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Indonesia to kick off 10-year plan to save critically endangered helmeted hornbill

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

  • The Indonesian government is currently drafting a 10-year master plan to protect the endangered helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), set to be launched in 2018.
  • The program will comprise five action plans: research and monitoring; policies and law enforcement; partnerships; raising public awareness; and funding.
  • The helmeted hornbill has been driven to the brink of extinction by poaching for its distinctive scarlet casqued beak, which is pound-for-pound three times as valuable as elephant ivory.

The Indonesian government will next year launch a 10-year program to save the critically endangered helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), a bird driven to the verge of extinction because of poaching for its distinctive casqued beak.

The new strategy, to run from 2018 to 2028, comprises five action plans — research and monitoring; policies and law enforcement; partnerships; raising public awareness; and funding — and follows from last year’s forum of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“If we have a clear action plan, hopefully our next generation will not suffer the loss of the helmeted hornbill, like the Javan tiger and the Bali tiger in the past,” Bambang Dahono Adji, director for biodiversity conservation at the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said at a meeting in Jakarta last week to discuss the action plans.

The helmeted hornbill, one of Southeast Asia’s most unique large bird species, is confined to pockets of forest in Borneo and the Malay Peninsula. The bird has been hunted close to extinction for its casque, which is prized in China for use as ornamental carvings and can fetch $4,000 per kilogram — three times more than elephant ivory.

Forest degradation, extremely low rates of reproduction and a lack of conservation efforts have piled further pressure on the species, resulting in the downgrading in 2015 of the helmeted hornbill’s conservation status by three categories, from “Near Threatened” to “Critically Endangered.”

The helmeted hornbill is threatened by hunters who shoot these birds for their casques. Photo by Doug Janson, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

Focus on research

Researchers and activists agree that the most urgent point in the conservation agenda is research.

“We need to prioritize research because we’re so lacking [in data],” Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, executive director of the Indonesian Hornbill Conservation Society (IHCS), told reporters in Jakarta.

Aside from its distinctive physical features, dietary habit and loud gibbon-like hoot, not much is known about the bird, including the remaining wild population and the extent of its natural habitat.

That’s why researchers were surprised to discover an unexpectedly rich population of the helmeted hornbill in western Borneo, in a conservation that is currently not included in the IUCN range map for this species.

Trying to save helmeted hornbills without knowing where they live and what they need to survive would be flying blind, said Nurul Winarni, a conservation biologist from the University of Indonesia.

“We don’t know other things that could help in the conservation of the helmeted hornbill,” she said. “We don’t know their population in nature and how they use their habitats. That’s what we need to know to see their chance of surviving in the wild and [resisting] pressures from wildlife trafficking.”

Only 41 scientific studies on all hornbill species in Indonesia have been published between the 1980s and 2015, according to Nurul. Yokyok, considered a leading expert on hornbill trafficking, who has been studying the helmeted hornbill since 2000, said the dearth of research on the bird was because of how difficult it was to catch sight of one in the wild.

“This bird species is hard to monitor,” he said. “We need to go deep into the jungle and be careful [not to spook them].”

There’s also the perception that the helmeted hornbill isn’t quite as iconic as some other endangered species, which means it gets less funding than those more “popular” animals, Yokyok said.

“Everyone is only attracted to celebrity animals,” he said.

The helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is one of Southeast Asia’s most unique birds, with a large ivory-like casque 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

Stronger law enforcement

Once the helmeted hornbill habitats have been determined, the government’s next step will be to boost monitoring of the birds and strengthen protection of their ranges, said Ratna Kusuma Sari, the environment ministry official responsible for enforcement of international biodiversity conventions.

Monitoring helmeted hornbills is no easy task due to their large size (up to 120 centimeters, or 47 inches, in height), with up to five people needed to install a tracking device on a single bird.

While efforts have been made to crack down on the illegal trade in helmeted hornbill casques — authorities in Indonesia seized 1,347 casques from 2011 to 2017, according to the environment ministry — they only scratch the surface of the problem. The IHCS estimated in 2013 that at least 6,000 helmeted hornbills were killed in West Kalimantan province, in Indonesian Borneo, by poachers in a single year.

And there’s little prospect of those caught for poaching facing any kind of meaningful punishment, with typical jail sentences of less than a year and fines of less than 100 million Indonesian rupiah ($7,400), according to the ministry.

“Sanctions given to the perpetrators [of hornbill poaching] are still weak,” Ratna said.

The ministry is working with the Indonesian parliament on amendments to a 1990 law on conservation, in a bid to introduce heavier punishment for wildlife poachers and traders.

The 10-year action plan will also involve efforts to raise awareness about the helmeted hornbill, to encourage the public to get involved in preventing poaching.

Other efforts include developing ex-situ (off-site) conservation programs, increasing international cooperation, and securing funding for the campaign to protect the species. In West Kalimantan, the provincial conservation agency is building a sanctuary for the helmeted hornbill in Sintang district, expected to be operational in 2018.

The University of Indonesia’s Nurul said captive breeding efforts for the helmeted hornbill in Indonesia had to date fallen short.

“Artificial nesting has been built … but none has worked,” she said. “There hasn’t been a single helmeted hornbill that wants to enter the artificial nest. So we have to be careful in doing captive breeding because it’s not easy. We have to make sure their needs are met once they enter into captive breeding.”

The environment ministry’s Bambang said that once the draft action plan is ready, it will be signed by Minister Siti Nurbaya.

But before she does, there are many issues that need to be fleshed out, said Suer Suryadi, a helmeted hornbill researcher who now advises the Conservation and Legal Assistance Network, an NGO. For one thing, Suer said, many government conservation strategies tended to lack detail and clarity.

“There’s a grand conservation strategy that only mentions NGOs [as actors],” he said. “But, which NGOs? As a result, it’s unclear who should do what.”

That’s why, he said, the new 10-year strategy should include a mandate for the ministry’s directorate-general of conservation to flesh out the action plans by devising detailed and technical guidelines on how to implement the program.

The strategy should also require all government agencies involved to follow up on the action plans by integrating them into their own plans, Suer said.


Banner photo: 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

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