Thais rally to save this bird trafficked to near-oblivion for its big, weird head

A  helmeted hornbill. Screenshot: Craig Ansibin / Youtube
A helmeted hornbill. Screenshot: Craig Ansibin / Youtube

A big bird that wears its own battle helmet has nearly disappeared from Thailand thanks to raging illicit trafficking, and now a campaign is calling for action to save them.

As of today, more than 8,000 people had signed an online petition calling for the government to better protect the helmeted hornbill after wildlife officials announced that fewer than 100 of the birds remained due to widespread poaching. 

“These birds are so rare that even when you visit these places, the chances of you actually see them are very rare,” a representative at Thailand’s Hornbill research foundation, who ended the call before giving his name, told Coconuts Bangkok today. 

The remaining birds are mostly found in three locations: the Budo-Sungai Padi National Park, Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary and Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary, Director Kanchana Nittaya told the media.

Pendants and amulets made from hornbill products. Photo: Traffic
Pendants and amulets made from hornbill products. Photo: Traffic

“Humans should not hurt animals. They have the right to live on this planet as much as we do,” one supporter identified as Lek Saisamorn wrote on the petition this morning. 

The helmeted hornbill or Rhinoplax vigils is a large bird and one of the most unusual in the hornbill family. Their casques – the heavy head structure males use to battle one another – have become a sought-after commodity widely and illegally traded online. The bird can be found in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. 

The campaign launched by animal protection organization Seub Nakhasathien Foundation seeks to add the bird to the government’s Reserved Wild Animals list. The 19 animals now listed include the Javan rhinoceros, wild water buffalo and dugong. Dictated by the 1992 Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act, the list prohibits possession, trade, importation and exportation of the listed species. 

The hornbill is only listed as a “protected” species, which affords fewer protections. Protected animals can be studied, bred or kept in zoos. Only extremely endangered species are added to the “reserved” list. Doing so requires a Royal Decree published in the Royal Gazette. 

Many people believe the bird qualifies as it is considered “critically endangered” by the IUCN Red list. 

A young, male helmeted hornbill. Photo: Doug Janson / Wikipedia Commons
A young, male helmeted hornbill. Photo: Doug Janson / Wikipedia Commons

“The penalty for trading protected animals is much less than reserved animals, so I don’t think people are afraid to illegally sell helmeted hornbill products,” the research foundation rep said. 

“Protecting these birds really should be the government’s responsibility,” he added, explaining that previous attempts to breed or raise them in captivity failed because they are a very complicated species. They also take longer than other birds to reproduce.  

That means the best hope for conservation is in the wild.

Despite the fact that trading of the hornbill is forbidden, a recent study from wildlife NGO Traffic brought the crisis to the spotlight by revealing just how widespread they are traded online in Thailand.

Traffic surveyed 40 public and private Thai-language Facebook groups for six months and found that from June 2014 to April 2019, there were at least 236 Facebook posts offering more than 546 hornbill parts and products. The eight main commodities for sale were whole casques, pendants, belt buckles, rings, necklaces, bracelets, taxidermy items and other individual pieces. 

Traffic believes increases law enforcement, as well as more vigilant policing of online groups, is needed to tackle the problem. 

Facebook groups advertising helmeted hornbill products. Photo: Traffic
Facebook groups advertising helmeted hornbill products. Photo: Traffic


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