The illegal trade in elephant tusks is well reported, but
there’s a type of “ivory” that’s even more valuable. It
comes from the helmeted hornbill – a bird that lives in the
rainforests of East Asia and is now under threat, writes
It wouldn’t be wise to go head to head with a helmeted
hornbill. They weigh 3kg and have their own built-in
battering ram – a solid lump of keratin (a fibrous protein)
extends along the top of the bill and on to the skull. This
“casque” can account for as much as 11% of a bird’s
In all other species of hornbill – there are more than 60 in
Africa and Asia – the casque is hollow, but the helmeted
hornbill’s is solid. The males use it in head-to-head
combat and both sexes use it as a weighted tool to dig out
insects from rotting trees.
Helmeted hornbills live in Malaysia and Indonesia. On the
islands of Sumatra and Borneo their maniacal calls and
hoots resonate through the rainforest. They tend to eat fruit
and nuts and are often referred to as the “farmers of the
forest” as they spread seeds widely in their droppings.
They have a wingspan of up to 2m (6ft 6in), striking white
and black feathers and a large patch of bare skin around the
throat. They have a reputation for being secretive and wary,
though, and you’re more likely to hear them than see them.
They have good reason to be shy – thousands are killed
each year for their casques, shot by hunters who sell the
heads to China.
Between 2012 and 2014, 1,111 were confiscated from
smugglers in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province alone.
Hornbill researcher, Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, estimates that
about 6,000 of the birds are killed each year in East Asia.
The casque, for which hunters are willing to risk arrest and
imprisonment, is sometimes referred to as “ivory”. It’s a
beautiful material to carve, smooth and silky to the touch,
with a golden-yellow hue, coloured by secretions from the
preen gland – most birds use their heads to rub protective
oils from this gland over their feathers, legs and feet.
For hundreds of years it was highly desired by Chinese
craftsmen who made artefacts for the rich and powerful, and
by Japanese netsuke carvers who made intricate figures for
the cords on men’s kimonos. Many of these objects made
their way to Victorian cabinets in the UK when netsuke
collecting became fashionable in the 19th Century.
Find out more
Listen to Hornbill on BBC Radio 4
Natural Histories is a series about our relationships
with the natural world
“There are some records that showed the hornbill ivory was
presented to the shogun,” says Noriku Tsuchiya, curator of
the Japanese section at the British Museum. “Unfortunately
by the early 20th Century the hornbill became very rare
because of hunting and now legal trade is limited to
Illegal it may be, but trade continues undercover, and
hornbill ivory is worth about £4,000 ($6,150) per kilogram –
three times more than elephant ivory. The killing of Africa’s
elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns is well
reported, but the helmeted hornbill’s plight often slips under
the radar. “If no-one pays attention, this bird is going to
become extinct,” warns Hadiprakarsa.
The helmeted hornbill has been culturally significant for
thousands of years – it serves as the coat of arms of the
Malaysian State of Sarawak and is the mascot of West
Kalimantan. The Dayak people of Borneo believe the bird
ferries dead souls to the afterlife, acts as a sacred
messengers of the gods and consider it a teacher of fidelity
and constancy in marriage. Killing it is taboo.
But it’s not just hunting that threatens this slow breeding
creature – its habitat is also under pressure. As the appetite
for palm oil grows in the West, developers are encroaching
on Asia’s rainforests. Researchers at the National
University of Singapore estimate that Borneo and Sumatra
are losing nearly 3% of their lowland rainforest every year.
As a result, the helmeted hornbill “is considered Near
Threatened, and should be carefully monitored in case of
future increases in the rate of decline,” according to the
International Union for Conservation of Nature.
So the bird faces a double whammy – losing its head to
ivory carvers and its home to supermarket products. I’m not
sure I fancy its chances.