Ivory collectors now eyeing carved hornbill casques

Growing demand for hornbill ivory threatening the majestic birds.

WHILE the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn is well-documented, less well known is the trafficking of another product derived from a critically endangered species – the carved beaks of helmeted hornbills.

Criminals have not been slow in transitioning into the 21st century and adopting new technology. Just as they had to learn the etiquette needed to engage traders face on, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) covert investigators have had to learn the coded jargon used to communicate with online suppliers, such as “black” for rhino horn and “white” for ivory.

In recent years, another colour, “red”, has become increasingly prominent in trade. Taking its origins from its Chinese name, hedinghong (hong means red), this “red” represents the beaks of helmeted hornbill birds. 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. At RMB40 (RM23) per gramme, it commands an estimated five times the average price of black market ivory in weight.

With the growing wealth of Chinese consumers, helmeted hornbill beak products have become increasingly popular, so much so that “red” has significantly elevated as a status symbol.

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 lowland forests up to 1,500m above sea level.

Collectibles carved from hornbill casques on sale on the Internet.

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 (no trading allowed) since 1975. Yet despite its critically threatened status, little consideration has been given to the species. With much more attention focused on the trades in ivory and rhino horn, the trade in hornbill beak products has largely gone unnoticed and unhindered. Some buyers remain ignorant of the reality of helmeted hornbill products – what they are, where they come from, even that they are derived from a living animal.

“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,” says an EIA undercover investigator who monitors the trade. – EIA

Related story:
Can anything stop the rhino poaching crisis?

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