Helmeted hornbills’ solid red beak sells for several times the price of elephant ivory due to soaring demand on the Chinese black market
Damian Carrington, Johannesburg
Wednesday 28 September 2016 08.48 BST Last modified on Wednesday 28 September 2016 22.00 BST
A virtually unknown ivory poaching crisis is rapidly driving one of the world’s most spectacular birds to extinction, a global wildlife summit has heard.
The helmeted hornbill, found mainly in Indonesia, Borneo and Thailand, has a solid red beak which sells as a “red ivory” on the black market, for several times the price of elephant ivory. The huge birds have been caught for centuries for their tail feathers, prized by local communities, but since 2011 poaching has soared to feed Chinese demand for carving ivory, even though the trade is illegal, sending the hornbill into a death spiral.
The bird, which can have a wingspan of 2m, was officially listed as “near threatened” in 2012 but within three years had plunged three danger levels to “critically endangered”. Over 2,100 heads were seized in Indonesia and China in the two years up to August 2014, according to the Species Survival Network, and some estimates suggest 6,000 a year are killed.
The government of Indonesia set out the hornbill’s plight on Tuesday in front of the 182 nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa. Cites had already given its highest level protection to the hornbill in 1975 – all trade is illegal. But Indonesia demanded more international action to break the crime syndicates that smuggle the beak ivory, known as casques.
“The high price reached by the casques motivates hunters to kill all the hornbills they cross, including juvenile birds,” said the Cites delegate from Indonesia, where police have arrested and prosecuted 15 hornbill traffickers since 2015. “The illegal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn has been well documented, however, the illegal trade in casques has been little known. If this highly profitable illegal trade is not curbed, the existence of this majestic species is in danger and is likely to lead to extinction.”
“It is in huge trouble,” said Elizabeth Bennett, from the Wildlife Conservation Society. “They have this fabulous call, that ends in cackling laughter, which you can hear from a mile away. But they are incredibly easy to hunt because of that call: it must be the most spectacular bird call on the planet.”