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Asia races to save the Critically Endangered helmeted hornbill

  • The helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is one of Southeast Asia’s most unique large bird species, but its numbers have plummeted since 2012 as organized crime trafficking rings trade in the “red ivory” of the birds’ casque, an enlargement of its beak, which can sell for $4,000 per kilo.
  • Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, Executive Director of the Indonesian Hornbill Conservation Society, has worked with R. vigil for seventeen years. At first he was interested in its biology; then, as he watched the bird vanish from his nation’s forests, he became a crusader for its preservation.
  • A 2013 investigation revealed that in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province 6,000 helmeted hornbills were killed for their red ivory in a single year. The birds’ casques are carved into ornaments, jewelry and belt buckles, or are turned into pills with dubious curative powers.
  • While the species is protected under CITES, and has been declared Critically Endangered by the IUCN, trafficking enforcement efforts have largely been a failure so far across the region. Only a redoubled effort by Asian countries is likely to save it.
The helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is one of Southeast Asia’s most unique birds, with a large ivory-like casqued beak that is used by males in head-to-head aerial combat. The scarlet-colored “red ivory” casques are highly valued by illegal traffickers. Photo © Y. Hadiprakarsa/IHCS

Loud gibbon-like hoots, ending in a maniacal cackle, echo through the dense Indonesian forest. This flamboyant utterance isn’t produced by a primate; nor even a mammal. It is sounded by a huge, helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), advertising its stature and position.

The bird — maybe weighing three kilograms (6.6 pounds) — then knocks its casqued beak against a thick tree branch, “like a boxer knocking his gloves before a fight,” as one scientific paper describes it. Within seconds, the hornbill takes to the air, spreading its almost two meter (6.6 feet) wingspan, then joins another seemingly gravity-defying giant in midair.

The two circle, then thunder directly toward one another, colliding casque-to-casque in a stunning aerial display. They strike with such force that the birds are flipped backwards in mid flight, and the colossal “clack” of their casques can be heard a hundred meters (328 feet) away. Despite concerted effort by scientists, this amazing phenomenon has never been captured on film, and there are fears it never will.

The red ivory trade takes off

The Critically Endangered helmeted hornbill is not beautiful in the traditional sense. With its cowl of featherless skin, and its oversized, heavy casque, it seems to point toward the close family relationship between dinosaurs and birds. But this un-pretty hornbill is in high demand nonetheless, and poaching is driving its decline.

A helmeted hornbill displays its casqued beak. Photo ©Muhammad Alzahri

Too big to be a popular pet, it is the helmeted hornbill’s most unique feature that puts it most at risk — its solid casque. Ivory is a coveted commodity among Asia’s elite. And demand for it prompts the slaughter of hundreds of elephants and rhinos each year, as their valuable tusks and horns are whittled into ornaments or ground into dubiously effective pills, provided for traditional medicine.

But the hornbill’s red, ivory-like casqued beak is even more valuable, even rarer, and so even more desired.

Red ivory is colored by age as the helmeted hornbill rubs its keratin-formed casque on its preen gland, and the bright red oil colors the casque scarlet over time. Males use their red helmet as a weapon in head-to-head combats, and this solid structure lends itself well to carving. Slightly softer than the white ivory of elephant tusks, it is easily shaped into intricate trinkets, jewelry and belt buckles that boldly promote the social status of the wearer. Red ivory, going under other names including hornbill-ivory and golden-jade, fetches up to $4000 per kilo.

Helmeted hornbill champion

Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, Executive Director of the Indonesian Hornbill Conservation Society, has been working with R. vigil for seventeen years. Exactly how many are left isn’t known, he explains, but what is known is that the birds are confined to pockets of forest in Indonesia, Myanmar and Southern Thailand, on the Malaysian Malay peninsular and in the Sabah and Sarawak Malaysian states on northern Borneo island.

Previously, Hadiprakarsa focused on collecting scientific data about the species, but in 2012 he learned that a resurgence in red ivory trafficking was underway, and that event sparked a change in direction for him.

“My intuition told me, everything will be getting worse,” Hadiprakarsa told Mongabay. And, he adds, his intuition was right.

Decapitated hornbill head with attached casque, confiscated from smugglers who were trying to get the casques out of Indonesia and into China, where much of the trade in hornbill ivory is consumed. Hornbill conservationists are calling for stronger enforcement of anti-poaching laws, and want to see more convictions alongside the confiscations. Photo © Y. Hadiprakarsa/IHCS

Hadiprakarsa began using limited funding to monitor the helmeted hornbills and their casques across Indonesia. In 2013, an intensive investigation supported by the Chester Zoo Conservation Award revealed that in West Kalimantan alone, 6,000 helmeted hornbills were killed for their ivory in just a single year.

“Everybody was shocked,” said Hadiprakarsa. But he was disappointed that no action was taken by the international conservation community.

Due to the lack of scientific studies recording the size of remaining hornbill populations, it was difficult to gauge the impact poaching was having on the birds, but Hadiprakarsa feared the worst. Continuing his investigations, he surveyed numerous habitats across Sumatra and Kalimantan. “My fear seemed [to] come true, this bird became rarely seen or heard.”

Hornbill beak tips were among hundreds of animal parts seized in raids in Malaysia in August 2016. Photo ©Kanitha Krishnasamy/TRAFFIC

Local people who regularly visit the forests within the hornbill’s range told Hadiprakarsa that they hardly ever encounter the bird anymore; others said they hadn’t seen it for years, since sometime back in 2012, when the surge in hunting began.

In 2015, soon after Hadiprakarsa presented his research to the scientific community, the helmeted hornbill’s conservation status was revised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It plummeted from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered, and the international conservation community began to pay attention.

International recognition and action

Recognizing the need for immediate action, Dwi Adhiasto, from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and Chris Shepherd from TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, joined Hadiprakarsa and other conservationists to set up the Helmeted Hornbill Working Group. Their aim is to raise awareness of the hornbill crisis, and elevate its protection priority with enforcement agencies.

“It is times like this, when concerned, devoted and dedicated people come together and take action that motivate me.” Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s Regional Director of Southeast Asia, told Mongabay. “It is because of people like these that I know there is still hope.”

A helmeted hornbill displays its casqued beak — coveted by traffickers. The bird pictured here is an immature male. The casqued beaks and skin cowls of adult males develop an intense scarlet color, the “red ivory” traded illegally for high prices across Southeast Asia. Photo © Doug Janson CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

TRAFFIC is now monitoring Asian wildlife markets and collecting information about the trade in red ivory. This information is analyzed and used to advise enforcement agencies in relevant countries, as well as contributing to scientific publications in order to inform conservation and policy decisions.

“Lack of awareness, especially amongst conservation organizations, relevant governments and enforcement agencies is a serious obstacle in the fight to save this species,” Shepherd said. “Organized crime networks are currently running circles around enforcement agencies, and conservation efforts are often so far behind that they are largely ineffective.”

The helmeted hornbill is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I, meaning that trade in wild caught specimens is illegal among treaty signatories.

“Sadly, despite being Parties to CITES, some countries in Southeast Asia are doing little to uphold the Convention,” explained Shepherd. “We are working hard to make CITES work in Southeast Asia.”

Adhiasto, Manager of WCS’s Wildlife Crime Unit, investigates hornbill poachers, dealers and exporters in Sumatra, including Lampung, Bengkulu, Jambi, West Sumatra, North Sumatra and Aceh province. “We are working with the forest rangers and police to conduct sting operations, and assist the legal court processes with prosecutors and judges,” he revealed.

With help from the IUCN Working Group, the Indonesian government has arrested more than twenty poachers, dealers and smugglers across the country. The potential punishment under Indonesian law is a five-year prison sentence and a fine up to 100 million Indonesian Rupiah (around US $7,600).

Carved pendants observed for sale in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo ©Kanitha Krishnasamy/TRAFFIC

So with the formation of such a proactive working group, and stronger enforcement, is enough now being done to halt the helmeted hornbill’s decline? “No!” said Shepherd.

“Not yet,” said Adhiasto.

“A lot is being done, but more resources are urgently needed to notch up our efforts,” Shepherd added. The general consensus is that awareness of the trade has now been established, but stopping the trade is not high enough on Asian government and conservation agendas.

Enforcement lags behind traffickers

The red ivory trade is a new and burgeoning business, and as such, its dynamics are still poorly understood, with government plans to stop it fully still not yet in place.

What authorities do know is that the arm of the law is not strong in some parts of Asia, with the red ivory trade occurring openly in some markets. What enforcers also know is that the lucrative trade is not just a local crime. It is being carried out by organized crime groups whose dealers manage poaching rings.

“As such, enforcement agencies really need to tackle [the trade] as a serious crime,” said Shepherd. Now, sometimes when casques are discovered, this doesn’t lead to prosecution; the offenders can walk away undeterred, and are ready to try again another day.

“Seizures are not penalties,” Shepherd stressed. “We call upon countries where trade in this species is being carried out openly to not only shut down the trade but to prosecute offenders.” The doors of the Helmeted Hornbill Working Group are wide open to agencies that want to work together to tackle the crisis, Shepherd adds.

This is a young helmeted hornbill, which can be determined by the color of its beak. Hornbill beaks become colored red with age, as oil from their preen glands builds up over time. Despite being a young bird, you can see its great size as it precariously perches on the small branches of a fig tree. Fully grown, hornbills can weigh up to three kilograms (6.6. pounds). Young hornbills are also targeted by poachers, which can be extremely detrimental to the populations. Photo © Y. Hadiprakarsa/IHCS

There is some good news for helmeted hornbills: enforcement at important exit points used by wildlife smugglers have been strengthened, including airports in North Sumatra, Jakarta, and West Kalimantan, but there are key weak spots at harbors and on the Malaysian border that need strengthening. The thousands of beaks seized in Indonesia and China represent just a small portion of the species’ loss, but those confiscations are also a rich opportunity for analysis. Beak measurements can reveal age profiles of the birds being taken, and DNA analysis could help to track the origin points of poached birds.

Part of the problem is inevitably a financial one. Indonesia has limited funds to protect their forests and wildlife. Hadiprakarsa also points out that the federal government under supports the economic development of poor rural communities, fuelling the desire of local people to harvest a red ivory cash crop when dealers offer high prices.

Complicating matters further is the fact that protected areas are managed and patrolled exclusively by the central government. As a result, forest patrols are limited, and the villages surrounding preserved forests play little or no role in enforcement, which doesn’t allow them to possess any pride of ownership in the conservation efforts.

This lack of community involvement is likely costly to the Critically Endangered birds. A “low number of informants in key poaching areas will not be enough to detect signs of poaching,” Adhiasto warned.

A helmeted hornbill pair sits in the forest canopy. One hornbill shows off its great wingspan, which can measure up to two meters. Helmeted hornbills are fiercely loyal birds, pairing for life and investing great time and effort into producing, at most, one offspring per year. Photo © Y. Hadiprakarsa/IHCS

Getting to know the helmeted hornbill

Another problem for the helmeted hornbill: It is only just starting to gain scientific attention, and the species suffers from a dearth of ecological data. No one knows how many hornbills are left in the wild, or what conservation strategies might enhance successful breeding.

As is often the case with at-risk species, the helmeted hornbill’s life history is both slow and complicated. Consider breeding, for example. Once a life partner is determined, a suitable nesting cavity is needed. Despite, or perhaps because of, their oversized beaks, the birds are unable to excavate a nest, so they must find a pre-existing tree hollow before they can reproduce.

“The bird needs a specific tree cavity with [a] knobby feature on the entrance,” explained Hadiprakarsa. Such a feature can only be found on larger trees.

Once just the right cavity has been found in just the right tree, the hornbill pair can set about producing young. But after the passage of a full six months, the parents emerge from the hollow not with a large brood, but with just one fledgling as the product of all their effort.

Perhaps it is no surprise then, with poaching rampant and deforestation threatening the little habitat the species still holds, that the hornbill faces an uphill battle. With each lost large tree, its chances of successful reproduction are reduced, and with such exacting breeding requirements, ex-situ conservation programs will be difficult.

“With all of this uniqueness, there are no helmeted hornbills that have been successfully bred in captivity in the world!” said Hadiprakarsa.

The helmeted hornbill is undoubtedly unique, but what more should compel us to conserve it if doing so is going to be so difficult and possibly costly?

A helmeted hornbill feasting on the fruit of a fig tree. Figs make up around 99 percent of the hornbill’s diet, making them important seed dispersers in their home forests. Besides seeds, helmeted hornbills occasionally feed on insects and other invertebrates. Photo © Y. Hadiprakarsa/IHCS

Ecologists offer the answer: while the bird may look utterly prehistoric, the hornbill is a modern day keystone species. Encumbered by its long tail and heavy beak (totaling up to 13 percent of its full body weight), the helmeted hornbill finds itself confined to the canopy of fruiting trees; so it feasts on figs. (In fact, so valuable is this food resource that fig trees can be the catalyst to the head banging contests described at the start of this story.)

Hadiprakarsa’s research found that helmeted hornbills eat figs almost exclusively, with the fruit forming 99 percent of their diet, with a few small invertebrates thrown in for good measure. This makes the bird an important seed disperser in its home forests, affecting the health of the entire ecosystem.

If it is lost, Hadiprakarsa warned, “the forest will lose a ‘farmer of the rainforest’ that provides immense ecological services dispersing seed to maintain forest health.”

This TRAFFIC infographic was created to educate the public about the bird’s plight. Infographic ©arienaturephotography. Helmeted hornbill photo embedded in the infographic ©Muhammad Alzahri

The Helmeted Hornbill Working Group believe it is beyond time to take decisive action. This autumn, at the CITES Conference of the Parties in South Africa — where treaty member states met to review the future of the convention — the Working Group and the Indonesian government put forward a resolution that implores all CITES parties to take definite and urgent action to halt the helmeted hornbill trade. This resolution included a request of cooperation across borders to protect habitats, prevent poaching and monitor populations.

“International cooperation is absolutely essential if the species is to be saved,” concluded Shepherd.

The international CITES parties agreed to adopt the resolution, committing themselves to urgent conservation action on behalf of the colossal casqued birds. Countries that consume red ivory, and those that are home to the remaining birds, have agreed to work together, with the hope that this collaboration will be key to halting the decline.

With the helmeted hornbill already listed under CITES, already Critically Endangered, and with laws on the books to prosecute offenders, what is needed now is serious implementation. It is hoped that the passage of the CITES resolution will bring sufficient international attention to the problem, and put enough pressure on Southeast Asian governments to revamp what to this point has been a failed enforcement effort, assuring the future of one of the continent’s most unique species.

“The thought that a handful of selfish criminals and some ignorant buyers are leading to the loss of this species forever is unacceptable,” said Shepherd. “We need to do more. And we need help.”

Confiscated casques offer a stark picture of the collective losses that this species is suffering, but they also represent a rich opportunity for scientific analysis. Beak measurements can reveal age and DNA profiles can help conservationists and law enforcement track the point of origin of poached birds. Photo © Y. Hadiprakarsa/IHCS


Kinnaird, M. F., Hadiprakarsa, Y. Y., & Thiensongrusamee, P. (2003). Aerial jousting by helmeted hornbills Rhinoplax vigil: Observations from Indonesia and Thailand. Ibis, 145(3), 506-508.

Hadiprakarsa, Y. Y., & Kinnaird, M. F. (2004). Foraging characteristics of an assemblage of four Sumatran hornbill species. Bird Conservation International, 14(S1), S53-S62.

The recent passage of a CITES resolution between countries of origin and trafficking destination countries could bring new hope to these unique and magnificent birds. Photo © Y. Hadiprakarsa/IHCS