Hornbills are perhaps the most regal birds found in Asia and Africa’s tropical forests, where they play a vital role by spreading seeds. A Thai microbiologist is popularly known the “Great Mother of Hornbills” for her ingenious strategies to save them and their habitats.
Gifted with wide wingspans and distinctive large beaks, and feathered in striking colours, hornbills are disappearing from their habitats in Thailand – one species may be almost extinct, five are endangered, four are near-threatened and three are vulnerable – because of human activity.
We all need to learn how to be human beings in tune with the nature that protects and supports us.
For decades Pilai Poonswad, now retired from her job as microbiology professor at Mahidol University, Bangkok, has spent her spare time protecting hornbills from poachers and loggers in the Thai forests. Her methods have ranged from writing books, lobbying governments and speaking at conferences worldwide, to a plan for city families to “adopt” hornbill nests to fund her work. She has also converted poachers into guardians by encouraging them to use their knowledge of the forest to become gamekeepers and eco-tour guides. Arguably the world authority on Asian hornbills, Poonswad is now focusing on the younger generation, which is the key to long-term hornbill conservation. She is a consultant to the governments of Malaysia, Bhutan and China, which have territory with hornbill habitats, and has helped develop a sister programme in India.
Hornbill species in Thailand, out of 32 in all of Asia
Thai forest that has disappeared