Helmeted Hornbills Rhinoplax vigil are used to clashes. When a tall forest tree is in fruit, rival individuals launch into one of the most remarkable skirmishes seen among birds anywhere. The mighty hornbills, up to 1.5 m in length, take off from their high perches with deep beats of their enormous wings.
Just above the canopy, they take aim from up to 50 m away, accelerate towards each other in a glide and then launch straight into a ferocious head-butt.
The clash they make is loud enough to be heard 100 m away on the forest floor, and the combatants are thrown backwards by the force of the collision, whereupon each makes an impressive aerial flip to regain its balance.
If matters aren’t settled, the birds will make repeated jousts, sometimes for an hour, with up to 12 ‘hits’ being recorded.
These extraordinary duels are made possible only by the Helmeted Hornbill’s specially adapted casque, sitting atop its bill. A captivating orangered colour, it is made up mainly from keratin, and in contrast to that of all other hornbill species, which have open casques, it is both solid and heavy. Amazingly, the casque accounts for more than ten percent of the bird’s body weight.
Most of the research points to the possibility that Helmeted Hornbills fight over resources, particularly food. These are large birds with a broad diet that includes fruit, berries and animal matter, including small reptiles, mammals and birds (apparently, sometimes smaller hornbills).
However, life is easiest when large trees, especially figs, come into fruit, offering a temporary bonanza to all manner of forest wildlife. It has even been suggested that the action of fermenting figs might intoxicate the birds, ushering them more readily into combat.
Few have ever seen Helmeted Hornbills performing their aerial jousts. Indeed, few have ever seen this magnificent species at all. Despite its size, they are elusive birds, living in the canopy of the tall dipterocarp forests of Brunei, Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sumatra), Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. Just recently a new, unknown population was discovered, proving how poorly known the bird is.
The Helmeted Hornbill was once widespread and reasonably common. However, its preference for undisturbed, usually primary forest means that, over many years, its population has dwindled. The problem is compounded by the bird’s fussy habits: it is thought to have a narrower diet than most other hornbills, more dependent on figs.
It also makes its nest site in the tallest, oldest trees, which have developed cavities high above the forest floor, and are the most valuable to the logging industry. Its breeding biology, typical of a large, forest bird, compounds its vulnerability. Helmeted Hornbills breed very slowly, laying a small number of eggs and devoting enormous time and effort to their single young, meaning the reproductive rate is very slow.
As a long-lived bird, this is sustainable, but in a dwindling habitat, it is the sort of species that disappears quickly once a forest is subject to disturbance. Small amounts of poaching disproportionally reduce their numbers.
In recent years, however, a new threat has clouded the Helmeted Hornbill’s horizon, so much so that the bird has found itself recently classified as Critically Endangered – unusual for such a relatively widely distributed species. In fact, it isn’t an entirely new threat – more a recurrence of an old one.
For millennia, forest peoples noticed that the casques of Helmeted Hornbills were ideal for carving. From at least the year 1371 there was a small and sustainable trade between the Greater Sundas and China for these works, and Chinese craftsmen and women themselves also learnt to carve remarkably intricate scenes for belt buckles, buttons, bracelets and other accessories, sometimes leaving the rest of the skull intact.
Occasionally these carvings were brought to Western Europe and elsewhere to satisfy fashionable demand for curios. However, the trade was never large, and it is thought to have died out completely during the chaos of the Second World War.
In a highly unfortunate development, however, a revived interest in carved hornbill casques has reared its ugly head. Among a set of nouveau riche Chinese, the casques of Helmeted Hornbills have become the latest must-have possession, along with other inexplicable delights such as Pangolin scales. These are apparently status symbols. This bizarre market is fed by organised criminal gangs that already target illegal trade in the body parts of endangered animals.
Poaching for Helmeted Hornbill casques is now at unprecedented levels, particularly in Indonesia. There have been shocking estimates of the slaughter of birds – for example, 6,000 birds a year in 2012/13. For a large bird that breeds slowly, these levels are unsustainable.
To make matters worse, the local poachers enlisted by the gangs tend to kill all the large hornbills in an affected area, of which there may be several other species, so that they don’t miss the valuable Helmeted.
These other species are collateral damage. This new threat means that, if things carry on as they are, this will be the Helmeted Hornbill’s last clash. The big fighting bird of the giant forests will be reduced to a few carved skulls lurking in a study.
But conservationists do not intend to allow this species to fade away. This August, following a huge collaborative effort which involved more than 30 organisations including BirdLife, the IUCN SSC Hornbill Specialist Group, Asian Species Action Partnership (ASAP), Hornbill Research Foundation, Rangkong Indonesia, TRAFFIC, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Wildlife Reserves Singapore, a ten-year Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for the Helmeted Hornbill’s survival was launched.
The plan represents a multi-pronged, multi-national assault on the bird’s difficulties, and saw input from six national BirdLife Partners: Biodiversity And Nature Conservation Association Myanmar (BANCA), Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST), Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), Burung Indonesia, Nature Society (Singapore) and the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society.
There are three main aspects to the plan. The first is to eliminate the trade in Helmeted Hornbills. In order to do this, NGOs will map current and potential trade routes, make sure that local laws penalising hornbill trade are strengthened, and work to improve crossborder law enforcement.
This, together with effective enforcement of laws that are already in place, should slow, if not halt, the trafficking. Secondly, the plan commits to long-term monitoring of the remaining Helmeted Hornbill populations, and protection of their habitats throughout their natural range.
This will include implementing anti-poaching measures such as on-ground patrolling in areas that are not already protected, putting into place reforestation efforts in critical forests, and cutting down on illegal forestry and agricultural encroachment. The plan will also work on trying to safeguard hornbill habitats outside protected areas by advocating for increased government patrolling and protection of those areas.
Thirdly, the plan states that organisations will collect and share information so that current population levels of Helmeted Hornbills can be maintained, and hornbill populations that have been damaged can be allowed to recover. This can only be achieved by identifying Helmeted Hornbill population strongholds (‘safe havens’) and devising standardised monitoring plans to ensure we have reliable estimates of baseline populations which can be evaluated over time. Conservation action can then be triggered if populations fall below agreed thresholds.
BirdLife especially has previous experience in this area and has been working on the ground through its partners to enact local conservation measures. In May-June 2018, BirdLife and MNS gathered Helmeted Hornbill experts in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia to collaboratively identify knowledge gaps in Helmeted Hornbill distribution and agree upon population thresholds. At the Harapan rainforest in Indonesia, Lenya National Park in Myanmar, and Khlong Saeng-Khao Sok Forest Complex in Thailand, population surveys and engagement with local forest departments have enabled BirdLife, Burung Indonesia, BCST and BANCA to develop population monitoring plans.
At the Belum-Temengor forest in Malaysia, for the past 14 years communities have been monitoring Helmeted Hornbills with help from MNS. The project has also empowered local communities by providing them with education (hornbill camps), training and toolkits to report illegal hunting, logging or encroachment activities.
All of these efforts are meant to combat poaching, and secure safe havens for the species. After all, the Helmeted Hornbill is a bird that’s worth fighting for.
This article was first published by BirdLife International on 18 Dec 2019.