The international trade in illegal wildlife parts has another victim. Over the past five years, there has been an explosion in demand for the “red ivory” of an Asian bird – the helmeted hornbill.

Helmeted hornbill products sell for three to five times the price of elephant ivory. Their value has triggered a boom in poaching, sending the bird plunging towards extinction. Although it has been listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species in Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) since the 1970s – which means the trade is illegal – the helmeted hornbill is much sought after on the black market, and Post Magazine has discovered that Hong Kong plays a key role in the unfolding tragedy.

The helmeted hornbill lives in remnant pockets of low­land rainforest in Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand and the southern tip of Myanmar. A large, bonkers-looking bird, with a featherless, wrinkly neck (aqua blue in females, cherry red in males), and striking, black-and-white tail feathers, its dramatic call – think of the cackling laughter of a horror film maniac – was once a common sound in the rainforest.

The “helmet”, for which the bird is hunted, is a solid lump, called the casque, fused along the top of its dark yellow bill and up onto the skull. The casque gets its golden red hue from protective tinted oils secreted by preen glands. Many species of hornbill have casques but most are hollow – the helmeted hornbill’s is unique because it is solid. The casque material is called “red ivory” but that’s a misnomer. Ivory is made of dentine whereas casques are made of keratin, the fibrous protein found in human hair and fingernails and rhino horn.

The casque is thought to have evolved because of the male birds’ extraordinary habit of engaging in aerial headbutting contests. Two combatants perch on different trees, take flight, and hurtle towards each other until they bang heads, produ­cing a loud cracking noise. The jousts can go on for hours. Scientists are unsure whether they are competing for access to fruit trees or to females, but one theory suggests that the boys butt heads for longer when they have eaten too many alcohol-laced fermented figs.

Human use of the casques has a history dating back more than 2,000 years. People in Borneo used the material to create ornaments such as ear pendants and toggles. When trade between Borneo and China began, in about AD700, inter­national interest was ignited. Records show that helmeted hornbill ivory was sent as tribute gifts to Tang (AD618-907) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasty emperors.

Chinese craftsmen carved elaborate miniature scenes onto belt buckles, seals, figurines, snuff boxes, plume holders, hair grips, buttons, thumb rings and bracelets made of red ivory; as well as on casques displayed still attached to a bird’s head.

I’ve observed a lot of men, in particular, wearing hel­met­ed hornbill beaded bracelets and necklaces. It’s a fashionable trend among the middle classes in China
Lishu Li, of the Wildlife Conservation Society

From the 1600s, helmeted hornbill casques were sent to Japan, too, and presented to the shogun. Master carvers used them to produce exquisite carved netsuke – tiny, intricate figures that were hung from the cords of men’s kimonos.

Demand began to dwindle at the beginning of the 20th century, and had died out altogether by the 1950s. Carving expertise was lost and the helmeted hornbill thrived in its forest home.

But then, in 2012, warning signs started to appear.

That year, Yokyok Hadiprakarsa received a photo from a friend that showed about 30 helmeted hornbill heads being offered for sale in West Kalimantan.

“I knew about the historical trade,” the Indonesian conservationist says, “but I had not known the bird was presently being hunted.” Hadiprakarsa was shocked, but not overly alarmed – he assumed that the heads represented a one-off incident.

Later that year, Hadiprakarsa travelled to West Kalimantan in his role as sustainability consultant for a logging company. “I got talking to a guy in a rural village, and asked if he knew anything about helmeted hornbills. He showed me a freshly decapitated head and said that local people were being offered US$20 per gram by someone from the city.

“Hunting is part of life for the indigenous Daya people who live in that area, so it was easy money for them.” Hadiprakarsa’s contact told him that local hunters were staking out the fruiting fig trees favoured by the birds, and shooting them with handmade guns.

The following year, Hadiprakarsa, in collaboration with local non-governmental organisation Titian Lestari Foundation, secured a grant from Britain’s Chester Zoo and launched an investigation. His findings revealed that in 2013 alone, an estimated 6,000 helmeted hornbills had been shot in West Kalimantan.

“At first, the villagers did the hunting, but gradually other groups moved in and replaced them,” Hadiprakarsa says.

Working with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wildlife Crime Unit, he discovered that hunters were targeting hel­met­ed hornbills in Sumatra, too, along with other legally protected animals, such as pangolins. “The poaching groups were equipped with modified air rifles and had other logisti­cal support, which indicated that they were being operated by highly organised syndicates.”

Evidence of the slaughter mounted. Studies by conser­vation groups including Traffic and the Environmental Investigation Agency documented a huge spike in seizures of helmeted hornbill casques. On the ground, experienced birding tour guides reported that the birds were suddenly hard to find.

In 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the organisation that classifies the status of species – uplisted the helmeted hornbill by three catego­ries, from Nearly Threatened to Critically Endangered, one step away from Extinction.

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As the scale of poaching in Indonesia was revealed, it became clear where the demand for red ivory was coming from. Seizures of helmeted hornbill items were made in rising numbers in China, and it became evident that Chinese nationals were travelling to Indonesia to facili­tate the trade.

In 2012, two Chinese women carrying 96 pieces of hornbill ivory were arrested at Supadio Airport, in Pontianak, West Kalimantan. The following year, a Chinese national was arres­t­ed in West Kalimantan for sending 24 casques to Pontianak using a local courier service and four Chinese were detained for attempting to smuggle 248 beaks (along with 189 pangolin scales) to Hong Kong from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport – known to be a major international exit point for trafficked wildlife.

In June 2015, two dealers arrested in Sumatra admitted to having sold 124 casques to a middleman from China over a six-month period.

Last year, the Environmental Investigation Agency, in partner­ship with Traffic, compiled a database of all known helmeted hornbill seizures from 2010 onwards. They prod­uced a map designed to help identify trafficking hot spots and trade routes.

The map documents 65 seizures, amounting to 2,722 casques, bills and carved items, from 2010 to 2017. And the database revealed what all conservationists working in this area suspected – that Hong Kong is a key import hub for smuggling helmeted hornbill casques into China.

Information supplied by Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisher­ies and Conservation Department (AFCD) reveals that in 2013, three parcels containing helmeted hornbill items were sent from Malaysia to Hong Kong, where they were intercepted.

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In May 2015, Hong Kong Customs and the Marine Police interrupted men loading boxes onto a speedboat at the Rambler Channel public cargo working area, in Kwai Fong. Officers seized 137 hornbill casques, weighing 10kg, along with 129kg of pangolin scales, a batch of live animals and a hoard of electronic equipment. The men abandoned the boxes and fled. One was caught and arrested, but was acquitted at trial.

A year later, in May 2016, officials intercepted a private car crossing from Hong Kong into China at the Shenzhen Bay immigration control point. They discovered an illegal shipment of agarwood and 87 helmeted hornbill skulls and beaks, with an estimated market value of more than HK$1 million. The 50-year-old driver was arrested, prosecuted, sentenced to two months in prison and fined HK$5,000.

The following month, a container on a truck passing through the Lok Ma Chau border crossing to China, was found to contain a haul of illegal items including pangolin scales, agarwood and hornbill casques.

It is crucial that wild­life offences are recognised for what they truly are – organised and serious crime
Amanda Whitfort

Then, last August, a Hong Kong man was arrested while attempting to smuggle 14 helmeted hornbill skulls, tightly wrapped in black plastic bags, into Shenzhen via the Futian border checkpoint. He claimed to have been offered 300 yuan (HK$360) for the job.

Despite the items being worth hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars, and the bird’s critically endangered sta­tus, the fines and sentences imposed for smuggling hel­meted hornbill parts through Hong Kong are too weak to act as an effective deterrent.

“There is little understanding by lawyers and the judiciary of the monetary value of these endangered species on the black market, and the ecological impact of their removal from the wild,” says Amanda Whitfort, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of law and an expert on wildlife crime.

She says that although the perpetrators are international criminal gangs, and shipments are often smuggled along the same routes used for drugs and other contraband, the importance of wildlife crime is not yet recognised by the government.

More than seven tonnes of suspected pangolin scales uncovered at Hong Kong container terminal

Nevertheless, the AFCD has put forward a proposal to increase the maximum sentence for the trading of endanger­ed species from two years to 10, and Whitfort hopes to see the bill passed by the Legislative Council. “It is crucial that wild­life offences are recognised for what they truly are – organised and serious crime.”

Another factor pointing to Hong Kong’s culpability are the significant seizures from vehicles travelling along the high­way from the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border to the city of Putian, in southeast Fujian province. Putian, along with the city of Xianyou, is thought to be where much of the red ivory is processed.

Lishu Li, China programme manager for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Counter Wildlife Trafficking Programme, says Hokkien people in Fujian are famous for their carving skills. “The tradition of making very detailed carvings goes back hundreds of years.”

The carvers can make several items from one casque. The most popular products, however, are beads, which can be made with a machine.

“I’ve observed a lot of men, in particular, wearing hel­met­ed hornbill beaded bracelets and necklaces,” Li says. “It’s a fashionable trend among the middle classes in China.”

Once the preserve of royalty, helmeted hornbill carvings are now available to anyone with the money to buy them, and “people want to show they appreciate the cultural tradition”.

Li says carved items are sold mostly through invitation-only social media groups. “Even if traders have a physical shop, they will run most of their business online,” she says. The traders sell a mix of legal goods, such as jade and gemstones, and illegal items, and use coded systems to communicate covertly with buyers, under the radar of the platform operators.

“They might, for example, combine a bird emoji with the Chinese character for ‘head’. Or write in pinyin, using just the first letter. And there are code words that people in the know understand. ‘Red’ means helmeted hornbill, ‘black’ means rhino horn and ‘white’ means elephant ivory.”

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According to Li, the big trading websites, such as Alibaba, Baidu and Taobao, have tried to remove illegal items for sale on their platforms. It’s more difficult for social media chan­nels, such as WeChat and QQ, which are also “trying to detect and banish illegal items for sale”, she says.

Seized items represent only a tiny fraction of the trade – the tip of a smuggling iceberg. Nobody knows how many helmeted hornbills remain in the wild, but the IUCN has estimated that the species is just three generations from extinction.

Hadiprakarsa says that in some parts of Indonesia, “the helmeted hornbill is totally gone, or very very rare”. Recently, he met with ex-poachers in East Kalimantan. “They told me that they used to be able to get 10 helmeted hornbills a week, but now it takes a fortnight to find and kill just one.”

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Conservationists fear that, as numbers dwindle in Indonesia, poaching will spread to Malaysia and Thailand. And they say population declines are hard to reverse; the helmeted hornbill reproduces very slowly, so as a species it cannot bounce back easily.

To rear a single chick, the female seals herself into a nest in a trunk cavity for five months. During this time, she and her chick are totally dependent on the male to bring them food. If he is killed, it probably spells death for the two of them as well.

To make matters worse, the big trees helmeted hornbills favour are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. And other hornbills suffer, too. Poachers who cannot correctly identify a helmeted hornbill frequently shoot rhinoceros hornbills, the casques of which are a similar reddish colour, but are hollow.

This year, the government of Indonesia will launch a 10-year action plan to save the helmeted hornbill. Hadiprakarsa hopes more attention will be paid internationally. “The major­­ity of resources are devoted to saving the celebrity species – the elephants, rhino, orangutan. The smaller species such as helmeted hornbills and pangolins need more help.”

For now, this little-known bird flies under the inter­national radar, despite its dire circumstances. As with so many environmental issues, education is key, but the helmeted hornbill doesn’t have time to wait for consumer attitudes to change. Its only hope is that the trade networks between its rainforest home and the end market in China can be disrupted and dismantled.

With greater awareness and motivation, Hong Kong could play a central role in helping to save the helmeted hornbill.

Tracking trinkets

Chinese communities outside mainland China are also involved in the trade in hornbill casques. In 2016, a team from Traffic conducted an investi­gation in Laos, a country known to be emerging as a hot spot for the sale of illegal wildlife goods to Chinese tourists.

Researchers visited 33 shops, all primarily trading in elephant ivory, in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone. Eight of the shops were openly selling helmet­ed hornbill items – a total of 74 products. The most common items were beads and pendants, often carved to represent the Goddess Guanyin or other Chinese deities. The team also spotted 11 whole casques for sale, two of which were carved.

“We found the greatest concentration of helmeted hornbill products in the tourist hub of Luang Prabang,” says Kanitha Krishnasamy, acting director for Traffic, Southeast Asia, who participated in the study. “The shops selling hornbill products were in the main strip that runs through the centre of town, where crowds of tourists go to buy souvenirs.”

All the shops were operated by ethnic Chinese owners who could speak both Mandarin and English. “They were very friendly and open,” Krishnasamy says. “Some told us they had moved to Laos a long time ago. Others said they hadn’t been there for that long, and still had families back in China.”

Most traders were happy for their goods to be photographed, and the team found it easy to obtain price information. Prices were quoted in both yuan and US dollars. One shop quoted US$1,386 for a pendant and US$3,700 for a casque. The highest prices were recorded in a shop in a luxury hotel and convention centre in the heart of Vientiane. Sarah Lazarus

DNA mapping

A team at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences is under­taking genetic detective work to help save the helmeted hornbill.

“We’re working with the AFCD to analyse the casques seized in Hong Kong,” says project leader Dr Caroline Dingle. “We can’t tell where the casques came from by looking at them. By extracting DNA, we hope to identify markers that will give us that information.”

The project has only just started, but the team is collaborating with research­ers in countries where the bird is indige­nous, who will gather samples (such as feathers) from the wild. By comparing DNA from those samples with the confis­cated casques, Dingle and PhD student Chloe Webster will create a “genoscape” – a map of genetic diversity.

“We are hoping to plot the map at a fine scale geographic level, so we can pinpoint where each bird lived,” Dingle says. “With a well-developed genetic map, we can react quickly to analyse future seizures and work out where the poaching activity is focused. This information is key to figuring out trade routes with the aim of disrupting them.”

She says the sex of a bird can be determined from a casque sample, and this can help to better analyse the impact of poaching on populations. Sarah Lazarus