CITES 2019

Helmeted Hornbills in Decline: The Elephant in the Room

By Madhu Rao | August 31, 2019

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Male hornbill at nest in Thailand. Credit: ©Morten Strange/Thailand Hornbill Project.

For centuries the helmeted hornbill has been a prized bird species across southeast Asia. Its mysterious, laughing call is one of the most recognizable sounds in the region’s dense jungles. At the same time, the helmeted hornbill’s hard red casque has been valued by local people and — in modern times — collectors for the beautifully carved items that can be wrought from the material often referred to as “red ivory.”

On July 19, a few weeks before the CITES CoP18 that recently concluded in Geneva, Indonesian authorities arrested a woman for allegedly attempting to smuggle 72 helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) casques to Hong Kong. Like elephant ivory, the casques can be carved into decorative ornaments that are valued as luxury collectable items in China and among Chinese consumers in Southeast Asia.

However, helmeted hornbill ivory is estimated to sell at three to five times the price of elephant ivory. A dramatic rise in the demand for — and illegal trade in — hornbill ivory, in combination with shrinking intact tropical forest habitats of Southeast Asia, led to the helmeted hornbill’s categorization in 2015 on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, a species on the brink of extinction.

Historical persecution of the hornbill has contributed to a significant reduction in its range. The recent upsurge in poaching is likely to push it over the edge. Extensive habitat requirements, naturally low population densities, a relatively low reproductive rate, and hornbills’ habit of flocking at fruiting trees where they may be easily shot by hunters are other factors underlying its acute vulnerability.

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Helmeted hornbill casque (red ivory) with confiscated rifles with silencers in a bust in June 2014 in North Sumatra. Credit: Dewantoro for WCS.

Like the Asian elephant, the helmeted hornbill has been listed since 1975 (when CITES first came into force) on the Convention’s Appendix I — the highest level of CITES protection. It is fully legally protected in all parts of its range except Sabah (the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo), where some licensed hunting can be allowed. So, is there hope for recovery of this iconic species?

Recognizing that the species may be in imminent danger of extinction without urgent and integrated conservation and law enforcement measures, CITES Parties adopted a Resolution at the CoP17 in 2016 calling for increased efforts by range and consumer states. That action was further strengthened at the recently concluded CoP18 in Geneva. Range-wide and national action plans represent good first steps but much more needs to be done and quickly.

Simply put, the actions outlined in relevant regional and national governments’ plans must be implemented through allocation of adequate resources. Range, transit, and destination states need to strengthen legislation and enforcement controls, and implement effective penalties and convictions to eliminate poaching and illegal trade along the entire trade chain. Further, there is a need to legally prohibit the display, domestic sale, and acquisition of helmeted hornbill specimens — including through online sales.

Mechanisms such as National Ivory Action Plan (NIAP) process have offered a way forward in strengthening the response of individual countries to address elephant poaching and/or ivory trade. In addition, CITES Parties with significant elephant ivory markets have taken important steps to curb the illegal trade in ivory, such as closing domestic ivory markets. In a similar vein, bold and unprecedented approaches, beyond business as usual, will be essential to pull the helmeted hornbill species back from the brink.

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Confiscated casques of the helmeted hornbill. Photo credit: WCS

Unlike the cross-continental trade in elephant ivory, the helmeted hornbill ivory trade is mostly restricted to Southeast Asia and China. A relatively shorter trade chain with fewer countries categorized as source, transit, or destination countries confers important advantages to effective law enforcement.

Like elephants, helmeted hornbills represent an iconic species of great cultural and ecological significance to the Southeast Asia region. Without a doubt, in the absence of bold and targeted action, it is only a matter of time before we witness the permanent loss of this magnificent species — an avoidable tragedy.

We have a unique opportunity and a collective responsibility to ensure that the cackling laugh of the helmeted hornbill reverberates though the forests of Southeast Asia, loud and clear, well into the future.

Madhu Rao is Regional Advisor for the Asia Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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