PETALING JAYA: The critically endangered Helmeted Hornbill is facing a grave threat from poachers who are after its famed red crown, which is prized by collectors.
International wildlife syndicates pay these poachers between US$80 (RM337) and US$100 (RM421) per crown, prized as “red ivory” that can be carved into souvenirs and trinkets.
The hunt for these magnificent birds has intensified in Malaysia following a clampdown on poaching activities in Indonesia. The authorities there are keeping a tight watch on airports and seaports.
Checks by The Star indicate that online chatter via underground poaching channels has intensified, with offers being repeatedly made to those who could supply syndicates with the hornbills’ crowns.
The Helmeted Hornbill crown or casque is a solid thick layer of keratin found above its beak, similar to fingernails or rhino horn.
It can fetch thousands of ringgit in the black market as these casques can be carved into beautiful and exotic pendants, beads, necklaces, bracelets and other decorative ornaments.
It is sold three to five times more than the price of elephant ivory.
A small carving from Chinese master craftsmen can fetch anything between US$2,000 (RM8,420) and US$10,000 (RM42,100) a piece.
A former poacher told The Star that syndicates raised their price to obtain these casques to entice more locals, especially Orang Asli, to hunt the species in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak as there is a huge demand among China’s rich for accessories and ornaments made from the red ivory.
At the 17th International Hornbill Conference in Kuching, Sarawak, two years ago, it was revealed that there were more than 40 places in Peninsular Malaysia where this exclusive species can be found.
In Sarawak, forests near the Sarawak-Kalimantan and Sarawak-Sabah border are said to be populated with hornbills.
The source said poachers were lured by the lucrative payments to hunt for these birds in Malaysia, where their poaching activities often go undiscovered.
The source said aside from encouraging locals to hunt for these birds’ crowns, the casques are also coming from Kalimantan before ending up in China and Taiwan.
“With Indonesian wildlife authorities intensifying their enforcement activities at key airports from Kalimantan – Pontianak Supadio airport and Balikpapan Sepinggan airport – in recent months, it has forced these syndicates to turn to Malaysia, ” said the source.
These two airports are known to be the major smuggling gateways for Helmeted Hornbill crowns. Over the years, many seizures were made at these two airports.
“Wildlife syndicates are using human couriers to smuggle the casques across the Kalimantan-Sarawak border and ship these red ivories through Kuching airport.
“Syndicate members would also go as far as Kota Kinabalu airport to make such shipments, ” said the source.
The syndicates, said the source, preferred Kuching airport as the gateway to get the illegal consignment abroad as the authorities there, including Customs and airport security officials, had never dealt or seized such illegal items before.
Therefore, they might not know or were aware of how the casque looked like or were packaged, said the source.
Meanwhile, the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) director-general Abdul Kadir Abu Hassan said they were monitoring such poaching activities in the jungle through Ops Belang, a special 24-hour monitoring operation on tiger habitats or “hotspots” in Malaysia to battle all sorts of poaching activities.
He said under the operation, rangers were not only on the lookout for tiger poaching but also all other protected animals, including Helmeted Hornbills.
The department, he said, was also working with all the related government and non-government agencies to carry out monitoring and enforcement activities to protect the endangered species from being smuggled out of the country.
“We are also working with airport and port authorities, through intelligence sharing, training and other joint operations, to curb the smuggling activities, including Helmeted Hornbills, at airports, ” he said.
Abdul Kadir said those with information on Helmeted Hornbill poaching should contact their headquarters or state offices immediately and action would be taken.
A Sarawak Forest Department official said they were working closely with the police and army to keep surveillance on its porous border with Kalimantan and all the entry points between the two states to curb wildlife smuggling activities, including the illegal shipment of hornbill casques from Indonesia.
“To date, we have not seized any hornbill casques at the airport.
“However, we are keeping a close watch for such smuggling activities to protect these endangered species, ” said the officer.