MANILA – Hornbills in the Philippines already suffer from habitat loss and forest conversion, but the illegal sale of these endangered birds in the online market could further plunge their numbers in the wild, according to a recently published study.
This possible decrease in their populations due to poaching could have a knock-on effect on forests, especially on fruit-bearing trees, for which hornbills play a key role in dispersing seeds.
Online surveys conducted by the wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC between 2018 and 2022 revealed that these threatened birds are being sold on Facebook, despite the social network’s policy against the trade of live animals and Philippine laws that seek to protect wildlife from illegal possession and trade.
The report found a total of 143 hornbills being offered for sale during the five-year monitoring period. Prices ranged from as low as 1,500 pesos (about $26) for an endemic species to 30,000 pesos ($529) for nonnative species.
The study said the low asking prices meant they were likely poached from the wild, given the difficulty of breeding and maintaining the birds in captivity.
Most of the hornbills seen sold online were Luzon tarictic hornbills (Penelopides manillae), which are classified as vulnerable by Philippine authorities. Researchers also observed the sale of the critically endangered Visayan tarictic hornbill (Penelopides panini) and even a Papuan hornbill (Rhyticeros plicatus), which was likely smuggled from another country.
Of the 32 hornbill species recognized in Asia, 11 are endemic in the Philippines. Emerson Sy, one of the researchers, said the online hornbill trade adds further pressure to the survival of these threatened birds, which have very restricted distribution across certain Philippine islands, including Panay, Negros and Tawi-Tawi.
“The illegal trade and poaching basically expedites the possible extinction of the species in the wild,” he told Mongabay.
Josef Job Raymundo, another study author, said the hornbills were likely offered online as exotic pets, although this was not clearly established in the surveyed posts. Other research on the hornbill trade in the country said these birds are illegally collected from the forests for zoo exhibits and wild meat, and even for use in both indigenous and contemporary materials.
While lockdowns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic severed the supply chain between poachers and online traders, the study noted a resurgence in illegal online activity in 2021. From 2021-22, following a crackdown by Facebook that deactivated more than 1,800 Philippine wildlife trade groups, traders on the platform also devised ways to outwit the social media algorithm. They intentionally misspelled words, used codes and even embedded text posts in images to evade the site’s monitoring.
Sy said without sustained efforts from Facebook and other stakeholders, from the government to the platform’s users, these online trade groups will continue to proliferate, despite repeated crackdowns.
“Obviously the wildlife authorities cannot do all the work on their own. They are undermanned and underbudgeted,” he said. “The task on their shoulders is impossible, so they really need help from the public.”
Hornbills are large frugivores that are called “farmers of the forest” because of their role in seed dispersal, especially over great distances.
Because of their large size, hornbills are able to disperse large and heavy seeds of fruit-bearing trees that otherwise cannot spread to farther areas, said Lisa Paguntalan, an ornithologist who is a member of the IUCN Hornbill Specialist Group.
“Some of these seeds also need to pass through the warm gut of hornbills,” said Paguntalan, who was not part of TRAFFIC’s study. “Without this process, these seeds will have a harder time to grow.”
The hornbills’ seed dispersal role also plays a huge part in ensuring the abundance of food supply for other animals in the forest, she said. Fruit-eating doves, pigeons and bats, including many that are threatened and endemic to the Philippines, rely on the supply of fruits from trees whose seeds are dispersed by hornbills.
Hornbills can also be considered barometers of healthy forest ecosystems because of their peculiar breeding habits. During their breeding season, female hornbills seal themselves within tree cavities and stay with their nestlings for months, while their mates make several trips to bring them food.
The TRAFFIC study noted that more than half of the endemic Philippine hornbills that were being traded online were nestlings or about to fledge. They observed that the illegal online trade would peak in June and July, when nest poaching can be easily done since the rearing females and their young are still sealed inside the nest cavities.
With these feeding and breeding habits, Raymundo underscored the interconnectedness between the hornbills and the forests.
“They need the forest and they themselves restore the forest,” he said. “If we take them from the wild, they cannot perform their role.”
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This article by Jhesset O. Enano was first published by Mongabay.com on 29 August 2023. Lead Image: Most of the hornbills sold online were Luzon hornbills (Penelopides manillae), which are classified as vulnerable by Philippine authorities. Image by Luke Marcos Imbong via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).