She has managed to turn poachers and illegal woodcutters into guardians of nature. For many long years, Pilai Poonswad, a microbiologist and professor emerita at Bangkok University, held endless talks with the Muslim communities in southern Thailand. The aim: to convince them to help her protect the rhinoceros hornbill. This rare tropical bird is hunted for its meat and its casque is sold illicitly for a small fortune, just like ivory.
This love of hornbills is not new. Since 1978, Pilai Poonswad who is now 64 has devoted her life to studying and protecting these big birds. “The first time I saw a hornbill, I was impressed by the sound of its flapping wings. It sounded just like a steam engine! I was immediately fascinated! ”Five out of the thirteen species of hornbill that have been identified on Thailand’s territory are endangered, and four are under threat of extinction. Indeed, in spite of their imposing size (between 1m and1.50m in height and a 1.90 m wingspan!), hornbills are delicate and vulnerable. “Even without poachers threatening them, these birds find it difficult to breed. It is a real problem as their being here helps balance the ecosystems and helps the regeneration of forests, explains the microbiologist. I could not let them die out without anyone showing the slightest interest. Something had to be done “. Pilai then rolled up her sleeves and started recreating the natural cavities of the tree trunks in which rhinoceros hornbills usually brood. Widening the entrance so they can get in, partly filling the holes to make them less deep… She has set up a whole set of makeshift solutions to encourage her protégés to nest.
For sixteen years, Pilai acted alone, with a little occasional help from friends and a few students… But in 1994, she unexpectedly discovered a rhinoceros hornbill near the border with Malaysia. Indeed, everyone thought the animal had disappeared from that area. She then decided to step up her action, and began the long task of trying to change the existing mentality. “It took three years for me to win these villagers’ hearts and their trust. Three years to convince them that preserving the forests and these birds is essential to the survival of future generations. I used to tell them “Your children and their descendants will pay for your mistakes, and will condemn for what you did to nature! “ They were suspicious, wary and uncooperative. They wouldn’t listen. Sometimes, they rejected me. But I was determined. I went to see them every week. Over time, they accepted my presence and finally heard my message.”
Pilai then created her foundation (the Hornbill Research Foundation). Its aim: to raise funds to pay ex-poachers and illegal woodcutters. “They are good people who don’t have a job or any money. For them, selling two rhinoceros hornbills is the equivalent of a year’s wages. That is a lot of money! To encourage them to stop what they were doing, I had to find them other sources of income.”
The Thai government supported her for the first three years but the grants soon stopped because of the crisis. Pilai then gave tourists and Thailand’s affluent population the opportunity to “adopt“ a family of hornbills for $120 a year. This sponsorship is used to pay the “converts” who promise to protect the nests.
Today, about fifty ex-poachers and other illegal woodcutters work hand in hand with the biologist. To increase the nesting area, Pilai and her numerous “assistants” (employees, villagers and volunteers) regularly make artificial nests out of resin. And it’s working. “About fifteen years ago, there were only about a dozen rhinoceros hornbills. Today there are five hundred of them, says the scientist proudly. It might not seem like much but it’s incredible!”
The lady affectionately known as “The Great Mother of the hornbills” who won a Rolex Award, in 2006. She also directs a reforestation programme, heads awareness campaigns in schools and encourages ecotourism. Moreover, the latter is a new source of income for all the region’s villagers. “The ex-poachers know the forest and the properties of plants perfectly. There is no doubt they will make highly qualified guides!”