Hornbill head and shoulders side

This is a historical article from Virtual Birdfair 2020.

By Jamie Wyver


The ape-like song of the Helmeted Hornbill has to be heard to be believed. It builds from single loud hoots into double notes, speeding up until the bird lets out a loud cackle!

Listen to its song:

It’s also an extraordinary looking species, like one of Jim Henson’s more fantastical creations. Indeed, this is a ‘Big Bird’, standing over a metre high with a 50cm tail. Witnessing a Helmeted Hornbill fly overhead is as dramatic as seeing one close up, its wings creating a whooshing rush of air as it glides over. It feels like you’re looking back in time at some prehistoric scene where the first dinosaurs have started to take flight.

On the top of this bird’s large, bright yellow bill is the red helmet-like casque that gives the Helmeted Hornbill its name. The birds have been seen using this (almost completely) solid structure in aerial battles, fighting over food or territories. The clashing of their casques as they head-butt in mid-air can be heard 100m away or more on the forest floor!

Helmeted Hornbill –
Photo credit: Doug Janson / CC BY-SA

Flying Helmeted Hornbill – Photo credit Lay Win

Casques, crime and crisis

Carved Hornbill casque – Photo credit Anuj Jain

The casque has always been a source of fascination for people. For over a thousand years Helmeted Hornbills have been hunted in Borneo for their casques. These are sold primarily in China to be carved into jewellery and ornaments. But in the last decade that trade has increased significantly, with extensive poaching by organised crime networks. In the year 2012/2013 it was estimated that 6,000 of the birds were killed. Since 2010, enforcement agencies have seized more than 2,500 casques mostly at airports.

That’s completely unsustainable for a bird that breeds slowly. Helmeted Hornbills can live as long as 40 to 50 years. However they’ll only raise one chick a year, and that process takes around five months! During this time the female will have sealed herself and her chick inside a hole high in a tree, with just a small opening through which the male will pass food. Males that are tending to nesting females are easy hunting targets because males are quite vocal at that time and stay close to the nest tree. If the male is killed she can usually escape, but not if this happens while she’s moulting and unable to fly. If that happens, both she and the chick would die too.

Hornbill head and shoulders close
Hornbill – Photo credit Tim Plowden/www.timplowden.co.uk

Populations of Helmeted Hornbills have now seriously declined in Indonesia. We’re concerned that as numbers become depleted there, people will start poaching them in some of the other places they’re found. These include the lowland forests of Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Since 2015, this bird has been classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List due to the pressures of hunting, and the loss of the forests it depends on. The Governments of the range countries are committed to saving this species, but need (and are happy to work with) the support of BirdLife Partners and other conservation organisations to combat this clear example of organised crime assaulting some of the world’s rarest and most spectacular wildlife.

How you can help the Helmeted Hornbill

Each year, Birdfair raises funds for vital bird conservation projects around the world, working through BirdLife International and with a range of regional and local BirdLife Partners.

This year we’ll be asking for your donations for a project aiming to stop the poaching and trade of the Helmeted Hornbill. We want to secure safe havens for this bird and close down trade channels by supporting local and country enforcement agencies, getting local communities involved and encouraging people to change their behaviour. For example, we need to get the message across that these are the ‘farmers of the forest’ helping to spread tree seeds through their droppings. We’ll also make sure the population of this bird and trade of its casques is carefully monitored and consumer groups profiled so we have an in-depth knowledge of whose behaviour to change.

The project is part of a broader programme to review the impact of the global wild bird trade, which we believe is threatening the populations of a growing number of species. It’s worth remembering that the trade of wildlife has implications for human health too. Birds and animals caught in the wild and traded in markets have been linked to the origins of the current coronavirus pandemic as well as SARS and avian flu strains.

In addition, we’ll continue the BirdLife-Birdfair Young Conservation Leaders programme to support young conservationists fighting illegal bird trade in Asia.

Hornbill - side view

The Helmeted Hornbill is surely one of the most incredible birds on the planet. With your help, we can help secure its future and gain a better understanding of how the bird trade is impacting some of the world’s most threatened species.

All you need to do is come along (virtually) to Birdfair from 18 August and make a minimum donation of £5.

Hornbill – Photo credit Tim Plowden/www.timplowden.co.uk

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