Malaysia’s hornbill girl

Ravinder Kaur's love for hornbills overrode the inconvenience of being a woman encamped often alone in a remote village. The hornbills' unusual nesting strategy — shared by no other kinds of birds in the world — is fascinating. ELENA KOSHY from the New Straits Times captures the story

In the quest to save hornbills. Sanjit and Ravin in front, with their ‘Swiss Army knives guys’, Amidi Majinun (back left) and Helson Hassan (back right). RIGHT: The rare and critically endangered Helmeted hornbill became the focus of Ravin’s research. – Photo: SANJITPAAL SINGH/JITSPICS.COM
By Elena Koshy | MALAYSIA |

“THERE’s never a typical day in conservationism!” she begins, smiling. Dimples flashing, her limpid eyes doesn’t leave mine as she sits across me over cups of coffee. I agree ruefully and we laugh heartily together. We’re old friends — she and I.

I’ve known Ravinder Kaur for more than a decade since I first joined the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) in 2008, as a wide-eyed city girl who’d jump out of her skin at the mere sight of an insect.

I spent my first few months being hazed by seasoned “nature” people; from finding a whiskery centipede curled up in my desk drawer, to catching sight of a snake (non-venomous thankfully) hanging from above the toilet seat; facing fat leeches perched merrily on my feet during my first forest trek (my screams could be heard reverberating through the quiet forest) right up to being urged to pet a reticulated python that had been rescued from the roads.

Ravin, as she’s fondly called, was kinder to me. Like a mama hornbill, she took me under her wings and gently tutored me on the goings-on at this decrepit-looking bungalow where we were housed (a far cry from the gleaming corporate buildings I was used to in all my previous years of being employed), told me stories about hornbills that I remember to this day and made me feel less of a sore thumb.

She was the project coordinator of the MNS Hornbill Conservation Project (conceived in 2003) back then.

The fledgling scientist would routinely take a bus up to the small town of Gerik, get on a boat and stay at Kampung Chuweh, the Orang Asli village located on the banks of the Temengor Lake to count plain-pouch hornbills during their migration over the Belum-Temengor forest complex.

Ravinder Kaur and project partner and hubby Sanjitpaal Singh (left) — Photos: Sanjitpaal Singh/

She’d occasionally venture into the dense forest to observe the nestings of the Helmeted, Rhinoceros and Great hornbills for her Masters project.

“You did visit my ‘hut’ there, didn’t you?” she teases me, dimples flashing again. Yes, I did, recalling how I gingerly (and not very gracefully) climbed up a steep hill where the tiny village was perched.

Her “shack” was rudimentary, to say the least. I shuddered at the thought of staying for days on end in that tiny hut just so she could count the flying hornbills.

But Ravin never complained. Her love for hornbills overrode the inconvenience of being a woman encamped often alone in a remote village. She’d come back after her many trips to regale me with tales of her “adventures” out in the wild.

“Once my hut burnt down and I had to sleep in the kitchen of someone else’s hut!” she told me blithely, before breaking into laughter. “I woke up to the curious stares of Orang Asli children crowding around me the next morning!”

Read the full story, ‘Hornbill girl and her quest to build homes for Malaysia’s iconic birds’ (Sunday Times, 11 Oct 2020), here.


Borneo hornbill expert Ravinder Kaur gets timely lift (Asia Samachar, 8 Oct 2020)

Malaysian PhD student Ravinder Kaur lands UK award for hornbill research (Asia Samachar,  29 June 2017)


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