Illegal trade seizures: Helmeted hornbills

Mapping the crimes

In 2015, the IUCN conservation status of helmeted hornbills was changed from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered due to rapid population loss as a result of  intense poaching pressure and habitat loss.

In 2016, the Conference of the Parties to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) adopted a new resolution, Conservation of and trade in helmeted hornbill, in a bid to aid efforts to eliminate poaching of helmeted hornbills and the illegal trade in their parts and derivatives. Unfortunately, just months later the immediate need for improved international collaboration to combat this destructive illicit trade was brought harshly to light. In early March 2017, 138 helmeted hornbill casques were seized by Guangdong Coast guard and Shenzhen Custom’s anti-smuggling bureau from several boats around Sanmen Island.

TRAFFIC and ourselves collaborated to produce an updated map that plots all known publicly reported seizures and records of trafficked helmeted hornbill parts and products between 2010-17

This map shows the locations of seizures and reported market observations between 2010-17, accounting for at least 2,800 helmeted hornbills – a fraction of the number killed for the trade each year. It highlights key import and export hubs within China and Indonesia respectively and documents the involvement of Chinese nationals facilitating the trade in Indonesia.

Pangolin scales and hornbill beaks seized by Hong Kong Customs

Pangolin scales and helmeted hornbill beaks seized by Hong Kong Customs

Decline in helmeted hornbill population

The helmeted hornbill is the largest hornbill species found in Asia and is restricted mainly to the lowland forests of Sumatra, Borneo Peninsular Malaysia and the far south of Thailand, where it plays an important ecological role within its habitat, dispersing seeds for a number of plant species.

Helmeted hornbills have been listed on Appendix I of CITES since 1975, thereby prohibiting all international trade, but enforcement of the listing has been woefully inadequate. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species changed its conservation status from “Near Threatened” in 2012 to “Critically Endangered” in 2015 due to the surge in illegal trade in the hornbill’s distinctive casque and to habitat loss, causing rapid population decline.

While the poaching of helmeted hornbills at a local level has long been documented, the current scale of poaching and international trade is unprecedented. This illegal, organised international trade is pushing the hornbill towards local extinction in areas where it has previously been found in relative abundance, increasing the risk of extinction of this majestic species in the wild.

Unlike other hornbills, the helmeted hornbill’s distinctive solid casque is in demand in Japan for netsuke (miniature sculptures) and in China as a material for carved luxury products such as jewellery and decorative ornaments. There has been a recent spike in documented sales of helmeted hornbill ‘ivory’ online and in known illegal wildlife market places, with prices increasing since 2012.


This map was last updated in May 2017, due to capacity we don’t foresee updating this map in the new future.

Mapping the helmeted hornbill trade

This interactive map is based on trade data compiled by TRAFFIC and ourselves, including publicly available information in English, Chinese and Bahasa as well as information gathered first hand via online and field research by TRAFFIC, the Born Free Foundation and ourselves.

Helmeted hornbill carving for sale online (c) EIA

The map documents 61 seizures of 2,693 helmeted hornbill casques and bills from 2010-17. In addition, there are two separate recorded seizures of casques weighing 10kg and 6.82kg respectively, which is likely equivalent to 224 casques (using previously documented seizures, where the number of casques seized was reported in conjunction with the weight in kilograms, gives an average weight of 77.82g per casque; using this figure, the two aforementioned seizures could equate to 224 individual birds), taking the total to more than 2,800 hornbill casques seized since 2010.

Actual numbers in trade are likely to be far higher based on poaching estimates; in 2013, the Director of the Indonesian Hornbill Conservation Society estimated that 500 hornbills were poached every month – or 6,000 a year – from West Kalimantan alone.

Key findings from the analysis of this data set include:

  • the majority of seizures occur in or are attributed to China, highlighting its role as a major consumer country for helmeted hornbill casques. Markets in Laos offering hornbill casques appear to be catering to Chinese buyers
  • Chinese nationals are visiting source countries such as Indonesia to facilitate this trade
  • key export hubs in Indonesia include the airports of Supadio, in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, and Sepinggan airport, in Balikpapan East Kalimantan
  • key imports hubs in China include Hong Kong and Shenzhen, with the coast between Hong Kong and Putian appearing to be a potential transit hub
  • Putian is highlighted as a potential processing centre of helmeted hornbill casques.

Our recommendations

Urgent action is required. The same organised criminal syndicates responsible for the international trade in wildlife such as pangolins and tigers are also profiting from the trade in this magnificent hornbill, putting the species at risk of extinction.

Despite repeated alerts provided to law enforcement authorities in China of the existence of the carving of helmeted hornbill casques in the same locations as ivory, rosewood and pangolin scales, there have yet to be any meaningful enforcement efforts targeting the carving industry for using illegal wildlife parts.

We call on the Government of China to conduct targeted, intelligence-led investigations of carving operations within areas historically associated with the ivory and rosewood carving industry and highlighted by this map as potential key nodes, such as Xianyou and Putian in Fujian Province.

We welcomes referenced information to update the map and the dataset is available for research and analysis on request. Please contact us.

* Banner image of live helmeted hornbill by Doug Janson