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article imagePoaching of this rare bird's 'ivory' is flying under the radar

By Karen Graham     Mar 20, 2016 in Environment
The slaughter of elephants and rhinos for ivory and horns has generated a lot of media attention, and rightly so. But there is a rare and endangered bird called the helmeted hornbill that is being slaughtered for the same reason.
The helmeted hornbill is just one of more than 60 hornbill species. The birds have black plumage with a white belly and legs, and can be found in the jungles of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo.
Helmeted hornbills (Rhinoplax vigil) are large members of the hornbill family. What makes them so unusual is the horn-like helmet above their beak called a casque. The word casque comes from the French, meaning helmet. The casque is made up of keratin, just like our fingernails and the horns of rhinos.
Within two or three generations  the helmeted hornbill will be gone.
Within two or three generations, the helmeted hornbill will be gone.
MNS Malaysia
The helmeted hornbill's casque is solid, unlike other hornbills, and the skull including the casque and bill may make up 10 percent of the bird's weight. This hornbill also sports a wrinkled throat patch, pale blue to green in females and red in the males.
Male hornbills use their casque in head-to-head combat with other males. Because the helmet is so hard, the combatants usually aren't permanently injured, but that solid horn attracted wildlife poachers. In 2011, an explosion in demand from China’s newly rich for this so-called “red ivory,” led to the wholesale slaughter of the helmeted birds.
The so-called red ivory is a description of the color the horn turns when it is carved. Criminal syndicates have spread out through Southeast Asia, paying locals to shoot every hornbill they come across, in the hopes that some of them will be the coveted helmeted hornbill.
19th-century Japanese belt ornament in hornbill ivory  showing natural preen gland colouring.
19th-century Japanese belt ornament in hornbill ivory, showing natural preen gland colouring.
Jugyoku - Walters Art Museum
Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network says the casques are typically sold on social network sites and online messaging platforms, most notably WeChat, a Chinese mobile messaging service.
“The Chinese, being the end consumers, generally prefer to purchase raw materials and process it themselves, as the degree of skills required to work on such products is usually superior in China,” he said. “However, some collectors also prefer whole polished beaks as mantelpiece ornaments.”
Scene from video with what appears to be a man unloading cardboard boxes full of helmeted hornbill c...
Scene from video with what appears to be a man unloading cardboard boxes full of helmeted hornbill casques.
Ade Nana
Last November, according to National Geographic, the helmeted hornbill's conservation status was changed. From its "near-threatened" status, it soared past “vulnerable” and “endangered” and landed one level away from “extinct”—“critically endangered.”
According to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), over 1,800 casques have been seized by law enforcement officials since 2010, but they say this figure only represents a small portion of the trade. Hornbill products come in the form of jewelry and decorative objects. How much is red ivory worth? In China, the casque of a helmeted hornbill can bring more money per gram than elephant ivory.
More about helmeted hornbill, Southeast asia, casque, carved into jewelry, High prices
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