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Hornbills: Agents of change at Piasau Nature Reserve

MIRI: The much awaited Piasau Nature Reserve (PNR) in Miri is now a reality and is expected to be ready by late 2016.

The existence of many totally protected wildlife species like the Oriental Pied Hornbill is said to be one of the agents of change for the conversion of the former Piasau Camp into a nature reserve.

The camp sports over 200 houses for Shell employees and was built in the 50’s, becoming a historical site synonymous with the oil and gas industry.

thesundaypost recently spoke to Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Miri treasurer Iqbal Abdollah, who presented a paper titled ‘Hornbills As Agents of Change: The Piasau Camp Story’ during the National Hornbill Conference held in Miri from Aug 11 to 13.

The paper, jointly compiled by Miri MNS chairman Musa Musbah and secretary Mairead Boland, was among the 25 papers presented at the inaugural conference attended by 73 foreign and local delegates working on hornbills.

The key speaker was world renowned hornbill expert Prof Emeritus Dr Pillai Poonswad from the Hornbill Research Foundation Faculty of Science Mahidol University Bangkok, Thailand.

The Piasau Hornbill family history

According to Musa, it was only in 2005 when the first written record of hornbills was completed at Piasau camp. In 2006, the Oriental Pied Hornbill and Wrinkled Hornbill were observed by the Rapid Environmental Assessment done by Shell consultants.

In 2007, camp resident Dr Giana Minton began monitoring the hornbills and in August 2012, House 58, a nesting site was shown to Musa by camp resident Erwin Adams.

Since then, MNS and the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) have continued to monitor the nest.

So far, 10 nesting cycles were observed and recorded since 2007 by Dr Minton and Musa involving female hornbills Faridah and Juliet.

To date, 20 individual hornbills have been observed there and the males were named Jimmy, Anthony, Han, Ibrahim, Munyung, Robert, Kareem, Sam, Abong, Moses, Ah Kaw and Musa.

The female hornbills were named Faridah, Cathy, Alice, Julia, Ah Moi, Rosita, Juliet and Cecilia.

PNR spans some 88.5ha and also features 17 fauna species protected under the Wildlife Protection Ordinance, 45 bird species (including the iconic hornbills), three mammal species, five amphibian species, 12 reptile species, 10 butterfly species and 107 plant species.

(Standing, second right) Ting with PCMNPS Exco members present a commemorative t-shirt to Adenan (seated, centre) flanked by Taib (right) and Second Minister of Resource Planning and Environment Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hassan.

The urgency to safeguard the hornbills

The brutal death of Faridah at the hands of poachers on Sept 24, 2013 gave rise to a public outcry condemning the killing.

Faridah was notable for producing 56 offspring since 2005.

The people also feared that Shell’s decision to relinquish the camp to the government in September, 2013 to develop the area into a beach-side attraction with shophouses and condominiums would further endanger the hornbills.

Thus they began gazetting the camp to establish it as a conservation area for hornbills and other wildlife, turning it into a heritage and buffer zone against natural disasters.

Events leading to the establishment of PNR

The local community, non-government organisations (NGOs) like MNS and political parties aggressively lobbied the state government for the area to be declared a totally protected area.

A petition collected 15,000 signatures, while several other related activities including the Hornbill Walk, colouring and logo design contests, exhibitions and talks on hornbills at Piasau Camp were organised.

A gathering specially held in memory of Faridah saw a crowd of over 1,000 people turning up, further showcasing the people’s passion for the hornbills.

In anticipation of Juliet (Jimmy’s new mate) producing hatchlings, a 24-hour video surveillance system was set up at the nest to provide complete data for future reference and conservation purposes.

Subsequently, Piasau Camp Miri Nature Park Society (PCMNPS) was formed and registered on October, 2013 with Sarawak United People’s Party secretary general Datuk Sebastian Ting elected as the first chairman to pursue the cause at the state government level.

Shell staff and Miri International Jazz Fest performers pose at PNR.

Other supporters of PNR

Shell too gave their support to MNS, while other businesses and organisations like Boulevard Mall, MMYMall, Interhill and Pustaka helping with other public awareness campaigns.

Social media too played a key role as videos, photos and events could be easily shared and on August, 2012 a Facebook group named ‘Save Piasau Oriental Hornbill – The New Nestlings’ was set up.

Behind the scenes

Many legal aspects had to be clarified and resolved. In May, 2013 Shell commissioned a ‘Study of Flora and Fauna’ at Piasau Camp conducted by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) and in January, 2014 designs for the proposed nature reserve was commissioned by Shell.

Assistant Environment Minister Datu Len Talif Salleh also obtained first hand information from Shell, MNS and PCMNPS and later announced that the government had gazetted Piasau Camp as a nature reserve on April 3, 2014.

Impact of PNR.

Head of State Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud performed the earth-breaking ceremony on May 10. 2014.

Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem called PNR a fine model for the setting up of other urban nature reserves planned for town centres like Sibu.

Ministry of Resource Planning and Environment’s Permanent Secretary Datuk Sudarsono Osman also said a master plan had been drafted for the development and management of PNR.

At the same function, Petronas and Shell Malaysia announced a contribution of RM5 million each for the building of a visitor’s centre and conservation facilities for the park, while House 58 was established as SFC Ranger Station.

Demolition works on other houses started in December, 2014 and is expected to be completed this month.

PNR hopes to protect the diverse flora and fauna found within, as well as educate people in the conservation of nature.

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