The tools are in place to do something about the trade in the birds’ casques, stresses a wildlife expert.
Hornbills are majestic, gaudy birds that boast stunning curved beaks with a protruding crest atop their upper mandibles. Known as a casque, it is a wedge of keratin which male hornbills use primarily for display and sometimes for butting heads in flight during grandstanding bouts of combative machismo to attract the attention of females.
Unfortunately for the critically endangered birds, their flamboyant appendages have also attracted the attention of a less welcome breed: wildlife traffickers. While catering to increasingly great demand in China for what has been dubbed “red ivory,” international criminal syndicates have been after the beaks of helmeted hornbills (so named for their massive helmet-like casques) and other species by peddling them as an alternative to traditional ivory.
And so throughout their range from the Philippines to Indonesia and from Malaysia to Thailand hornbills are at increasing risk of falling prey to local poachers who often shoot the birds on sight. And the death of any male bird can be a double tragedy because female hornbills are monogamous, routinely mating for life and producing only one or two chicks a year.
Females seal themselves into a hollow of a tall tree with their chicks and proceed to rely on her male partners to provide food through a small opening. Males also provide females and their chicks with protection against predators. Bravely feisty though male hornbills may be, however, there’s little they can do when they come up against human poachers armed with guns. Once a male is killed, a female and her chick might wind up starving to death.
Although the critically endangered birds are protected by law across Southeast Asia their populations have dropped to alarmingly low levels in recent years and decades. Take Thailand, where the birds were once common sights in many forests. Today no more than 200 of them remain in the country’s forests, according to some estimates. The situation is hardly different in other Southeast Asia nations, such as the Philippines, whose forests hornbills call home.
In the Malaysian state of Sarawak, whose very emblem is the magnificent rhinoceros hornbill (known locally as burung kenyalang) the local Dayak people have traditionally treated the large birds reverentially, taking them to embody the divine spirit.
But for at least two millennia locals have also been carving the birds’ casques into ornaments, from jewelry to belt buckles to figurines, believing hornbill carvings to signify wealth and status.
Such decorative art has caught on elsewhere. Hand-carved hornbill casques are regarded as status symbols in countries like China. Although Beijing has promised to step up their efforts to clamp down on international trafficking in hornbill casques, along with elephant ivory and rhino horn, hornbills are being driven ever closer to extinction by the double whammies of poaching and habitat loss.
Conservationists estimate that some of the subspecies might be a mere three generations away from extinction as the long-lived animals’ slow reproductive cycle exposes them to ever graver dangers in the face of poaching. To stop that from happening, the beleaguered birds have been granted the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) with no commercial trade allowed in them.
That, however, has not stopped unscrupulous operators from hunting the birds for their casques, which can fetch exorbitant sums on the black market. Helmeted hornbills are especially at risk, thanks to their majestic beaks and their vivid color combinations. “[T]he helmeted hornbill is just exceptional,” Nigel Collar, a senior research fellow BirdLife International, an international coalition of bird conservation groups, told National Geographic. “We just cannot afford to lose any animal as interesting, as unique as this.”
It isn’t too late yet to save the beleaguered birds. Protection measures, including antipoaching initiatives, must be stridently enforced throughout the birds’ entire range. “The tools are in place to do something about this trade” in their casques, stresses Chris Shepherd, Southeast Asia director of the anti-wildlife trafficking watchdog TRAFFIC.