31 Aug 2018

An international plan to save the Helmeted Hornbill

Illegal hunting and trade has brought this unique hornbill to the brink. But a new ten-year, range-wide conservation plan will ensure the Helmeted Hornbill has a future outside of China's markets

A Helmeted Hornbill guards its nest, hidden in the tree. © Bjorn Olesen
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Conservation organizations from across the world have developed an ambitious ten-year plan to save a Critically Endangered bird that has been driven to the brink of extinction by illegal hunting.

The Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil has declined sharply in recent years, following soaring demand for its striking red casque – which uniquely among hornbills is solid, and can be carved into decorative artifacts, for which there is huge demand in China.

Currently, a single casque can fetch more than $1,000 on the black market, a price higher than that of ivory. Organized crime networks became involved in the bird’s hunting and trade, and as a result of this unsustainable demand, the Helmeted Hornbill’s numbers have plummeted such that the species was uplisted from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered (the highest possible category) in our 2015 reassessment of the species’ extinction risk.

The Hornbill is found in the forests of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Brunei. It is seldom seen, but once spotted is very distinctive, with a wrinkled naked throat, yellow beak, and large red casque for which it is both named and hunted.

Helmeted Hornbills are largely threatened in their habitat by local hunters, who are recruited by organized criminal gangs. In their effort to secure a Helmeted Hornbill, these hunters will shoot down nearly every large hornbill, hoping that it will turn out to be Helmeted. Once killed, the Hornbill heads are smuggled to ports in Java, Kalimantan and Sumatra, and are then most likely transported to  Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

In the past eight years, more than 2,500 illegally traded Hornbill casques have been seized. Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, an independent hornbill research expert in Indonesia, and the person to first bring this crisis to international attention, estimated that in 2012-2013 hunters were killing up to 6,000 birds a year.

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Stopping the illegal trading though, has proved difficult. Although Helmeted Hornbills have been protected under international CITES legislation (which prohibits international commercial trade or certain animal parts) since 1975, weak implementation and enforcement have led to growing illegal trade. Penalties for trading Helmeted Hornbills range from imprisonment for six months in Brunei to up to seven years in Malaysia and Myanmar. Fines, which tend to be on the low side compared to the casque’s value on the black market, range from $36 in Myanmar, to $230,000 in Malaysia.

For years, conservationists and organizations across the world have been working together to devise a plan to combat these threats and reverse the fortunes of Helmeted Hornbill. In May last year, numerous stakeholders, including the Helmeted Hornbill Working Group (subgroup of IUCN SSC Hornbill Specialist Group), Asian Species Action Partnership, BirdLife International, Hornbill Research Foundation of Thailand, Sarawak Forestry Corporation, Wildlife Conservation Society and Wildlife Reserves Singapore gathered together in Malaysia to devise a 10-year, range-wide conservation strategy, consisting of concrete steps required to end the illegal hunting currently threatening the beleaguered species.

Following a huge collaborative effort which involved more than 30 organisations, the 10-year conservation strategy & action plan for the Helmeted Hornbill was officially launched on August 29th in Bangkok, Thailand. It also involved six BirdLife Partners - BANCA (Myanmar), BCST (Thailand), MNS (Malaysia), Burung Indonesia, NSS (Singapore) and HKBWS (Hong Kong, China).

The plan outlines actions that should be taken over the next decade, including mapping potential trade routes and hubs of hornbill casque carving, mapping key priority areas for protection and enforcement, strong habitat protection and enforcement, and community engagement efforts. The Helmeted Hornbill working group strives to support the development of national task forces to combat illegal trade whose implementation can be strengthened by international cooperation. You can read the full plan here.

BirdLife International is a conservation organization working to protect birds and habitats around the world. If you would like to support our work, why not make a donation today?