14 Aug 2018

Caught in the Crossfire: Rhinoceros Hornbill

The Rhinoceros Hornbill has become a victim of poachers, who often mistake the bird for the similar-looking Helmeted Hornbill, whose solid casque is valuable on the black market.

Rhinocerous Hornbill feeding © Arnon Polin
By Jessica Law

The most distinctive feature of the Rhinoceros Hornbill Buceros rhinoceros (Near Threatened) is its spectacular horn or “casque”.

The casque evolved as a resonating chamber to amplify the hornbill’s echoing, otherworldly call. The casque isn’t the only fascinating thing about the Hornbill though. This bird’s courtship involves the ultimate leap of faith. After the eggs are laid, the expectant parents wall up their hole in a tree trunk with a “cement” barrier of mud, food and faeces – with the female and eggs inside. All that’s left is a tiny aperture, just large enough for the male to poke his beak through with food.

But even this excessive safety measure can’t protect the Hornbill from human encroachment upon the untouched, old-growth forests of Southeast Asia where it lives. And since Hornbills nest in the largest trees, their homes are at the greatest risk from logging. Forest clearance then makes it easier for hunters to poach these birds, which are eaten, traded as pets or used in ceremonial dress by indigenous communities.

One of the most shocking threats, however, comes from a case of mistaken identity. The Rhinoceros Hornbill is often mistaken for the Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil, another member of the family whose unusual, solid casque is more valuable than ivory on the black market. Hunters are so desperate not to miss their chance at seizing one of these Critically Endangered birds that they will shoot at anything that bears a passing resemblance.

Due to these pressures, the Rhinoceros Hornbill’s population is now suspected to be declining rapidly. As such, it is one of several species now being discussed on BirdLife’s Globally Threatened Bird Forums, where potential changes to the Red List in 2018 are proposed. We’re calling on all bird species experts to share their knowledge with us – you can find the discussion on Rhinoceros Hornbills here.


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This is the Rhinoceros Hornbill
Buceros rhinoceros
, its spectacular horn or “casque”
having evolved as a resonating chamber to amplify its echoing, otherworldly call. And
that’s not the only fascinating thing about it. This bird’s courtship involves the ultimate
leap of faith. After the eggs are laid, the expectant parents wall up their hole in a tree
trunk with a “cement” of mud, food and faeces – with the female inside. All that’s left is
a tiny aperture, just large enough for the male to poke his beak through with food.
But even this excessive safety measure can’t protect it from human encroachment upon
the untouched, old-growth forests of Southeast Asia where it lives. And since hornbills
nest in the largest trees, their homes are at the greatest risk from logging. Forest
clearance then makes it easier for hunters to poach these birds, which are eaten, traded
as pets or used in ceremonial dress by indigenous communities.
But one of the most shocking threats comes from a case of mistaken identity. The
Rhinoceros Hornbill is often mistaken for the Helmeted Hornbill, another member of
the family whose unusual, solid casque is more valuable than ivory on the black market.
Hunters are so desperate not to miss their chance at seizing one of these Critically
Endangered birds that they will shoot at anything that bears a passing resemblance.
Because of these pressures, the Rhinoceros Hornbill’s population is now suspected
to be declining rapidly. As such, it is one of several species now being discussed on
BirdLife’s Globally Threatened Bird Forums, where potential changes to the Red List in
2018 are proposed. We’re calling on all bird species experts to share their knowledge
with us – go to
globally-threatened-bird-forums.birdlife.org
to contribute