Flying ivory

Hornbills are among the world’s most charismatic birds; their large size, prominent beak, occasionally elaborate headgear and generally noisy behaviour make them conspicuous wherever they occur.

The helmeted hornbill is arguably the most extraordinary of Asia’s forest hornbills. Its visual appearance – characterised by bizarre facial features and disproportionately long central tail feathers – is striking enough, but this bird is more often heard than seen, and is renowned for its unique and arresting call, which ends in a show-stopping flurry of hysterical laughter.

The presence of Asian hornbills is generally a reliable indicator of the health of a forest. Helmeted hornbills, in particular, show a marked preference for pristine lowland tropical rainforest with an abundant supply of fruiting trees. They are confined to suitable forest habitat in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. Unfortunately, their numbers have plummeted in recent years.

Helmeted hornbill facts

  • The prominent structure on a hornbill’s beak is known as a casque, which is French for ‘helmet’
  • Helmeted hornbills have a particular fondness for figs and are often encountered near these trees when they are in fruit.
  • As fruit eaters, hornbills perform a valuable role as seed dispersers
  • The hornbill uses its gular pouch – the patch of bare, loose, wrinkled skin on its throat – to carry multiple items of food back to the nest
  • The male and female helmeted hornbill can be distinguished by the colour of their throat pouches, which are red and turquoise respectively
  • When the female hornbill begins incubating her eggs, the male uses mud to seal the nest hole entrance and feeds her through a small opening by regurgitating food from his throat pouch
At a glance
Rhinoplax vigil
Critically Endangered
Brunei DarussalamIndonesiaMalaysiaMyanmarThailand

Family:

Bucerotidae

Order:

Coriciiformes

The helmeted hornbill is the only hornbill with a solid rather than a hollow casque.

300 grams

The weight of a helmeted hornbill’s casque – over 10% of the bird’s entire body weight.

500

The estimated number of helmeted hornbills killed every month in 2013 in West Kalimantan alone.

Conservation story

Typically, hornbill casques are light and hollow, but the helmeted hornbill’s headgear is a solid, ivory-like block that lends itself to being carved into ornaments. Increasing demand for such products, combined with rapid deforestation, poses a grave threat to the survival of the species throughout most of its range. Severe hunting pressure and widespread habitat loss have brought the helmeted hornbill perilously close to extinction.

In Sumatra, for example, the species has almost entirely disappeared from areas where it was previously abundant. Although deforestation has taken a significant toll on helmeted hornbills here and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, there is compelling evidence that the illegal wildlife trade poses the most immediate threat to their survival. The species is under sustained assault from commercial-scale hunting parties coordinated by organised criminal networks that are profiting from the growing demand for hornbill ‘ivory’, particularly in China.

The helmeted hornbill’s recent decline has been so precipitous that its official status on the IUCN Red List was changed in 2015 from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered, a dramatic overnight revision that saw it leapfrog several other levels of threat completely.

How FFI is helping to save the helmeted hornbill

Helmeted hornbills are benefiting – directly and indirectly – from the work of Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and its partners in Southeast Asia.

In Sumatra’s Kerinci Seblat National Park, the anti-poaching and forest protection activities of FFI-led tiger protection teams are having a tangible impact on illegal wildlife trade and deforestation, disrupting the trafficking networks that deal not only in tigers and timber, but also in pangolin scales and helmeted hornbill ‘ivory’.

Close collaboration with the park authorities and provincial police departments has led to improved law enforcement, including coordinated action to counter the activities of organised illegal wildlife trade syndicates and the kingpin traders driving wildlife and forest crime in and around Sumatra’s largest protected area.

In 2018, the project team recorded a substantial downturn in illegal wildlife trade demand, and fragmentation of what used to be tightly knit poach-to-order syndicates. Black market prices for helmeted hornbill and other wildlife have fallen, and there is evidence that traders are no longer willing to fund hornbill hunting gangs. Opportunistic poaching of helmeted hornbills continues, but there are encouraging signs that the pressure applied by FFI and its partners is one of the contributory factors in the substantial reduction in criminal activity compared to recent years.

On the neighbouring island of Borneo, the Conservation Leadership Programme – in which FFI is a leading partner – is supporting a team of Malaysian conservationists who are addressing the shortage of natural nest cavities that can accommodate hornbills – the result of widespread logging, particularly of the largest trees.

Nest boxes have been erected in the most promising locations, and rhinoceros and wrinkled hornbills are among the species that have already been observed using or checking out these artificial sites. The team hopes that continual improvements in the design of the boxes will encourage more birds – including helmeted hornbills – to use them.