The Helmeted Hornbill crisis and BirdLife’s conservation efforts
What is the issue?
The critically endangered Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil is one of the most unusual hornbills, the only one with a solid casque. However, this is precisely the cause of its downfall. The Helmeted Hornbills have been hunted for their casques in Borneo and traded with China for over a thousand years but in the last nine years, the species has come under new and unprecedented pressure from an exploding demand for casques which are in great demand as a material for carved jewelry and ornaments.
Watch our video on the Helmeted Hornbill crisis
The bird is found in virgin lowland forest habitats in Brunei, Indonesia (Sumatra and Kalimantan), Malaysia, south Myanmar and south Thailand; it used to occur in Singapore but is now extinct there. It is a low-density species, even in prime habitat, where it plays an important ecological role in seed dispersal and tends to be absent in disturbed forests, peat swamps, and coastal forests. It has the most specialised diet of any hornbill and particular nest requirements.
Why the urgency?
A Helmeted Hornbill casque can fetch around US$1,000 in the black market in China. Extensive poaching is reported in Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sumatra) by organized crime networks which tend to be resourced directly by Chinese nationals or by middlemen. A minimum of 2,878 casques were seized globally in at least 59 seizure incidents between 2010 and 2017; the surge in poaching first discovered by Mr Yok-yok Hadiprakarsa of the Indonesian Hornbill Conservation Society (Rangkong Indonesia). The majority of casques enter China from Shenzhen (Guangdong) and Hong Kong from where they are sent to traditional carving centres in China.
The Helmeted Hornbill casques seized in Indonesia (credit: Dewantara/WCS)
The poaching is causing a rapid decline in populations and is feared to spread to Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand as populations are decimated in Indonesia. In response, BirdLife International elevated the conservation status of Helmeted Hornbill from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ in 2015. This decline also prompted the formalization of the Helmeted Hornbill Working Group, a subgroup of IUCN SSC Hornbill Specialist Group, in May 2017 and a regional species conservation strategy and action plan produced in August 2018.
Habitat loss and degradation are also of concern because logging operations particularly target large and live dipterocarp trees which decimate suitable nesting and feeding trees for the species.
The opportunity to make a difference – work by BirdLife partnership
The threats are daunting, being driven by such high profits, that it has been essential to move the species conservation up the political agenda, nationally and globally, and identify the needs for action. BirdLife has played a key role in this work.
- Red Listing: In November 2015, BirdLife uplisted the Helmeted Hornbill’s conservation status in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered.
- Conservation Alert: Dr Nigel Collar of BirdLife International produced a series of articles in 2015 & 2016 highlighting the crisis in BirdingASIA (see Collar 2015a), World Birdwatch (Collar 2015b) and article on BirdLife’s website.
- Global Policy & advocacy: In September 2016, BirdLife along with partners, sponsored the motion on the Conservation of the Helmeted Hornbill which was adopted at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii. The resolution called for strengthening international action and support, encouraging relevant governments to support in situ conservation, strengthen enforcement action and engagement with communities, and raise awareness to reduce demand.
- Multi-country conservation action planning: In May 2017, BirdLife along with Sarawak Forestry Corporation, Wildlife Reserves Singapore and IUCN ASAP, co-organised the Helmeted Hornbill conservation planning workshop at Kubah National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia. The recommendations from the workshop formed the basis for developing the range-wide Helmeted Hornbill conservation strategy and action plan (2018 – 2027) which was recently adopted by a wide range of organisations. The BirdLife International Secretariat provides coordination, strategic guidance and fundraising, while also working on international policy, while BirdLife Partners are active in the field and at national policy levels.
Participants at the Helmeted Hornbill conservation planning workshop in May 2017 in Kubah National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia.
- Coordinating the Helmeted Hornbill Working Group: Since July 2017, BirdLife Asia secretariat (through Dr Anuj Jain) and along with Wildlife Reserves Singapore has been coordinating the Helmeted Hornbill Working Group, a subgroup of the IUCN SSC Hornbill Specialist Group, to ensure all conservation efforts are coordinated to maximize efficiency and synergy with various stakeholders across the species range states. Mr Yeap Chin Aik from Malaysian Nature Society (BirdLife partner in Malaysia) is also the Lead for the Habitat theme of the Working Group.
- 10-year Conservation Strategy and Action Plan: The 10-year, Range-wide Helmeted Hornbill Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2018 – 2027), outlines a bold, long-term vision: “to ensure that the Helmeted Hornbill thrives in ecologically functional populations across its natural range, valued by local and global stakeholder communities and effectively protected from threats related to poaching, trafficking and habitat loss. “
The plan was officially launched on 29 August in Bangkok, Thailand. Read more.
10-year action plan: What needs to be done?
- Eliminate demand: Targeted behaviour change campaigns are needed to eliminate demand for Helmeted Hornbill products across all consumer communities/countries.
- Effective enforcement of national and international policies and legislation are required ensuring that the CITES Appendix I listing for the species is effectively implemented, banning all commercial trade (including domestic trade).
- Key population strongholds need to be identified and appropriately protected, restored and sustainably managed through effective anti-poaching efforts and on-ground protection.
- Populations are actively monitored to detect thresholds of concern that should trigger remedial action.
- Local communities are encouraged and empowered to protect and conserve their resident Helmeted Hornbill populations.
BirdLife is perfectly positioned to play a key role in action plan implementation and save this species, working with Governments and other organisations.
Since 2017, several new BirdLife projects on Helmeted Hornbills have been initiated, and existing ones enhanced, involving national Partners and the BirdLife Secretariat.
Identifying key population strongholds of Helmeted Hornbill: BirdLife is leading a large collaborative project across the Helmeted Hornbill’s five range countries to map out and secure the species’ key population strongholds.
Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Partner) carrying out Helmeted Horbbill field assessments
- To initiate an exchange of data and ideas across the species’ range countries, BirdLife organized a multi-country mapping workshop on 30 May – 1 June 2018 in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) where researchers identified known priority areas as well as potentially important strongholds where rapid field assessments need to be conducted. This work was enabled by species distribution modelling conducted by BirdLife.
- A series of national workshops have been conducted to expand this work with local stakeholders in local languages.
- A multi-country lessons sharing working group was organized in March 2020 in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to review progress on field assessments, exchange protocols and share lessons learned.
Securing key hornbill sites and engaging local communities: BirdLife is working directly through its national Partners at key hornbill sites in Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak, Sumatra (Indonesia), Thailand and Myanmar to ensure systematic monitoring and protection of hornbill populations.
- Indonesia: Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Partner) actively manages a key site for Helmeted Hornbills in Sumatra. Several occupancy and population surveys have been conducted at the site in collaboration with international researchers, which has enabled BirdLife and Burung Indonesia to develop a systematic species monitoring plan at the site.
- Malaysia: At the Belum-Temengor site, local communities are engaged in monitoring hornbill nests via a sustained program run for the past 14 years by the Malaysian Nature Society (BirdLife Partner), under the guidance of Mr. Yeap Chin Aik. This work is also supported by BirdLife’s Asia-Pacific Forest Governance project.
- Myanmar: Biodiversity And Nature Conservation Association (BirdLife in Myanmar) has been working in southern Myanmar for more than a decade conducting surveys and population monitoring of globally threatened species such as the Helmeted Hornbill and Gurney’s Pitta. Funding newly secured by BirdLife is helping strengthen the current program.
- Thailand: In July 2018, the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BirdLife Partner) and BirdLife organised a workshop with park rangers from Khao Sok and Khlong Saeng forest complex to identify Helmeted Hornbill strongholds and discuss inclusion of Helmeted Hornbills in monitoring patrols by forest rangers in south Thailand. A plan for conducting systematic surveys with the forest department is now being developed.
We would like to thank the BirdLife Gala Dinners, and Species Champions Peter Smith, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and the National Geographic Society, for their ongoing funding and support of our work with the Helmeted Hornbill.
BirdLife’s efforts are made possible in part by its membership of the Restore Species partnership, which works to prevent extinctions caused by illegal and unsustainable trade and hunting, and poisoning.
Collar, N. J. 2015a. Helmeted Hornbills Rhinoplax vigil and the ivory trade: the crisis that came out of nowhere. BirdingASIA 24: 12 – 17
Collar, N. J. 2015b. Catch this falling star. World Birdwatch 37 (4): 11 – 13
Jain A., Lee J. G. H., Chao N., Lees C., Orenstein R., Strange B. C., Chng S. C. L., Marthy W., Yeap C. A., Hadiprakarsa Y. Y. and Rao M. (Eds) 2018. Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil): Status Review, Range-wide Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2018-2027). IUCN Species Survival Commission Hornbill Specialist Group.