This Rare Bird Is Worth More Than Ivory to Poachers

The endangered helmeted hornbill is being slaughtered to turn its valuable beak into trinkets for the Chinese market.

Helmeted hornbill. (Photo: Doug Janson)


Jan 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The poaching of elephants and rhinos gets a lot of well-deserved media attention, but the widespread slaughter of another species is flying under the radar.

According to an undercover operation by the Environmental Investigation Agency, poachers are increasingly targeting a rare bird called the helmeted hornbill. The beaks of these Southeast Asian birds are then carved into jewelry and trinkets and sold in China, where they fetch prices five times higher than elephant ivory.

“The trade is definitely increasing, especially so in recent years,” said an EIA investigator who spoke anonymously out of fear for his safety. He reports that the quantity of helmeted hornbill products observed for sale “far exceeds published sightings of live helmeted hornbills in the wild.” All of the sales are illegal under the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species and various national laws.

Helmeted hornbills, one of more than 60 hornbill species, live on the Malaysian peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Like all hornbill species, they have a large protrusion called a casque on the top of their beaks. These casques are valued throughout Asia as decorations. In many cases, such as among the Nyishi tribal peoples of India, the casques are worn as ornamentation.

The helmeted hornbill, however, is unique among hornbill species.

“The ‘horn’ on the bill is solid, not hollow as in all other species,” said Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, as well as a council member of the Oriental Bird Club. “The bill of this species has, for centuries, been carved, as an avian equivalent of ivory.”

In fact, helmeted hornbill casques are often referred to as “hornbill ivory” or “golden jade,” although they are actually made out of keratin, the same substance that comprises human fingernails and rhino horns. The practice of carving these casques dates back to before the Ming dynasty.

EIA’s investigation found both carved casques and whole hornbill heads for sale on a variety of social networks and online messaging platforms, most notably WeChat, a Chinese mobile messaging service.

“Facebook is also widely used,” the investigator said. The carvings were typically sold within China, while the heads were shipped from other countries. “The Chinese, being the end consumers, generally prefer to purchase raw materials and process it themselves, as the degree of skills required to work on such products is usually superior in China,” he said. “However, some collectors also prefer whole polished beaks as mantelpiece ornaments.”

Although the carvings fetch high prices as status symbols, the investigator found that “there is little to no awareness about these birds. Few buyers know what they are, let alone the impact the purchase of these products creates.”

EIA began investigating the hornbill trade after it noticed online suppliers using the coded terms “black” for rhino horn and “white” for ivory. A third code name popped up more recently: “red,” based on the Chinese word hedinghong (“hong” means “red”) for helmeted hornbill beaks.

The agency found that the ivory carving industry also supports the hornbill trade and that “red” products have become more in demand as status symbols as China’s wealth has increased.

Now that this trade has been revealed, EIA’s investigator said he hopes the governments of China, Malaysia, and Indonesia will take notice and increase their efforts to clamp down on poaching before the birds face the same bloody fate as rhinos and elephants.