Helmeted hornbill, on verge of extinction, finds respite in new zone outside of known range

A recent survey has found a high concentration of near-extinct helmeted hornbills in a conservation area in western Borneo.

Article by Basten Gokkon.

A conservation area in western Borneo holds an unexpectedly rich population of the helmeted hornbill, a bird driven close to extinction by poaching for its distinctive casqued beak, a field survey has found.

A research team from the conservation group Planet Indonesia recorded over 50 visual and audio detections of the hornbill during its yearlong survey in the protected area in northwestern Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.

The discovery indicated a large concentration of the helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), said Adam Miller, executive director of the NGO, in a statement.

A helmeted hornbill is sighted by the Planet Indonesia research team at a protected site in western Borneo. Photo courtesy of Planet Indonesia.

While Borneo in general is known to be a habitat of the species, Miller pointed out that his team’s findings were the first to detect the bird’s presence in the protected region.

“When we found the helmeted hornbill … we could not believe it,” Miller wrote in a separate email. “We had not expected this rainforest to be so rich with hornbills.”

Stretching across 1,800 square kilometers (695 square miles) of forested area, the remote landscape covers three administrative districts and connects to a national park in Malaysia’s Sarawak state.

Other than the helmeted hornbill, Miller said, the region contains seven other hornbill species: the oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris), the bushy-crested hornbill (Anorrhinus galeritus), the wreathed hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus), the black hornbill (Anthracoceros malayanus), the white-crowned hornbill (Berenicornis comatus), the rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) and the wrinkled hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus corrugatus).

“This landscape is indeed a hornbill paradise,” Miller said.

Conservation biologist Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, executive director of the Indonesian Hornbill Conservation Society (IHCS) and a leading expert on hornbill trafficking, welcomed the new finding on the species, whose population in the wild remains unknown.

“The landscape is not yet included in the IUCN’s range map of the helmeted hornbill species,” Hadiprakarsa wrote in an email. “It’s probably because the area is still underresearched. However, my 2014 analysis indicated that the landscape is a suitable habitat for the helmeted hornbill.”

The hornbill species, known for its distinctive casque – a protuberance above its beak that can account for up to 13 percent of its body weight – eats almost exclusively figs, but occasionally feeds on insects and other small invertebrates.

Despite records of the bird’s occurrence in the region, both Miller and Hadiprakarsa said more time and research were needed to estimate the helmeted hornbill population there.

“Estimating helmeted hornbill population size is quite difficult as visual detections are preferred, but this species is extremely sensitive,” Miller said. “It will take at least one to two more years before we can estimate the size.”

“The existence of the helmeted hornbill fluctuates depending on food availability,” Hadiprakarsa said.

The helmeted hornbill is one of Southeast Asia’s most unique birds, with a large casque that is used by males in head-to-head aerial combat. The solid “red ivory” casques are highly valued for use as ornamental carvings, primarily in China. Photo courtesy of Yokyok Hadiprakarsa/IHCS.

The helmeted hornbill is one of the most threatened bird species on the planet, driven out of its habitat by forest-clearing and hunted close to extinction for its casque, which is prized for use as ornamental carvings, primarily in China. As recently as 2012 the species was listed by the IUCN as Near Threatened, but by 2015 the intense demand for the birds’ “red ivory” pushed the species three categories down to Critically Endangered – just a step away from extinction.

A 2013 investigation supported by the Chester Zoo Conservation Award revealed that in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, 6,000 helmeted hornbills were killed for their casques in a single year. Mongabay has chosen not to reveal the specific location of the newly discovered hornbill population, but Planet Indonesia’s Miller said it was already facing similar threats as other hornbill habitats. More than 55 square kilometers of forest in the area have been degraded in the past 10 years, according to Global Forest Watch data cited by the conservation group.

The group’s field survey also showed that this area was one of the last strongholds of the Critically Endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Endangered Abbott’s gray gibbon (Hylobates muelleri abbotti).“

It is imperative that immediate efforts are made to preserve this landscape, or some of the last habitat of the critically endangered helmeted hornbill and Bornean orangutan will be lost forever,” Miller said.

One of the first steps, he suggested, is for the IUCN to update its range map of the helmeted hornbill to include the conservation landscape.

Hadiprakarsa called for more research on the hornbill species and for stronger enforcement of existing laws to protect the birds’ shrinking habitat.

“A lot is still unknown about this species, like whether local extinction is already happening or whether Indonesia, as the world’s largest habitat of this species, has enough trees for them to breed,” he said.

“We must not be fixated on protecting the wildlife only,” Hadiprakarsa added. “Wildlife conservation is truly tied with habitat management, instead of prioritizing captive management.”

Editor’s note: To avoid tipping off poachers, Mongabay has left out details of the location of the discovery. Contact Adam Miller (adam.miller@planetindonesia.org) for his team’s full report.

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