Asia
28 Sep 2016

Ivory poachers driving rare bird to extinction

At 1.5 metres long the Helmeted Hornbill is the largest of its kind in Asia © Michaela Koschova
At 1.5 metres long the Helmeted Hornbill is the largest of its kind in Asia © Michaela Koschova
By Nigel Collar

A sudden explosion of demand for the Helmeted Hornbill's casque as "ivory" is plunging the species to extinction at frightening speed. Yesterday the government of Indonesia once again explained the issue during the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) - a gathering of 182 nations currently underway in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Perhaps the single most iconic bird species in what remains of the great dipterocarp forests of the Greater Sundas (Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo) has suddenly been discovered to be plunging at frightening speed towards extinction. In November 2015, BirdLife placed the Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil on the IUCN Red List in the highest category of threat: Critically Endangered. The reason: a sudden explosion of demand for the “ivory” that its casque (the “horn” on the top of its bill) uniquely possesses.

At 1.5 metres long the Helmeted Hornbill is the largest of its kind in Asia; but this is the least of its remarkable features. It has a surprisingly short, spiky bill, a thick, carunculated bare neck which is deep red in the male and whitish in the female, as well as much the longest tail of any hornbill, with wonderful black and white central feathers greatly prized by the indigenous peoples of the forest.

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It also has a very striking sheer-fronted casque rising over the front of its head. Other hornbill casques are ornamental and hollow, but the casque of the Helmeted Hornbill has evolved into a weapon of sorts. “Very striking” is an apt term, because the casque is used in rarely seen aerial jousts in which two birds fly from a treetop in opposite directions, circle round and swoop at each other, cracking their casques together in mid-air in a spectacular contest for supremacy. Casque-butting has been thought to be an elaborate ritual for deciding who gets to stay in a tree to eat its fruit, but it may be more to do with wider territoriality and is perhaps closely related to pair bond reinforcement.

Whatever the explanation, these contests have evidently driven the evolution of the solid front to the casque of the Helmeted Hornbill; old males develop particularly awesome structures. For millennia, indigenous people in the Sundaic rainforests have used the casques of hunted birds to carve various kinds of ornament; when these were traded with Chinese merchants over a thousand years ago, the interest in China in hornbill “ivory” was ignited.

Helmeted Hornbill ivory casques © Chris R. Shepherd

Chinese craftsmen, working within an oral tradition that has left no trace of their techniques, made use of hornbill ivory to carve the most exquisite pieces, engraving them with traditional scenes and themes. Items from buckles to snuff boxes were made from the material; as a demonstration of their sheer genius, some of the carvers left the casque on the head of the bird, producing the most breathtakingly elaborate miniature scenes. The nineteenth century western craze for chinoiserie resulted in hornbill ivory products also being exported to Europe and America.

But the trade dwindled in the early twentieth century, while the Second World War seemed to kill it off completely. There was no evidence of any external trade during the second half of the century although, perhaps as a precaution, the Helmeted Hornbill was placed on Appendix I of CITES from the first implementation of the convention in 1975. BirdLife treated it as threatened in 1988, owing to fears over habitat loss, but further evaluation indicated that Near Threatened was a more suitable listing; it remained in this category from 1994 until the end of 2015.

But two years ago Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, an independent hornbill research expert based in Indonesia, began to uncover evidence that the species was the target of a new clandestine trade for its “ivory”. His further research, using Asian trading websites, now reveals that the demand for hornbill artefacts, far more crudely carved than in centuries past, suddenly took off in 2011, feeding a new interest among the Chinese nouveau riche. His work in West Kalimantan, checking on reports of confiscations and talking to villagers, foresters and officials, suggested that in 2012–2013 as many as 500 Helmeted Hornbills were being hunted in the province every month, a rate of 6,000 birds a year. The heads were then being smuggled to major ports in Sumatra and Java and thence to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Separate studies by the Environmental Investigation Agency and by TRAFFIC South-East Asia have now confirmed the scale of the slaughter in Indonesia. The arrest this year of smugglers in Sumatra, in part to the credit of Indonesian staff of the Wildlife Conservation Society, has also indicated how wide and how fast the network of criminal gangs has spread in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo, with local hunters being recruited to go into the forest and shoot down every large hornbill in the hope that it would prove to be Helmeted. All the evidence suggests that this trade is simply an extension of the illegal trafficking of other wildlife products, as well as in drugs and other illicit goods, being conducted with ruthless efficiency across Indonesia’s two great islands.

BirdLife has moved as fast as possible to lend its support to the international conservation response that is clearly urgently needed to address this crisis. First, it conducted an emergency evaluation of the Helmeted Hornbill’s threat status. The new evidence concerning the pervasiveness of poaching in Indonesia, including reports from seasoned bird tour leaders that the species has suddenly become much harder to find, were obviously decisive; but the facts that the birds have such a low reproductive rate, with the female sealing herself into the nest cavity for around five months, and that killing the male who feeds her in the nest will certainly cause the chick’s death and possibly also the female’s, clearly also mean that populations will be unable to recover for many years. Moreover, the large emergent trees which bear the cavities in which the species habitually nests are commonly the target for logging operations. If being listed now as Critically Endangered has one consolation, it is that the species becomes eligible for support from a number of charitable sources.

The second step BirdLife took, through its regional division and national Partners, was to join forces with a group of conservationists in South-East Asia who are developing a plan of campaign to bring the crisis to world attention and to promote all possible measures to resolve it.

The group will be seeking to achieve a range of objectives: to promote awareness among consumers of both the illegality and the impact of the trade; to arouse expressions of concern by range states; to raise support from high profile sympathisers; to increase vigilance and activity by enforcement agencies at all levels; to involve NGO-backed protection units operating for other charismatic animals targeted by poachers; to create hornbill guardians among local citizenry; and to develop nest adoption schemes and community incentives for conservation.

To date, the gangs appear not to have moved into Malaysia or southern Thailand, but it is surely only a matter of time. Heading them off, while spiking their guns in Indonesia, is going to be a major undertaking in 2016; one for which the newly formed Helmeted Hornbill Working Group will need all the help it can enlist.