The Helmeted Hornbill: Nature’s Dinosaur Bird

Dec 18, 2015

Conservation

Helmeted Hornbills recently became one of the most expensive and sought after animals on the wildlife black market, yet most people know little about these amazing birds or the grave threats they face.

  • Helmeted Hornbill. Photo by Christian Goers
  • Helmeted Hornbill. Photo by Christian Goers
  • Helmeted Hornbill. Photo by Nur Atiqah Binti Tahir
  • Historic Helmeted Hornbill Illustration. Public Domain

Found across Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo, the Helmeted Hornbill’s maniacal calls and hoots echo across Southeast Asia’s undisturbed primeval rainforests. With a wingspan over 6 feet, striking white and black feathers and a large patch of bare, reptile-like skin around the throat, Helmeted Hornbills look a little like winged dinosaurs.

What’s most unusual about these bizarre birds though is their enormous helmet-like casque, a solid lump of keratin (a fibrous protein) that extends along the top of the bill and on to the skull.

In all other species of hornbill the casque is hollow, but the Helmeted Hornbill’s casque is solid and can account for up to 11% of the bird’s weight. It is used as a battering ram by males in head-to-head aerial jousting during the breeding season, and as a weighted tool to dig out insects from rotting logs by both sexes.

  • Helmeted Hornbill. Photo by Nur Atiqah Binti Tahir

For centuries, people have coveted the Helmeted Hornbill’s casque as “red ivory” for carvings, beads, and vanity products. Traditionally, hornbill casques were harvested in low numbers by indigenous peoples for tribal medicine or traded to Chinese craftsmen for carvings. Demand and trade largely died out by the mid-twentieth century.

However, in the last five years the species has come under terrible new pressure from an exploding illegal demand for red ivory. Today its black market price in China is five times higher than elephant ivory, as increasingly affluent clients seek status-enhancing “luxury” products. The trade has resulted in the recent reclassification of the species this year, skipping two whole categories from “Near Threatened” to “Critically Endangered” by the IUCN.

  • Old growth rainforest habitat in Borneo. Photo by CIFOR

“If we don’t pay attention, this bird is going to go extinct”, warns Dr. Bert Harris, Rainforest Trust’s Chief Biodiversity Officer and an expert on Southeast Asia’s illegal bird trade. “This species is especially vulnerable because it is slow to reproduce and requires old growth rainforest. As demand for palm oil grows, developers are encroaching on the bird’s last refuges.”

The Helmeted Hornbill is found in Rainforest Trust’s project sites in both Sumatra and Malaysian Borneo. Protecting the old growth rainforests these birds depend on and supporting anti-poaching patrols with conservation partners on the ground offers the best hope to ensure a future for one of Asia’s most spectacular birds and a host of other endangered wildlife in the region.

Learn how you can help protect Helmeted Hornbills and their rainforest habitats in Sumatra and Borneo.