Amid rising prices of elephant ivory, the beak of the helmeted hornbill bird has become the latest "must-have" item in the world of illegal wildlife trading.
The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a worldwide summit on the illegal wildlife trade, kicked off this week in Johannesburg, South Africa. The plight of the helmeted hornbill bird is becoming a rising theme at the convention, as the illegal wildlife economy desperately seeks out alternatives to ivory.
With increasing demand for its casque (its enlarged beak and "headpiece"), poaching of the species has shot up in the past couple of years. The tropical bird is native to the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo, but there's been an increasing number being seized from richer or tourist-heavy countries, such as China, Hong Kong, Lao PDR, and Indonesia, according to a recent report (PDF) from the wildlife trade watchdog TRAFFIC.
Between March 2012 and August 2014, there were 2,170 helmeted hornbill casques seized in China and Indonesia alone. The report also found markets across Southeast Asia openly trading the casques and even luxury hotels proudly showing off helmeted hornbill ornaments.
The helmeted hornbill is becoming referred to by some as “ivory on wings,” the Associated Press reports. The red bills are made out of solid keratin, although it is marginally softer than ivory, making it easier to carve into jewelry or ornaments. The reddish-orange color also makes them attractive to consumers.
This increasing demand has hit the species hard. In 2015, the IUCN Red List uplisted the helmeted hornbill from their status of Near Threatened to Critically Endangered “owing to severe hunting pressure for its casque.”
“If this problem isn’t dealt with very soon, the Helmeted Hornbill may be wiped out in Indonesia and seriously threatened elsewhere,” Dr Chris Shepherd, regional director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement. "The health of the rainforests will suffer and the forests will fall silent.”
The TRAFFIC report concludes by saying South Asian governments need to increase their enforcement and regulation efforts, particularly along the borders of Lao PDR, Myanmar, and China. It suggests governments openly share information with each other so that more solid intelligence-based investigations can be led. They also hope to make consumers more aware of the problem in the hopes it will stifle the demand.