The helmeted hornbill, an exotic bird found mainly in Indonesia, Borneo and Thailand, is being driven to extinction by the ivory trade. The birds are targeted for their distinctive red beaks, which are sold as a “red ivory” on the black market.
The helmeted hornbills’ have been hunted for centuries by local communities, who prize their tail feathers. However, since 2011, the birds have fallen victim to the rising demand for carving ivory. Today, a hornbills’ beak ivory, known as casques, is selling for several times the price of elephant ivory, making them a prime target for poachers.
In 2012, the bird was listed as “near threatened,” a status which has rapidly plunged three danger levels within as many years. Today, the helmeted hornbill has been listed in CITES Appendix I and on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “critically endangered.”
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In an effort to highlight the bird’s plight and ensure drastic measures are taken to save the species from extinction, participating nations at a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Johannesburg, have adopted a resolution calling for “urgent and integrated conservation and law enforcement measures.”
“This is a great victory for the helmeted hornbill that has been ruthlessly hunted for its red ivory as the elephant has been killed off for its ivory,” said Noviar Andayani, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia Program. “Many have heard about the elephant ivory crisis and now it is time to hear more about the helmeted hornbill ivory crisis and take swift action to save it.”
The hornbill was granted CITES highest level of protection back in 1975; however, Indonesia demanded more international action be taken in order to tackle the crime syndicates that smuggle the red ivory. According to some estimates, around 6,000 helmeted hornbills are killed every year.
“The high price reached by the casques motivates hunters to kill all the hornbills they cross, including juvenile birds,” said the CITES delegate from Indonesia. “The illegal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn has been well documented, however, the illegal trade in casques has been little known. If this highly profitable illegal trade is not curbed, the existence of this majestic species is in danger and is likely to lead to extinction.”
The bird, which can have a wingspan of 2m, has a mostly blackish plumage. In addition, this incredible bird also has a loud and distinctive call, which can often make it easier to hunt.
“It is in huge trouble,” said Elizabeth Bennett, from the Wildlife Conservation Society. “They have this fabulous call, that ends in cackling laughter, which you can hear from a mile away. But they are incredibly easy to hunt because of that call: it must be the most spectacular bird call on the planet.”
Like many other endangered species, the helmeted hornbill is particularly vulnerable to poaching, as it is a slow-breeding species. When ready to lay their one to two eggs a year, the male will use mud to seal the female into a hole in a tree. Once in the protective shelter, the male will feed the female and chicks through a small opening. As the female and chicks are dependent on the male, if the male is captured or killed, the whole family will starve.
It is hoped that now the CITES parties have agreed to adopt urgent and integrated conservation and law enforcement measures to tackle the influx of poaching, awareness of the sinister trade will be raised and the species will be saved from extinction.
“Only global cooperation can stop the illegal trade in hornbill ivory before it is too late,” said the CITES delegate from the Indonesian Hornbill Conservation Society. “I have witnessed the rampant illegal poaching in the rainforest.”
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