Many locals can’t believe these majestic birds exist in our forests. It’s the sad truth! The Walden’s Hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus waldeni), locally known as the Talarak, or known as the Visayan Wrinkled Hornbill, Rufous-Headed Hornbill or the Writhed-Billed Hornbill is one of the most remarkable looking birds at Negros Forest Park (formerly Negros Forest and Ecological Foundation, Inc. or NFEFI).
These Critically Endangered birds used to be seen throughout the forests of Negros and Panay, but now, you’re lucky to even hear stories about their existence on Negros. According to Talarak Foundation’s (TFI) President, Fernando Gutierrez, “They are functionally extinct in Negros, and there have only been a few sightings and calls heard, but no photographic proof so far.” But, TFI has some huge news about the Walden’s!
This year, after what seemed like an eternity of waiting, there is a fully fledged Walden’s Hornbill chick! Last January 4, 2019, a female Walden’s Hornbill, named Ligaya, sealed herself in a nest box, while her mate, Kalantiw, patiently waited. On February 14, a baby was heard crying inside the nest box. It was then confirmed that Ligaya laid three eggs, but only one had hatched. On April 19, Valentin, the newly fledged Hornbill, emerged! The gender of Valentin is still unknown, and it will take up to two months until we find out.
Why is this such big news? “It took us nine years to have our first ever successful breeding. They take so long to mature, and bonded pairs are hard to form in captivity. Pairs have to be totally compatible to breed successfully since once sealed, females and young are totally dependent on the male.” Says Gutierrez.
In the wild, Hornbills mate for life. And when the female lays her eggs, parents seal the female in the trunks of trees, and the female stays with the eggs for a whole 28-30 days of incubation. This means, she puts her life in the wings of the male, and relies on him to bring her food every single day. If the male is poached or hunted, the whole family dies. The total length of time a female is in the sealed trunk with her chicks can last up to 105 days until the chick is ready to fledge.
The last successful captive breeding of a Walden’s Hornbill was in 2010, in Mari-it Conservation Center, in Lambunao, Panay. Since then, captive numbers have plateaued at a mere 32, with one female with a congenital defect. Only Mari-it and Negros Forest Park have these birds in captivity, and only these two centers are working hard to keep this species alive.
Hunting for sport, poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, and the lack of mature nesting trees in our forests, are key factors to their rapid decline in numbers. “Being big birds,” says Gutierrez, “with poaching and hunting still an issue in our remaining forests, the future looks very bleak if there are any wild birds remaining. It is of great importance to properly secure our remaining forest cover.”
So why this year’s successful breeding? NFP’s Head Keeper, Jimmy Benzuela, did not take a single off day in the 105 days the female was sealed. He tirelessly watched over the new family, ensuring their health and nutrition was everyone’s top priority. And all his hard work and dedication to conserving this species is the biggest news in Negros’ Conservation efforts this year!
“Bilang isa ka zookeeper, dako ko gid nga kalipay kag dongog nga first time naka pabuto ko sang Rufous-Headed Hornbill, every breeding season ginatagaan ko gid sila estra time kag effort para lang maka breed. Kag sa akon nga kadugay nga hulat nakapabreed gid man ko. Lubos gid ang akon kalipay.” says Benzuela about his dedication to the animals in his care. (TRANSLATION: “Being one of the zoo keepers, I have much joy and pride, that for the first time I was able to successfully hatch a Rufous Headed Hornbill (Talarak). Every breeding season I really give them extra time and effort just so they could breed, and for the longest time waiting, I was actually able to get them to breed successfully. My joy is full!”)
Another key factor is that Negros Forest Park, though in the middle of the city, is Bacolod’s rainforest right in the heart of it! For thirty years, endemic trees have been given the chance to grow and mature, making it the perfect environment for what is left of Negros Island’s wildlife. It is a stronghold for key Negros species, a place for them to thrive securely. Although not ideal, and despite Talarak Foundation’s dedicated efforts to bring these animals back home to their natural habitat, it is one of the key Captive Breeding Centers in the country, and an important part in Philippine conservation efforts!
According to NFP’s Curator David Castor “I’m so happy to see the beautiful young Walden’s, that at last we have successfully bred after many years. It is a feeling of achieving a breakthrough, a new height in our conservation and breeding program.” Castor has been with this project from the very beginning, and he has seen the ups and downs of Philippine conservation and seen the trees in NFP grow and flourish. It is because of his, and the rest of the team’s, hard work, that these successes will continue to happen.
Talarak Foundation, Inc. is the foundation that manages Negros Forest Park. They took over animal management of Negros Forest and Ecological Foundation, Inc. in 2016, and merged to maintain the banner of TFI in 2018. Their projects include captive breeding programs of our Negros endemic species, forest protection, and reforestation, as well as education campaigns. To support their efforts, visit them at Negros Forest Park beside the Capitol Lagoon, or their website at www.talarak.org.