When Elias returned to Berkeley he left some of his specimens to soak in water before preserving them. It was here that Wake happened upon them, and he was astonished. Elias recalls, “both, which would later be named, the Long-limbed Salamanderand Finca Chiblac Salamanderwere in that collection and turned out to be significant missing links in the Neotropical lungless salamander radiation. Word traveled to me by rumor in the next day or two and I suddenly discovered that I had found something extraordinary”.
Elias launched further expeditions to the Cuchumatanes the following two summers, bringing Jeremy Jackson with him to help. Rain-soaked weeks spent crashing through cloud forest and lifting rotting logs resulted in the discovery of Jackson’s Climbing Salamander, named by Elias in honor of his friend. They called the salamander the “golden wonder” because of its brilliant colouration. But over months of fieldwork only two individuals of the species were ever found, and neither Elias or Jackson could have predicted that, a quarter of a century later, none of the three salamanders that they had discovered would have been seen again.
In 2009, during an expedition led by local biologist Carlos Vasquez in collaboration with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, the Finca Chiblac Salamanderwas rediscovered, 32 years after it was last seen. The following year the Long-Limbed Salamander also re-appeared. The still-missing Jackson’s salamander, however, climbed its way into the top ten “Most Wanted” amphibians in the world in 2010.
As I sit with Elias and Jackson in a rural village near Laguna Maxbal in the remote Cuchumatanes mountains in July 2014, Elias pours over his original field notes — every page photo copied and bound, noting how things have changed in the 38 years since they last set foot here. It is day 5 of our expedition, and we have yet to find a salamander – and spirits are beginning to dampen. Expectation is heavy in the air, as is the bitter prospect of disappointment. As a heavy afternoon downpour subsides, we don our headlamps and head into the forest and to an area with large buttressed trees. As soon as light has drained from the forest the Long-limbed Salamanders emerge from among the tangle of roots to scale the trees — our best chance of seeing them is soon after they have emerged and before they climb out of sight.
We quickly strike gold. Jackson describes the moment: “When I spied that oh so familiar pose of a Long-limbed Salamander basking in the rain with feet splayed and spine bent with that beautiful long tail hanging down, I was thrilled. It really brought back much of what it had been like in ‘76; going out night after night in the rain. Finding this salamander is as rewarding as it was years ago.”
The next day we found our first Finca Chiblac Salamander under a rotting log. Elias shared Jackson’s excitement at seeing the salamanders again, telling me after the expedition, “I was really moved to see both the Long-limbed Salamander and Finca Chiblac Salamanderalive and happy in their forest. The Long-limbed Salamander in particular is just an extraordinary animal; its high speed agility, and its goofy polka dots make it something almost unlike a salamander. I never thought I would see one alive again. The fact of these two missing links living in that primeval forest on the ancient karst uplands makes one think that the Cucuchumatanes were the old cradle of the great salamander radiation of Central America.”
Our search continued for Jackson’s Climbing Salamander and other species including the beautiful Muller’s Mushroomtongue Salamander. We spent our days with our backs arched sifting through leaf litter, and under the cloak of darkness illuminated leaves and mossy trunks in the forest with our headlamps, willing salamanders to appear before us.
The golden wonder eluded us, as did Mullers Mushroomtongue Salamander, but on our final day before leaving the remote reaches of the Cuchumatanes we were treated to a surprise. Locals from a small town proudly presented us with a salamander that they found close by – a beautiful Müller’s Mushroom-tongue Salamander, an uncommon chocolate brown animal with a splash of yellow running down its back. It looked as if it had walked under a leaky tin of royal yellow paint, and was undoubtedly one of the most striking salamanders I had laid eyes on.
The 11-day expedition helped to shine the spotlight on the incredible value of the forests of the Cuchumatanes, but it also uncovered impending threats to this remote area. Some core forest habitat was slated for coffee cultivation by international investors within the year. A global consortium of conservation groups rapidly formed and responded. Global Wildlife Conservation partnered with the Amphibian Survival Alliance, Rainforest Trust, World Land Trust and International Conservation Fund of Canada to quickly raise the support needed to create a sanctuary for the salamanders of the Cuchumatanes – a 2,000 acre parcel of land to be managed by local group FUNDAECO in collaboration with local communities. Elias said of the outcome, “to see this reserve take shape under the imaginative genius of Carlos Vasquez and partners, and to be able to help that happen in a small way, is the culmination of a forty year dream for me.”
Vasquez didn’t give up on his quest to find the golden wonder. He launched multiple expeditions, and brought photos of the beautiful animal to show reserve guards, urging them to keep an eye out. In October of last year, as I emerged from a quest to find and photograph the Javan Rhino in Indonesia, I received incredible news. As one of the reserve guards sat down to eat his lunch on the edges of the reserve, a yellow and black salamander on a nearby tree caught his eye. He had just rediscovered, after four decades, the Jackson’s Climbing Salamander.
Global Wildlife Conservation leveraged the attention garnered by the rediscovery to raise support to expand the salamander reserve, and are now working on protecting more tracts of valuable forest habitat in northern Guatemala, home to unique salamanders among other wonders. The future for the golden wonder, Mullers Mushroomtongue Salamander, and other threatened species that call these cloud forests home is starting to look brighter.
Since its inception in 1982 each Wildscreen Festival has utilised wildlife photographs or illustrations to provide each year with a unique and memorable visual identity. As the 2018 Festival draws closer, we are incredibly excited to introduce the illustrations that will become the face of this year’s Festival!
The 2018 Festival focuses on telling the story of biodiversity – the amazing diversity of life on Earth, from species to ecosystems. We value the world’s more underappreciated and endangered species and habitats, and have therefore chosen five to showcase as the 2018 Festival Mascots!
Flying the flag for the insects is Queen Alexandra’s birdwing and we’ve been speaking to Dr Mark Collins, Chairman of the Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust, about conserving this legendary butterfly.
Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly. Illustration by Lorna Leigh Harrington
Firstly, tell us a bit about the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing – we’ve heard it can get pretty big!
It’s the biggest butterfly in the world with females reaching a wingspan of up to 30cm! They fly high in the forest canopy of Papua New Guinea, so high in fact that the first specimen, discovered by Albert Stewart Meek in 1906, had to be shot down with pepper-shot and the rather ragged specimen, stored in the Natural History Museum, still bears the scars! The males are rather smaller at 20cm wingspan but make up for it with their amazing iridescent blue and green colours, contrasting with the predominantly brown and cream females.
This butterfly has a very grand name, who is it named after?
Albert Meek was a professional collector who worked for the second Baron Rothschild (he famously put together the collection in Tring, now part of the Natural History Museum). When Walter Rothschild described the species in 1907 he recognised its beauty and rarity and named it in honour of Alexandra of Denmark, the wife and Queen Consort of King Edward VII. A memorial to this statuesque and remarkable lady may be seen in London’s Marlborough Road, opposite St James’s Palace.
How endangered is this species and what threats does it face?
This is one of the most endangered species of butterflies in the world and it faces a very uncertain future indeed. Confined to four sub-populations in secondary forest fragments scattered across only a few thousand square kilometres in Northern Province of Papua New Guinea, and with fewer than 10 females per square kilometre, it is a very difficult species to find. Much of its former habitat in the Popondetta region has been lost to deforestation, agriculture and oil palm plantations. Its stronghold is probably now the Managalas Plateau, a remote and rarely visited area of highland forest.
Ever since its discovery, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing has been highly sought after by collectors and it was declared totally protected from all trade by CITES in the late 1980s. Some poaching and smuggling is believed still to go on, but not enough to threaten the species in the wild, where habitat loss is the real issue.
What conservation projects are the SBBT working on to protect this species?
In 2017 the Trust voluntarily advised on the establishment of a new three-year project, now financed by the Sime Darby Foundation of Malaysia and operated entirely by New Britain Palm Oil Ltd (NBPOL), which has plantations at Higaturu in the Popondetta region. NBPOL is in the process of setting up a breeding facility there within its secure residential and operations compound. Security is an issue because the butterfly can be so valuable in the wrong hands. The project is now in the process of building its advisory and management infrastructure with local and national government, local NGOs and community organisations. The Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust is not directly advising the project at present but may do so once it becomes more fully operational.
In a parallel initiative, SBBT has proposed to the Animals Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that birdwings in general could benefit from a “Periodic Review” of the current CITES listings of birdwings. There are differing opinions on the value of these listings. Dating back to the 1980s, it has been argued that the blanket regulations have a tendency to suppress a range of scientific and educational activities for the many quite common birdwing species while at the same time driving the international trade in the more endangered species underground. One problem is that identifying the various species is a job for experts and rare and valuable species being internationally traded could be unscrupulously labelled as common ones.
Why was it important for the SBBT to work in partnership with New Britain Palm Oil Limited (NBPOL) when the palm oil industry is so often involved in controversial conservation stories?
The political, economic and scientific circumstances in the region that Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing inhabits are complicated and it has proved difficult to adopt traditional approaches to conservation, for example by setting up secure reserves and parks in suitable areas. The Wildlife Management Areas system in PNG requires the support of local people and communities who own the land under traditional rights of tenure and they have been challenging to establish and protect for the long term.
Companies such as NBPOL have for many years been able to obtain land for oil palm production but within their vast monoculture estates there does remain a residual complex of riverine and topographically dissected habitats that are difficult to access but have potential for conservation of butterfly communities. NBPOL has its own charitable Foundation and is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which requires its members to act as responsible stewards of threatened species on their properties. In reports on the Higaturu palm oil estates published by RSPO in 2016, NBPOL identified some high conservation value sites on its estates that might be suitable for protection and used for the butterfly’s safety and reintroduction. In May this year, the Rainforest Alliance awarded NBPOL its Sustainable Pathfinder Award, stating that “NBPOL’s diligence in adopting the FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent) in its oil palm development and climate change adaptation as well as mitigation measures to improve farmers’ livelihoods in PNG are some of the works that entitled the company for the award.”
NBPOL is now in the process of building and equipping a new laboratory, flight cages and some foodplant nurseries to try to breed Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, with a view to releasing it into areas that it once inhabited and that can be enriched with additional foodplants. An entomologist, Dr Darren Bito, has been employed to run the project and he is gaining some hands-on experience at the Kuranda Butterfly Sanctuary in Cairns, which has a breeding facility for the Cairns Birdwing, Ornithoptera euphorion. Hopefully he will also visit the Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society in Brisbane, where a ground-breaking project on the Richmond Birdwing (Ornithoptera richmondia) has much to offer the PNG project.
Have there been any conservation breakthroughs since the start of this project?
Clearly it is early days for this project and at this point NBPOL is still building the laboratories and accommodation that it needs. There remain some fundamental questions that need to be answered as the breeding program gets into full swing. For example, we don’t know how much genetic variation there is between the four sub-populations. If they are fairly distinct they may have different ecological requirements, even in terms of their specific foodplants, which is clearly vital information for breeding success. Also, before any releases can be contemplated, surveys of existing populations need to be consolidated in order to establish a baseline against which future success can be measured. NBPOL’s recently-recruited CEO James Graham is charged with ensuring that the Queen Alexandra’s Butterfly project goes from strength to strength.
Since its inception in 1982 each Wildscreen Festival has utilised wildlife photographs or illustrations to provide each year with a unique and memorable visual identity. As the 2018 Festival draws closer, we are incredibly excited to introduce the illustrations will become the face of this year’s Festival! The 2018 Festival focusses on telling the story of biodiversity – the amazing diversity of life on Earth, from species to ecosystems. We value the world’s more underappreciated and endangered species and habitats, and have therefore chosen five to showcase as the 2018 Festival Mascots!
First up, the wonderfully colourful, helmeted hornbill. Tim Knight, from Fauna and Flora International, describes the surprising threat they face and the conservation efforts underway to save this charismatic yet critically endangered bird.
The helmeted hornbill. Illustration by Lorna Leigh Harrington
The last laugh – How long before the helmeted hornbill falls silent?
I’ll never forget the first time I heard the maniacal cackle of a helmeted hornbill. I was standing beneath a massive fruiting fig tree in the middle of the Brunei rainforest – not exactly the heart of Borneo, but it was certainly wild enough for me – and craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the gibbons in the canopy. The ripening fruit was a magnet for all manner of other wildlife too, from wild pigs, diminutive mouse deer and tufted jungle king butterflies on the forest floor to pig-tailed macaques, barbets and, yes, hornbills in the treetops.
More often heard than seen, Brunei’s resident hornbill species are readily identifiable by their characteristic calls or, in the case of the wreathed hornbill, wingbeats reminiscent of the sound of a departing steam train. But it is the helmeted hornbill’s madcap laughter that stops you in your tracks. It starts innocuously enough with a few tentative ‘poops’, but these become increasingly urgent, rising in a crescendo towards a hysterical climax.
Back in England, a playback of this ridiculous call was the highlight of every rainforest talk that I inflicted on schoolchildren around the country, providing a suitably entertaining finale to a recording of the rainforest soundscape.
The helmeted hornbill’s physical appearance isn’t exactly conventional either, with its incongruously long central tail feathers and an impressively large casque – from which this bird derives its name. The latter feature in particular has made this species a prime target for illegal wildlife traders. Typically, hornbill casques are light and hollow, but the helmeted hornbill’s appendage is a solid, ivory-like block, making it ideal for carving into ornamental trinkets. Increasing demand for such products, combined with rapid deforestation, poses a grave threat to the survival of the species throughout most of its range.
The tiny nation of Brunei is an exception to the rule; as an oil-rich country, it can afford not to sell logging or oil palm concessions to the highest bidder, meaning that its magnificent rainforests remain virtually pristine. Strict firearms controls also ensure that poaching is minimal.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, however, the situation is far less rosy. Severe hunting pressure and widespread habitat loss have led to the helmeted hornbill being officially categorised as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. That’s one small step from extinction in the wild.
Female helmeted hornbill
As someone whose spirits were lifted by almost daily encounters with this awesome bird, I’m finding that eventuality difficult to contemplate. The good news is that helmeted hornbills are benefiting – directly and indirectly – from the work of Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and its partners in Southeast Asia.
In Sumatra’s Kerinci Seblat National Park, the anti-poaching and forest protection activities of FFI’s tiger teams are having a tangible impact on illegal wildlife trade and deforestation, disrupting the trafficking networks that deal not only in tigers and timber, but also in pangolin scales and helmeted hornbill ‘ivory’.
Closer collaboration between the park authorities and provincial police departments – and the consequent improvements in law enforcement that this brings – are helping FFI and its partners to reduce wildlife and forest crime in and around Sumatra’s largest protected area. Organised trade syndicates are fragmenting, black market prices for helmeted hornbill casques have fallen, and traders are less willing to fund hornbill hunting gangs. There is obviously a need for continued vigilance, but these are all encouraging signs.
Helmeted hornbill male with large stick insect to be delivered to female in nest.
Meanwhile, on the neighbouring island of Borneo, the Conservation Leadership Programme – in which FFI is a leading partner – is supporting a team of Malaysian conservationists who are addressing the shortage of suitable natural nest cavities for hornbills – the result of widespread logging of the largest trees. Nest boxes have been erected in the most promising locations and are being closely monitored for signs of activity.
Rhinoceros and wrinkled hornbills are among the species that have already been observed using or checking out these artificial nest sites. The team hopes that continual improvements in the design of the boxes will encourage more birds – including helmeted hornbills – to use them.
It’s well over 20 years since I last visited Borneo and encountered a helmeted hornbill calling in the wild, but the memory of that extraordinary sound is indelibly etched on my brain. Here’s hoping that this bird’s lunatic laughter continues to reverberate through Southeast Asia’s remaining rainforests long into the future.
To find out more about FFI’s work with the helmeted hornbill check out their website.