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The Helmeted Hornbill

Helmeted Hornbill

Hornbills (Family Bucerotidae) are a group of more than 50 species of birds found in subtropical Africa, Asia and Melanesia (western Pacific Ocean). They nest in natural cavities in trees and cliffs, and as omnivores, feed on fruit and small animals. All hornbills have a long, downward-curved bill with fused vertebrae in their necks, an adaptation thought to accommodate the bill’s size and weight.

The helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is a species of hornbill that lives in the lowland forests of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It derives its name from the large upper mandible of its red and yellow bill, which has a distinctive head ‘casque’.

This enlarged bill is used during ‘aerial jousting’ by males, where individuals collide in mid-air to make loud ‘clacks’ against each other’s casques which can be heard at least 100m away. These jousts can be preceded by hitting or rubbing their bills against branches of trees in which they are perched and loud calling, and can last up to 2 hours. This unique behaviour is likely motivated by competition for nesting sites and food resources, in particular their favoured food - fruiting figs. 


Carved hornbills for sale on the internet

The helmeted hornbill is the only hornbill species to possess a solid casque, and it is this distinctive feature that places them under direct threat from poaching. The casque is made from keratin, the same substance found in rhino horn and pangolin scales, and is equally sought after since it produces an ‘ivory’ that is in demand in east Asia due to its softness and therefore suitability for fine carving work. In Japan it is carved into miniature sculptures (netsuke), but most demand is found in China where it is used to make jewellery and other decorative ornaments.

Helmeted hornbills mate exclusively with one individual for a period that may extend to a number of years, making it likely that the loss of one hornbill directly affects the breeding success of the partner, thus posing a wider threat to the population than simply removing one individual.

Recent years have seen increased demand for helmeted hornbill, as indicated by poaching and seizure reports from range countries, seizures in destination countries, and offers of hornbill products online (within China and in Chinese communities elsewhere). For example, between March 2012 and August 2014, 2,170 hornbill casques and heads were been seized in 31incidents in China and Indonesia*.

In addition to illegal trade in its casques, the helmeted hornbill is also under threat from both legal and illegal logging and land conversion for agriculture in Southeast Asia.

The Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as ‘Critically Endangered’ with a decreasing population trend, a 2015 reclassification from the previous ‘Near Threatened’ status.

Current protection

Helmeted hornbills are protected by national legislation to a varying degree in all its five range countries.

In 1975 the helmeted hornbill was listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a United Nations treaty among the vast majority of the world’s countries that regulates international commerce in plant and animal species threatened by international trade. As an Appendix I species under CITES, cross-border commercial trade in helmeted hornbills, as well as their parts and products, is banned.

Helmeted hornbill beak seizure in Malaysia, 2016

Further action

Helmeted hornbill’s description on the IUCN’s Red List states: “An extremely rapid and severe decline is predicted to occur in this species’ population over the next three generations (59 years) as a result of intense hunting pressure and habitat loss.” Given this alarming forecast, urgent action needs to be taken at all levels in order to adequately address the plight of this species and ensure its future. In particular:

  1. Governments of helmeted hornbill range countries should prioritise protection of remaining lowland forest areas to prevent critical habitat loss and complement existing conservation efforts.
  2. National legislation among range, transit and consumer countries should be harmonised to reflect the highest possible protection status, thereby facilitating law enforcement efforts and curtailing the exploitation of weaker legal provisions.
  3. Given the likely large volume of illegal trade controlled by international organised criminal networks, intelligence-led cross border enforcement is critical. Relevant national, regional and inter-governmental agencies should include the helmeted hornbill in their species of priority when targeting wildlife crime.
  4. Governments should use international multilateral agreements to exploit the potential for further concerted global action to address helmeted hornbill trafficking.
  5. Awareness raising efforts should be stepped up so that the illegality of possession and trade in this species and associated penalties, as well as its conservation plight are better known among poachers, traders and consumers.


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