The helmeted hornbill is a huge, cackling bird native to the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. It has a wrinkly, featherless neck and a long, black-and-white banded tail. Atop its short spike of a bill is the “helmet”—a solid wedge of keratin (the same material that makes up your fingernails) called a casque.
That wedge, which male hornbills use for head-to-head airborne combat, may be their undoing. Around 2011, an explosion in demand from China’s new rich for this so-called “red ivory,” named after the hue the casque takes on when it’s carved, has led to wholesale slaughter of helmeted hornbills in Indonesia.
Organized criminal syndicates have spread throughout the tropical forests of Sumatra and Borneo, employing locals to shoot every hornbill they come across. They do this in the hope that at least some of the birds are the valuable helmeted hornbill, says Nigel Collar, a senior research fellow BirdLife International, a coalition of independent bird conservation groups from around the world.
The helmeted hornbill (which conservation scientists have described as a “weirdo” and “absolutely amazing”) is worth saving in its own right. These birds are also one of the most important seed dispersers in the forest, critical for maintaining the ecosystem’s health.
They’re already vulnerable to extinction. They breed only once a year and have just one chick at a time. A female seals herself into the cavity of a big tree with her chick for up to five months, relying on the male to provide food. If the male is killed, the female and her chick are likely doomed.
Then there’s the nesting tree itself. Helmeted hornbills’ forests are targets for logging—a big problem because they need abundant forest to thrive—and the big trees with the best nesting cavities are often the first to be chopped down.
Last November, the helmeted hornbill’s conservation status was upped from “near-threatened.” It shot past “vulnerable” and “endangered” and landed at one level away from “extinct”—“critically endangered.” An uplisting of that many steps so fast is rare.
Law enforcement officials have seized more than 1,800 casques since 2010, according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which today released a map of all helmeted hornbill seizures from 2010 to 2015 using open-source media reports. The map helps pinpoint smuggling hot spots and routes, and gives an idea of the scale and scope of the trade. This figure likely represents only a fraction of the actual trade—seizures data, it's believed, account for about 20 percent of what's really happening.
Helmeted hornbill products mainly come in the form of decorative ornaments and jewelry, according to the EIA. In China, the casque of a helmeted hornbill can bring more money per gram than elephant ivory, although the price has dropped a bit since the Chinese economy has slowed, according to an investigator with the EIA, who wants to remain anonymous for security reasons.
The exact number of helmeted hornbills remaining in the forests of Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei, and parts of Thailand is unknown, but we do have an idea of how many are being killed. Research in 2013 by independent hornbill researcher Yokyok Hadiprakarsa found that at least 500 adult helmeted hornbills were killed every month in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan—that’s 6,000 a year.
“Horrifying,” Hadiprakarsa said in an email. “It was shocking. And I needed to do something.”
Hadiprakarsa is now part of a new working group that aims to end the trade in helmeted hornbill casques. Prompted by Collar in the fall of 2015, Bee Choo Strange, the international coordinator for the Hornbill Research Foundation at Thailand’s Mahidol University, organized a meeting of field biologists and conservationists at NGOs to come up with a plan.
Ancient Carving Tradition
Native people in Borneo have carved hornbill casques into ornaments for at least 2,000 years. But it was around 700, when Borneo began trading with China, that helmeted hornbill “ivory” took off, Collar wrote in BirdingASIA. The casque material is softer than elephant ivory, so artisans were able to carve much more elaborate designs.
From snuff boxes and jewelry to figurines and belt buckles, the hornbill carvings became a sign of wealth and luxury. According to Collar, demand began to dwindle at the beginning of the 1900s and, inexplicably, it had almost evaporated by World War II.
It was in 2012 that Hadiprakarsa realized that the helmeted hornbill was once again being targeted by poachers and traffickers. “When I received a photo of stacked helmeted hornbill heads for sale in the black market in West Kalimantan, and I held with my own hand a fresh dried helmeted hornbill head—this is the foremost reason I started my investigation,” he said.
Five years later the trade is booming. “To be frank, it’s quite difficult to miss,” the EIA investigator told me. “Most shops I’ve visited in China or Chinese communities abroad that offer elephant ivory and rhino horn for sale very often have helmeted hornbill products for sale.”
The fact that hornbill is rarer than ivory (and helmeted hornbills are more endangered than elephants) makes it all the more attractive as a status symbol.
What Can Be Done?
Helmeted hornbills are at most three generations away from extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which sets conservation statuses for animals and plants. For animals with long lives and slow reproductive cycles, it’s deadly serious, Collar said.
The birds are already protected by Chinese and Indonesian law, as well as by international law. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), they’re given the highest level of protection—no commercial trade is allowed. Yet the black market is flourishing.
“This really is the greatest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity, in saving the helmeted hornbill,” said Chris Shepherd, of TRAFFIC, who’s also a member of the helmeted hornbill working group. “The tools are in place to do something about this trade.” What’s needed is effective enforcement of CITES and of national laws.
One of the working group’s goals is to train enforcement officers in the parts of Indonesia where helmeted hornbills are poached the most. Another is to establish community-based conservation programs in Indonesia and demand-reduction programs in China.
“My heart sinks because the helmeted hornbill is just exceptional,” said BirdLife’s Nigel Collar. “We just cannot afford to lose any animal as interesting, as unique as this.”
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Rachael Bale on Twitter.