Malaysia’s tropical rainforests host an incredible array of wildlife, recognised as one of the worlds leading ‘biodiversity hotspots.’ Spending time trekking through the forests, you can see, hear, and sense the presence of this diversity all around you. The huge variety has led to some truly remarkable adaptations and quirks in evolution. Some of these little oddities have seen their owners pushed right to the brink of extinction. One bird species in particular has seen their numbers plummet in a very short amount of time, jumping from being ‘Near Threatened’ straight to ‘Critically Endangered’ in 2015 when the IUCN re-evaluated their conservation status. At this point in time, no one is sure how many of these majestic birds are even left in the wild. The Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is truly one of the most amazing birds across South-East Asia, but also one of the most endangered.
Walking through the jungles of South-East Asia, in the oppressive humidity, countless flying insects in and around your face, and birds galore, there is one call that stands out above the rest. Seemingly almost anyone who has heard it has it imprinted upon their mind, never to be forgotten. What starts out as singular ‘tooks’ gradually increasing in frequency suddenly bursts into what can only be described as sounding like maniacal laughter. Just like this…
Hearing it for the first time gave me chills. Since that moment, I’ve been fascinated by the Helmeted Hornbill.
These feathered oddities are one of the biggest birds in South-East Asia, and the largest of the hornbills, with a wingspan of nearly two metres wide and weighing up to three kilos. They are mostly black with long white tail feathers with dark banding. However, it’s around their neck and head that things start to get reeeeaaally interesting! They have a featherless patch of leathery skin around their throat, known as their ‘gular pouch,’ which can be used to hold a number of different food items. In males, the pouch is a reddish-brown colour, while the female’s pouches are turquoise! It’s on top of their beak though that we can find the Helmeted Hornbill’s crown jewel.
As you might’ve guessed from their name, as a hornbill the Helmeted Hornbill has a large horn on their bill. It’s known as a casque, French for helmet, and the Helmeted Hornbill has a casque totally unique to hornbills. Normally, Hornbill species have light, hollow casques. However, the Helmeted Hornbill has a solid casque, that becomes redder the older the bird is! These lumps of keratin growths can weigh up to 300 grams, or 10% of the hornbill’s entire body weight! Imagine flying around with that on your head! But what is the actual purpose of these glorious things?
Quite simply, male Helmeted Hornbills use their casques to fight. These fights are relatively well known, but have NEVER been captured on camera. Males will sit on branches and let out one of their distinctive calls, clacking their beaks on the branches of the trees they’re sitting on and then fly straight at each other! They’ll collide head/casque first, creating a sound that can be heard over 100m away, and flipping themselves backwards in the process! They right themselves mid-flight, before going in again! Talk about one hell of a headache! Two explanations are discussed when looking at why they hurl themselves at each other. One is, of course, fighting over female Hornbills. It has also been suggested that Helmeted Hornbills fight each other for access to trees bearing the most fruit. Considering 99% of their diet is made up of figs, this is makes a lot of sense! A good fig tree would be a hugely important resource, supplying a breeding hornbill with plenty of good food to bring back to his mate and a chick.
Speaking of mating habits, the Helmeted Hornbill takes part in a classic hornbill mating behaviour. Hornbills are very specific about their needs when it comes to reproduction. So specific in fact, that no Helmeted Hornbill has ever been bred in captivity! Once a hornbill has found a life partner, they need a tree hollow. However, they are unable to make one themselves, so must find an already existing one, for example, one made by a sun bear as they search for their favourite foods of honey and/or termites. But it can’t just be any old tree hollow. Helmeted Hornbills “need a specific tree cavity with [a] knobby feature on the entrance” (Evans, 2016 Mongabay). Once the birds have managed to find one of these tree hollows, they block it up with mud and faeces, while food remains with the female inside. Yes, you read that correctly. The female hornbill is blocked INSIDE the cavity with only a small hole for the male to pass her regurgitated food, while standing on the knobby feature, as she incubates the eggs. Talk about romance! After five-to-six months, they break the messy blockage, and the female emerges with her fledglings. Or rather, her singular fledgling. The hornbills go through that five-to-six-month ordeal for just one baby.
This leads us to just why the Helmeted Hornbill is so endangered. Remember that glorious, solid red and gold casque? It’s made of keratin, like the Pangolin’s scales, our hair and fingernails, and rhino horns; and is nice, soft, and as a result easy to carve. There has been a huge increase since about 2010 in the trade of ‘red ivory’ as it is worth three to five times as much as elephant ivory! Each kilo is worth about £4,000, and they are ideal for making into ornamental trinkets. With that kind of money on offer, these birds are highly sought after. This has seen the Helmeted Hornbill population plummet. Between 2012 and 2013, it’s been estimated that poachers killed 6,000 birds a year. While each bird’s death is saddening in it’s own right, for the Helmeted Hornbill there’s a little more to it. If, for example, the individual that the poachers find and kill happens to be a male, there is a six-month period where he’s out trying to find food for his mate and chick. By killing male hornbills, mother and baby hornbill are likely to starve and die as well.
The impact of the plummeting Helmeted Hornbill population is not restricted to just the birds themselves. The Helmeted Hornbill is also known as “the farmer of the forest,” and they play a vital role in the survival of South-East Asian rainforests as a keystone species. Hornbills are one of the best seed dispersers in the rainforest, as they regurgitate and defecate seeds helping to replenish trees over several square kilometres. This is important because fig trees, when fruiting, provide a veritable smorgasbord for rainforest animals, “from tree shrews, giant squirrels, gibbons, and orang-utans to nearly 1,000 species of bird” (Bale, 2018 National Geographic). In addition, the natural dispersion provided by the hornbills is even more important given the rates of deforestation destroying rainforests across South-East Asia. This in turn sees the loss of those all-important tree hollows that the hornbills use for breeding. While deforestation is seeing our rainforests disappear in frankly terrifying numbers, losing the Helmeted Hornbill would only quicken this process as the seeds the birds would normally spread are no longer dispersed.
While it all sounds rather gloomy when looked at from this angle, there is an increasing amount of hope emerging that we may be able to save the species. Fauna & Flora International (FFI) are one of the organisations taking steps to try and save the hornbills. One of their projects works in Borneo supporting a team of Malaysian conservationists who are attempting to tackle the lack of tree hollows that deforestation is causing. The tree hollows that the Helmeted Hornbills require take decades to form naturally, and are only found in the oldest and biggest trees in the rainforest. It just so happens that loggers also tend to prefer those trees for their timber. So these conservationists have been placing artificial nest boxes in the most encouraging locations and monitoring them closely to note whether large-bodied hornbills, such as the Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros), and of course our Helmeted friends, will utilise them.
Thus far, there has been limited success with the five artificial nest boxes remaining mostly empty, aside from the smaller-bodied Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris), suggesting more work is needed on the design of the boxes to be suitable for larger-bodied birds. However, there was some excitement to come out of the trial program. In 2016, a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills were inspecting one of the boxes, before returning the following year and successfully mating and rearing a chick to fledge. These birds were the first ever wild Rhinoceros Hornbills to nest in an artificial nest box. So there is hope that in the near future, with improvements and modifications, that these nest boxes may prove suitable nesting locations for the Helmeted Hornbill as well (Knight 2018, Flora and Fauna International).
Another program coming out of Thailand involves turning things on their head. The Hornbill Research Foundation runs a program that works to turn hornbill poachers into hornbill protectors. Founder Pilai Poonswad met a poacher in 1995 who was stealing hornbill chicks for the pet trade. She then came to the realisation that many other men in the man’s village were doing the same thing. Poaching and selling one or two hornbill chicks was more profitable than a year’s worth of farming. To combat this, Pilai decided to pay the villagers to protect the hornbills rather than poach them, working to convince them that if they didn’t stop poaching them now then the hornbills would be lost forever.
Early this year, 2018, there are 36 people across six different villagers involved in hornbill protection under the program, many of them former poachers. The teams “monitor tree cavities for active nests of six hornbill species, and when one’s in use, they collect data on the birds’ movements, diet, and behaviour for the Hornbill Research Foundation” (Bale 2018, National Geographic). Some of those involved can’t read or write Thai, but they don’t let that stop them! Instead, they draw their notes and observations before getting a son or daughter to translate for them. Now, programs in other countries are looking to emulate the successes of the Hornbill Research Foundation, and you can see why!
There are also a couple of different organisations working tirelessly on Peninsular Malaysia worth mentioning too. As I mentioned way back at the beginning of the article, it was while I was out hiking in the forests of Malaysia that I first heard the maniacal call that led to me falling in love with the Helmeted Hornbill, so it only makes sense to come full circle! It was during my time at the Merapoh Rainforest Station, run by Fuze Ecoteer, that I was lucky enough to have this experience, and the team there are playing an important role in Helmeted Hornbill conservation. In the Sungai Yu forest corridor (a section of forest that connects Taman Negara National Park to other areas of forest in Peninsular Malaysia), and in Taman Negara itself, the Helmeted Hornbill’s laughter can still be heard echoing through the forests “almost everytime we go trekking,” according to Izereen Mukri, manager of the Merapoh Rainforest Station. Izereen and the team are conducting nesting research in these forests, and importantly regularly monitoring the landscape and condition of the forest. These kinds of observations are vital, as picking up the first signs of degradation or human encroachment could allow authorities to stop the problem before it has major impacts.
Last but not least, is the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and their work in the Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex, one of the world’s oldest rainforests (thought to be over 130 million years old). MNS has been running a program for 14 years, engaging local communities in the monitoring of Helmeted Hornbill nest sites within the complex. In addition, they regularly conduct hornbill surveys using a mixture of MNS staff and experienced members working with local community members. One of the most important actions of MNS though is the daily flight census, taken by volunteer twice a day (once in the morning, once in the late afternoon). This hopes to establish population sizes, which would then allow for increased efforts to argue for better protection of the forest complex! As it is one of the sites with the highest hornbill diversity in the world, this is vital work!
The Helmeted Hornbill is a bird LITERALLY like no other. Its maniacal laughter, its solid casque, its role as a keystone species in the rainforests of South-East Asia, their bizarre jousting matches… I think it’s pretty safe to say that we should all want these birds to hang around for the long term, and there’s now plenty of hope that this could happen. As we’ve discovered looking at other animals in previous articles, such as the pangolins, engaging and empowering local communities to care and protect the wildlife around them is one of the most successful pathways for effective conservation. Many of the organisations that we’ve looked at here embody this in some form, from the Merapoh Rainforest Station to the Hornbill Research Foundation.
But that’s not all! Just as we discovered with a number of other species that we’ve discovered over the last year, raising awareness about the fight that these animals have on their claws, wings and paws is one of the best, and easiest, things that everyday citizens can do to to make sure the Helmeted Hornbill, and a whole host of other animals, survive for future generations to enjoy. So share this article and join the efforts to save these remarkable birds!
With special thanks to Izereen Mukri for his assistance and Muhammad Al Zahri for supplying photographs!