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The helmeted hornbill, before and after. Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency.
The helmeted hornbill, before and after. Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency.
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Red alert! Hornbills at risk from wildlife trade

The Ecologist

2nd February 2015

We all know about the risk to elephants and rhinos from the illegal wildlife trade, but now the helmeted hornbills of Borneo and Sumatra are at risk as online traders find ready buyers for their carved beaks in China.

Helmeted hornbill beak products have become increasingly popular, so much so that 'red' has significantly elevated as a status symbol over its 'black' and 'white' counterparts: rhino horn and ivory.

The illegal trade in helmeted hornbill beaks is posing an increasing threat to the species' survival, the Environmental Investigation Agency is warning.

And where ivory has its code name 'white' and rhino horns are coded 'black', hornbill beaks have their own black market moniker: 'red'. The term has its origins in the Chinese name for the bird, hedinghong (hong = red).

The 'red' trade is also highly profitable, often commanding black market prices up to five times higher than ivory. The beaks are typically carved into human or humanoid faces or animal and abstract designs

But the trade in the carved beaks has a "much lower profile than that in ivory or rhink horn", says EIA, even though the helmeted hornbill is a critically endangered species - both as its forested habitat on Borneo and Sumatra is cleared for palm oil, and by the wildlife trade.

Despite its critically threatened status, little consideration has been given to the helmeted hornbill. With much more attention focused on the trades in ivory and rhino horn, says EIA, "the trade in hornbill beak products has largely gone unnoticed and unhindered."

The main market: China

As with ivory and rhino horn, the main consumer market for helmeted hornbill beaks is China. They are traded and processed through the same carving industries in China and sold in shops as luxury products, namely jewellery and decorative ornaments.

With the growing wealth of Chinese consumers, helmeted hornbill beak products have become increasingly popular, so much so that 'red' has been significantly elevated as a status symbol over its 'black' and 'white' counterparts.

But many buyers remain ignorant of the reality of helmeted hornbill products - what they are, where they come from, even that they derive from a living animal.

An EIA undercover investigator who monitors the trade said: "One thing is for sure, alongside the 'black' and 'white' products in trade that EIA regularly monitors, the volume of 'red' products in trade has become widespread in recent years and that can only be a profoundly worrying sign for these majestic birds.

Populations 'in serious decline'

With a wingspan about 1.7m, the helmeted hornbill is a large bird inhabiting the South-East Asia forests of Sumatra and Borneo. The species generally occurs in primary semi-evergreen and evergreen lowland forests up to 1,500m above sea level.

Unlike other hornbills, the helmeted hornbill is sedentary in range and territorial in behaviour. Its most distinctive physical feature is the unique casque, or helmet, above its red/yellow beak.

Populations have been in serious decline due to a combination of habitat destruction and poaching, with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species listing the species on Appendix I since 1975.

EIA has been monitoring trade in ivory and rhino horn for the past two decades, from gathering intelligence via face-to-face conversations with traders in Africa and Asia to monitoring the ever-growing online sales.

And criminals have not been slow in transitioning into the 21st century and adopting new technology. Just as EIA covert investigators had to learn the etiquette needed to engage traders face on, they have also had to learn the coded jargon used to communicate with online suppliers.



Source: Environmental Investigation Agency.


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