Species at a Crossroads: Blogging from CITES 2016

Ivory on Wings: The Threat to the Critically Endangered Helmeted Hornbill

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Perpetrator’s handcuffed hands, holding helmeted hornbill casque (red ivory) in a bust in June 2014 in North Sumatra. Credit: Dewantoro for WCS.

By Dr. Elizabeth Bennett
October 5, 2016

[NOTE: This is the second in a series of blogs by conservationists attending the 17th meeting of the (CoP 17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).]

The helmeted hornbill is a spectacular, large, critically endangered bird that only occurs in intact tropical forests of South-east Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Thailand and Myanmar). Helmeted hornbills pair for life, and each pair maintains a large territory, marked and defended by one of the most dramatic long-distance calls of any bird, culminating in what sounds like a cackling laugh audible from at least a kilometer away through the forest.

Widespread clearance of much of the species’ lowland forest habitat, especially for monoculture oil palm plantations, is a major threat to the species. A dramatic rise in hunting has compounded the problem. The helmeted hornbill has long been under threat due to hunting for its wing and long central tail feathers used in traditional costumes in the Bornean part of its range, which has knocked down numbers, and caused the species to disappear entirely from parts of its range.

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Demand for and illegal trade in hornbill ivory has now risen dramatically, with hundreds of birds being smuggled out of Sumatra every month. Credit: Doug Janson

Furthermore, the species is the only hornbill with a solid casque, which can be carved. It is known as red ivory due to the outside hue of the horn. This material is traditionally used for ear decorations by some of the interior peoples of Borneo and sold on the international market. The species is fully legally protected in all parts of its range (except Sabah where some licensed hunting can be allowed), and is listed on Appendix I of CITES, so both national and international trade has been only at low levels — until recently.

Demand for and illegal trade in hornbill ivory has now risen dramatically. One estimate is that 500 birds were killed every month in West Borneo alone in 2013, and that hundreds of birds are being smuggled out of Sumatra every month. The breeding biology of the species means that it is extremely vulnerable to hunting; the female nests in tree hollows, and is sealed into the hole by the male using dried mud, where she stays incarcerated for some 160 days while the male feeds her through a slit in the seal. If the male is hunted, this makes the female extremely vulnerable, and can result in the additional deaths of her and her chicks. The main market for the horn is China, even though all such trade is illegal there.

Read more about news from CITES on the helmeted hornbill:

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Dr. Elizabeth Bennett is VP for Species Conservation at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). You can follow her on Twitter at:

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

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