Researchers are sounding the alarm for the Helmeted Hornbill after a new study of seizure figures revealed 2,170 hornbill casques had been confiscated from illegal trade in just three years.
The figures were obtained from enforcement actions in Indonesia and China between March 2012 and August 2014, with Indonesia accounting for over half the parts seized.
The hornbills are poached on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia and often then shipped to China, where their casques are carved are sold as status symbols, said the report published in Bird Conservation International.
Trade in the Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil: the ‘ivory hornbill’ warns that the high numbers of casques in illegal trade point to a significant demand for the keratin-filled structure or casque on the bird’s bill, which is carved into luxury decorations and jewellery, akin to elephant ivory.
The authors also highlighted several other indications of a mounting threat from the trade such as the discovery of Helmeted Hornbill casques in multiple-species seizures that included tigers, rhinos, elephants and pangolins – other threatened wildlife species highly desired by traffickers.
Investigations by conservation groups in Sumatra and Kalimantan have shown the hornbill trade is being orchestrated by organized criminal gangs, with syndicates commissioning teams of poachers to hunt the birds.
The 2015 IUCN Red List assessment notes the species has apparently almost disappeared from habitats where it was previously abundant on Sumatra and cautions that poaching efforts could shift to Malaysia from Indonesia, where illegal capture is now focused.
“If this problem isn’t dealt with very soon, the Helmeted Hornbill may be wiped out in Indonesia and seriously threatened elsewhere,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia whose work on the report was funded by Wildlife Reserves Singapore.
“The health of the rainforests will suffer and the forests will fall silent.”
Hornbills are essential to rainforest ecosystems as they help with seed dispersal through their droppings. The call of the Helmeted Hornbill is also one of the most charismatic sounds of the region’s rainforests.
The study calls for a slew of urgent measures to arrest the problem including greater patrolling and monitoring, far-reaching investigations into the criminal networks controlling the trade and increased vigilance at hotspots in China and Indonesia.
The Helmeted Hornbill is found in parts of western Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand and the tip of southern Myanmar, in low densities. It is protected by local laws throughout its native range, and is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which prohibits its commercial international trade. Hunting continues despite these protections.
In 2015, due to the severe increase in poaching for the illegal trade, the Helmeted Hornbill was reclassified from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.