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Indonesian officials foil attempt to smuggle hornbill casques to Hong Kong

  • Indonesian authorities have arrested a woman for allegedly attempting to smuggle 72 helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) casques to Hong Kong.
  • The distinctive-looking bird is critically endangered, its precipitous decline driven by poaching for its casque — a solid, ivory-like protuberance on its head that’s highly prized in East Asia for use as ornamental carvings.
  • Tackling the hornbill trade will be on the agenda at next month’s CITES wildlife trade summit in Geneva.

JAKARTA — Authorities in Indonesia have seized 72 highly prized hornbill casques and arrested a woman for allegedly attempting to smuggle them out of the country.

The seizure occurred at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport outside Jakarta on July 17, with the ivory-like casques wrapped in tinfoil and hidden in biscuit cans. The woman, identified only as a 48-year-old, had placed the cans in her carry-on bag for a flight to Hong Kong, according to a statement from the environment ministry.

“She claims she’s just a courier,” Sustyo Iriono, an enforcement official at the ministry, told Mongabay in a text message. He added that the woman had been charged under the 1990 Conservation Law, for which she could face up to five years in prison and up to 100 million rupiah ($7,200) in fines if convicted.

Indonesian authorities present the seized hornbill casques and the alleged smuggler, third from right, to the press in Jakarta. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

The 72 seized casques come from the helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), a large bird with a distinctive helmet-like protuberance on its head that can account for up to an eighth of its total weight. The species is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, its precipitous decline driven by demand for these casques, also known as red ivory and highly prized in East Asia for ornamental carvings.

The helmeted hornbill is a protected species under Indonesian law. Sustyo said his office had launched an investigation to track down other members of what authorities suspect is a much wider poaching and trafficking network.

“We continue to beef up security and monitoring for all activities of protected wildlife trade at airports, seaports and bus terminals,” he added.

Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, executive director of the Indonesian Hornbill Conservation Society (IHCS), welcomed news of the seizure but said the incident proved that poaching of helmeted hornbills was still a serious problem.

“The demand is still there and the offering price remains attractive: low cost, high profit,” he told Mongabay in an email. Yokyok added that poaching and illegal trade in wildlife appeared to be increasingly secretive and better organized.

China and Hong Kong are top destinations for hornbill casques, Yokyok said. In January 2013, airport authorities detained four Chinese nationals for attempting to smuggle 248 casques out of the country to Hong Kong. They were also found to be carrying pangolin scales, another highly trafficked commodity. Later that same month, authorities in the Indonesian Bornean province of West Kalimantan arrested a Chinese man for attempting to smuggle 24 hornbill casques. He later told investigators that he typically sent the casques to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Two of the hornbill casques that were destined for Hong Kong before their seizure on July 17. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

A 2013 investigation supported by the Chester Zoo Conservation Award found that 6,000 helmeted hornbills were killed for their casques in a single year in West Kalimantan.

According to the wildlife trade watchdog TRAFFIC, 2,170 hornbill heads or casques were seized from the illegal trade in Indonesia and China between March 2012 and August 2014.

“What’s interesting is that the trade of helmeted hornbill has led to the hunting and illegal trade of other hornbill birds,” Yokyok said.

Pushing these birds toward extinction could also have severe repercussions for their forest habitats, he said. Helmeted hornbills feed mostly on fruit, and their long flying range means they’re hugely important in the dispersal of fruit trees throughout their habitat — “the forest’s true farmers,” Yokyok called them.

He called on investigators to carry out DNA tests on the newly seized casques to determine where they came from, and also to assess the population status of helmeted hornbills in Borneo and Sumatra.

He added that tackling the trade in helmeted hornbill parts would be on the agenda at next month’s summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva.

“The threats from hunting and trade are still real,” Yokyok said. “Conservation actions at grassroots levels become important as it starts from there.”

The helmeted hornbill is one of Southeast Asia’s most distinctive birds, with a large ivory-like casque that’s used by males for jousting. Dubbed “red ivory,” the scarlet-tinged casques are highly valued in East Asia for use as ornamental carvings. Image by Yokyok Hadiprakarsa/IHCS.

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