Rare Helmeted Hornbills under threat as demands for their casques skyrocketing

Poaching has shifted from Indonesia and Borneo of Malaysia to Thailand’s southern parks, causing concerns that the small population of the bird would be deeply plunging to a critical point.

4 Helmeted hornbills, consecutively headed off in days, was the fresh information hornbill conservationist Preeda Thiensongrusamee was told by his informants, who were the villagers lending hands to the conservation effort at Budo-Su-nghai Padi National Park in Narathiwat province, where he has been working to save the bird for over 20 years.

Considering the small population of the bird which is listed by IUCN as critically endangered, around 50 in the park where the bird is most abundant here, 4 lost were almost one tenths of the bird population and that’s more than enough for Preeda to take action.

On September 25, he decided to post on his Facebook account, describing how critical the situation there was, calling on concerned parties to take action to stem the fierce poaching of the bird, believed to have shifted from Indonesia and Malaysia’s Borneo.

“I know this because we have also been working in collaboration with local researchers there and what happened in recent years is that the bird population there has declined sharply.

“Now it’s Thailand’s turn, as we in recent years too have heard less noise from them than we ever did,” said Preeda.


“The pricey bird”

The Helmeted Hornbill is a large hornbill species that occupies lowland forests of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand, according to TRAFFIC, a global anti-wildlife trafficking organization which has just conducted a fresh survey on online trade of the bird in Thailand.

Unlike other hornbills which are found in Thailand, 13 in total, the bird possesses striking helmet- like casque consisting of solid keratin. With attractive yellow, orange and even red colouring of the casque, the bird’s casque becomes a prized luxury item, highly sought after for trade, believed to be in replacement of restricted elephant ivory.

TRAFFIC believes this has caused populations in countries like Indonesia to be targeted, despite it is placed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1975, which prohibits all international commercial trade in parts, products and specimens.

Based on TRAFFIC’s analysis of seizures, the statistics has shown that at least 2,878 Helmeted Hornbill casques and products were seized from at least 59 known confiscations from 2010 to 2017.

A majority of these, or 2,170 casques, were confiscated between March 2012 and August 2014 in China and Indonesia alone, TRAFFIC said.

In Thailand, the organization said there has still been little information on poaching and trade of Helmeted Hornbills as the seizure data indicate that the poaching hotspots for the species are in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra. But the latest finding from its survey has demonstrated how active online trade has been in the country.

The six-month online survey found a minimum of 236 online posts offering a minimum of 546 hornbill parts and products in 32 of the 40 groups surveyed on Facebook. And Helmeted Hornbill’s parts and products constituted 83% or 452 pieces of all hornbill commodities recorded.

This finding was of particular concern because trade in this species has risen over the past decade, driven by demand for its solid bill casque, carved and used as an alternative to elephant ivory, particularly in China and increasingly in other Asian markets, TRAFFIC noted.

TRAFFIC even found that posts offering Helmeted Hornbills went as far back as 2014, with peaks recorded in 2016 and 2018, ranging from 162 to 171 individual Helmeted Hornbill products offered for sale.

“It could not be determined if the Helmeted Hornbill casques were sourced from within Thailand or from other range states, although in one instance, a post claimed that the advertised casque piece was from Malaysia.

“The study also found 94 whole heads of eight other hornbill species_all native to Thailand and prohibited from hunting and trade by Thai legislation_made up the rest of the hornbill commodities recorded in the survey,” noted TRAFFIC in the survey.

For Preeda, the fresh report he received a few days ago is so evident that poaching is taking place here and now.


The “blooded” ivory

For over 20 years, Preeda has been working to save the bird under the directive of Thailand Hornbill Project by noted bird scientist Pilai Poolsawad, and managed to turn communities around the mountains to help save the bird in return of their lost income.

From bird stealers, they have become bird protectors, helping Preeda to save the species, which has been confined due to the shrinking habitats.

Budo is the bird’s save place, but still, poaching from outsiders has placed a new challenge to the conservationists.

According to his informants, poachers are those from Rue sor and Yala, and they are armed with rifles. The only question that Preeda has is why these people can carry such the guns through checkpoints, and sometimes with dogs, as he ever witnessed this himself.

His informants were also threatened following the fresh death of the four birds. One of them told Preeda; “I told them not to shoot the birds because we are conserving them, but instead they challenged me back, with a gunshot.”

Preeda said Helmeted Hornbills’ casques are dubbed as “the blooded ivory” for their red color. They were ever priced as Jade, but now one casque could be priced as high as Bt 10,000, attracting more and more poachers to come for the bird.

Preeda desperately needed support, but he said, it’s little on the ground.


Saving Helmeted Hornbills

Following Preeda’s expose, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation has stepped out and said it has come with a plan, in addition to the work it has been doing in the area too.

Karnjana Nittaya, director of the department’s wildlife conservation office, said the department has realized the situation of the rare Helmeted Hornbill, acknowledging how critically endangered it is, as well as its confined habitats in Budo, Hala Bala wildlife sanctuary, and Khlong Sang, with only around 100 birds estimated.

The department has also acknowledged the patterns of poaching; one for live babies, and other for the birds’ casques.

In the past four or five years, the department has managed to arrest five poachers in three critical cases, with three live birds seized, and one carcass.

To protect the bird, the department instructed park and wildlife rangers in the areas to intensify their Smart patrolling and deploy some rangers to guards the birds’ nests if needed.

In collaboration with the Project, the department has been studying the bird’s ecology to gain knowledge for planning.

This has been developed into a 10-year Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for the Helmeted Hornbill, which was launched late last year, under the auspices of the IUCN Helmeted Hornbill Working Group.

As the bird is under the fresh threat, the department is considering upgrading its status from a “protected species” to a “preserved” one so that it can receive the highest protection degree from concerned agencies following Wildlife Preservation and Protection Law.

Preeda said he does not want anything more than close cooperation between the villagers and park and wildlife officials on the ground.

Seriousness is needed so work is continuous, and trust, in particular, is the key, he said.