Finding the Dulungan

September 12, 2019

By David Quimpo

Finding one of the most threatened hornbills in the world is like finding a grain of rice on a white sand beach.

After two days of trekking through mountains – across rivers, steep cliffs, and towering ridges – we reach the site. More than 700 meters above sea level.

We are now in the northern part of the Central Panay Mountains Key Biodiversity Area in Antique, Philippines. The trees of the montane forest grow dense around us, mostly undamaged by human activity.

We began staring at the trees intently. Why? We are looking for large holes. This is where hornbills make their nests.

Can you find the nest hole? All photos taken from previous surveys.

If we are lucky, we might find a nest hole for one of the most elusive birds in the Philippines – the Rufous-headed Hornbill Rhabdotorrhinus waldeni. Known locally as Dulungan, it is endemic or only found in Panay and Negros Islands. Of all the hornbills in the world, it is one of 3 that are Critically Endangered.

The Dulungan is threatened by forest destruction and hunting. Its habitat has been severely deforested, and only 23% of the Philippines’ forest cover remain. With less forest to hide in, the Dulungan is more exposed to hunters. We have been informing local communities close to the Central Panay Mountains about forest and wildlife protection, with support from the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines.

Through this partnership we were able to train and deputize 22 forest guards to watch over the Dulungan and the biodiversity of the Central Panay Mountains. Local schools are now supporting the conservation of the species, and students are implementing projects to reduce waste and develop tree nurseries to help restore its habitat.

Even youth are starting projects to develop tree nurseries to help bring back Panay’s forests. Like and follow the youth-led Dulungan Youth Facebook page.

As the flagship species of the provincial government of Antique, the local Madja-as Festival highlights the Dulungan in parades and festivities. A locally managed protected area has been established by the LGUs of Culasi and Sebaste with support from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The Dulungan gets center stage during the Madja-as Festival.
Local communities have been joining training programs with assistance from NGCP and BirdLife International.

As we trek through the wilderness, covered in mosquitos and leaches, we are rewarded by the presence of a hole in a Tanguile tree. But is it an active nest hole?

An example of a nest hole.

Blending in with our surroundings as best we can, we are excited to hear a goat-like call echo through the forest: a Dulungan is returning to the nest.

Quickly and as quietly as possible, I take out my camera as the Dulungan flies close to the hole. As expected it is a male, since it is the male Dulungan that is tasked with finding food for the nest. He spreads his large black wings as he lands near the hole; his large orange bill holding a seed that he will feed his mate inside.

A photo of a male Dulungan from a previous survey.

As I watch him, I realize that we still have far to go in improving his situation. There are about 2,500 Dulungan left in the world and they are likely not increasing. Despite this, I know that conservation work by locals, for locals, is a powerful way to sustain conservation efforts. I am reminded of the on-going work of the local community.

This, together with our partnership with the National Grid Corporation, and additional support from the BirdLife Young Conservation Leaders Award, the work will go a long way to protect the Dulungan and its habitat.

I watch the Dulungan take off again to find more food. My eyes follow it for as long as I can, and I have a sudden feeling of hope. These collaborative efforts must continue.

Watch a video in Ilonggo about the Dulungan hornbill, or Rufous-headed hornbill. Click on “CC” at the bottom of the video for English subtitles.