From The Bangkok Post  Published: 25/01/2010

Some species of hornbill will soon be extinct as a result of human encroachment on their habitat, a leading conservationist warns.

Pilai Poonswad, known as ”the great mother” of hornbills in Thailand, said the birds were expected to be wiped out from the country soon.

Dr Pilai said hunting and trading were to blame for the bird’s imminent demise.

There are 54 known species of hornbill, and up to 13 species can be found in Thailand.

”The wrinkled hornbill is the most endangered species which can be found only in the southernmost park of Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary [in Narathiwat],” she said, citing research on the characteristics of the genetics of hornbills in forest landscapes and their population and habitat statistics in Thailand.

Dr Pilai, a professor with the microbiology department at Mahidol University’s faculty of science, said more than three species on the brink of extinction were the helmeted hornbill, black hornbill and white-crowned hornbill.

She said the hornbill was considered a key species due to its role as a seed disperser. She said a study showed the diminishing number of hornbills in the north of Thailand had affected nearly half of all plant species there that were threatened with extinction.

”In the North, the hornbills can be found only in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. They also serve as a key indicator of the health of a forest.”

She said the study on the characteristics of hornbill genetics found there had been mating between two species as a result of the decrease in bird population and small areas of habitat.

The research covered three forests which were the main habitat of hornbills including the 18,000-square-kilometre Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Tak and Uthai Thani, the 2,100-square-kilometre Khao Yai National Park in Nakhon Ratchasima, Saraburi, Prachin Buri and Nakhon Nayok, and the 180-square-kilometre Budo Su-ngai Padi National Park in Narathiwat.

A survey of the three forests found seven of 13 species.

”The forest area in Budo Su-ngai Padi National Park is sharply decreasing due to many forest areas being converted to plantations,” Dr Pilai said.

Cutting down trees hurt the birds because they made their nests in holes in high and straight-trunked trees such as rubber trees, which were regularly cut down. ”Hornbills have to rely on a natural hole in a tree because they cannot excavate it themselves,” she said.

Over five years of research, her team helped to dig and adjust holes for hornbills to provide adequate habitats.