the kiwi travel writer and the birdman
Mansur Poh is a passionate man. Obsessed say some, crazy say others: however, all agree he is a bird man of absolute dedication and Malaysia’s lesser adjutant storks are fortunate to have him. He has been dubbed ”Protector of the lesser adjutant stork” – a fitting title for someone who has devoted over 10 years to unpaid study of this threatened species.
So, what is the lesser adjutant? It’s a stork with a two-metre wingspan, is 120-cm tall, stands with a hunched appearance and has a massive wedged shaped bill. They have an un-feathered head, sparse feathers on their neck and flies with its neck retracted – more like a heron than a stork. When flying, to me they look like a cross between a child’s picture of a bird and a pterodactyl, and have been called ugly by some. It is resident from India across SE Asia to Cambodia, and is one of the world’s endangered birds – with only some 250 left in Malaysia and a world population of less than 5,000.
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Mr Poh, a retired police officer had not intended to study the lesser adjutant stork - it happened by accident. One day while watching kingfishers at the end of the pier in Parit Jawa (A small, mainly Chinese, fishing village on the west coast of Malaysia) he noticed a pair at the far end of the mudflats and became curious about the huge birds. Mansur Poh has good memories of his time as a Police Inspector – he graduated in 1980 – and is particularly grateful for the training he received.
”Studying the birds is exactly the same as observing criminals” he tells me ”so I use that basic knowledge and training in surveillance to observe the birds and record their activities.” I went looking for him and the storks after reading a newspaper report of his work.
Landing is amazingly accurate for such a large bird. After they have ridden the warm currents high above us they fly down at a great speed, wings and legs out-stretched, neck tucked in and head straight up. I can hear the wind whistle through their wings. As they approach the trees they reduce speed: their legs hang down, wings become hang-glider-shaped, and at the last-minute they stretch out their neck. Even its tail appears to point upwards to slow down as they glide into the tree and, mostly, land right beside the nest. I find myself laughing at them; they look so aloof, so formal yet funny.
I spend over a month observing them, travelling early every morning on the back of the birdman’s motorbike and when the birds hatch it’s been worth the hours in the sun. It’s funny to reflect that I’d never heard of the lesser adjutant stork before reading the article two months earlier, and I never expected to fall in love with them or stay so long – the beauty of being a slow traveller.
Lesser Adjutant Stork/ Borung Botak (leptoptitos javanicus)
(One of three globally threatened storks resident in Malaysia)
Totally protected under Schedule 3 of the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972
Member of the ciconidae family: i.e. large birds with long powerful beaks.
Long legs, broad wings (2 metre) and a short tail.
Naked head, some small hair-like feathers on yellowish neck.
Distribution ranges from India to South East Asia.
Global pop. Approx. 5,000
Malaysian pop. 250 ( most in Johor)
Feeds mainly on eels, small fish, crustaceans, frogs and other wildlife found in wetlands (both fresh and saltwater) it will also feed on carrion.
Threats to the Lesser Adjutant include not only the natural predators such as the two eagles seen attacking the nests on Wednesday (further proof of the hatchlings) but also, mostly the human threat of habitat loss.