Not just rhinos: Hornbill horns fetch stunning prices in illegal wildlife trade

From her base in southern China, ALERT member Alice Hughes provides this commentary on the appalling impacts of the illegal wildlife trade on one of Southeast Asia's most magnificent birds:

While the exploding illegal trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory is squarely in the global spotlight, the “golden ivory” of the Helmented Hornbill is fetching up to five times the market price of true ivory.  As a result, hornbill populations are plummeting across Southeast Asia.

More valuable than ivory

More valuable than ivory

Unlike other hornbill species, the Helmeted Hornbill has a solid 'horn' (known as a "casique") on the upper side of its beak that can weigh up to one-third of the bird's body weight.

And given its semi-translucent, golden color, the hornbill's horn has become a prized item for the wealthy.  At a cost of US$4-8 per gram, a single casique can bring around US$1,000.

Just in West Kalimantan, Borneo, an average of 500 birds a month were killed in 2013.  Yet only around 6% of these killed birds were confiscated by authorities. 

Under CITES -- the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species -- it is illegal to sell any part of a Helmeted Hornbill.  But that has had little real impact. 

In just a few minutes on the Internet here in China, one can easily find open sales listings for Helmeted Hornbill casiques. 

China is by far the biggest consumer of illegal Helmeted Hornbill parts, where the valuable casiques are often carved up and sold by the gram -- to be used for decorations or traditional 'medicines'.

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

Carved hornbill beaks illegally sold on the Internet.

Many of the poached birds are likely to come from protected areas, such as Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia, given that the species is rapidly losing much of its remaining forest habitat. 

In June, a poaching ring involving around 30 hunters was broken up in northern Sumatra.  Most of the killed birds were destined for China, according to the arresting authorities

In a recent report, an official from the Environmental Investigation Agency said, “There is little to no awareness about these birds.  Few buyers know what they are, let alone the impact the purchase of these products creates.”

For this spectacular species not to follow in the wing-beats of the passenger pigeon, swift action is needed.  The Helmeted Hornbill should be a high priority on the global conservation radar.

Growing concerns over 'Lawless Laos' -- paradise for poachers & smugglers

Dr Alice Hughes, an associate professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in southern China, shares her worries about rampant illegal activities in nearby Laos -- where wildlife smuggling flourishes unchecked by any legal enforcement.

A caged loris ponders its fate

A caged loris ponders its fate

Worry about Laos

While most Asian countries have at least begun outwardly to condemn the illegal trade of endangered species, Laos has not recorded a single illicit-wildlife seizure in over 25 years.

As a result, the E.U. law-enforcement agency Europol recently coordinated the largest-ever crackdown on international illegal wildlife trade -- which in four months seized over 1,300 elephant tusks destined for Laos.

As a landlocked conduit from Thailand and Cambodia, Laos offers an ideal staging post for the import of imperiled wildlife species and products into China and Vietnam.

Notably, Laos is home one of the world’s biggest international wildlife traffickers, the notorious Vixay Keosavang.  Vixay has so little fear of capture that wildlife shipments worth millions of dollars are sent directly to his home.

Though Laos claims it lacks the resources to screen imports, it is clear to many that officials profit from the rampant illegal trade -- as evidenced by a recent 'coffee bean' shipment intercepted in Bangkok, Thailand in April.

Thai customs officials had been alerted to the bogus shipment prior to it’s arrival.  But when Thai officials requested permission from the Laotian embassy to check the shipment, embassy officials denied their request and demanded its immediate release. 

Fortunately, Thai customs officers ignored the demand -- and discovered some 700 elephant tusks, totaling over 4,000 kilograms in weight, with an estimated value of US$6 million.

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

Intercepted ivory headed for Laos

While revealing that corruption reaches right into heart of the Laotian embassy in Thailand, this shipment was only opened because of a new Thai military regulation issued in March. 

Prior to this, all shipments through Thailand had to be passed straight on to their intended destination -- undoubtedly resulting in the transport of thousands of threatened species that were illegally killed or captured.

The new Thai regulation has rapidly netted a number of major wildlife seizures.

And despite the mass interceptions of elephant tusks, to date this has not resulted in a single arrest in Laos.

Until rampant corruption is confronted and lawless Laos follows the official stance of its neighbors, it will continue to be a critically weak link for the enforcement of region-wide anti-trafficking efforts.

It's time to get tough.  Lawless Laos is a paradise for wildlife smugglers -- and a key conduit to China and Vietnam, the world's biggest consumers of illegal wildlife products.

Wildlife poaching: Conservation on the borders

Dr Alice Hughes, a researcher at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden in southern China, tells us about an important conference that was recently held there.

Pangolins in peril  (photo by William Laurance)

Pangolins in peril (photo by William Laurance)

A recent conference on transboundary conservation held at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden drew international attention following an inspiring closing address by Britain's Prince William.  The event focused on the massive illegal cross-national trade in wildlife.

The closing of the conference highlighted the threats to Southeast Asian biodiversity, driven by the illegal trade of species of all sizes -- not just big species such as Elephants and Rhinos.

One animal at particular risk is the world's most trafficked animal, the Pangolin, with all six species in Asia now globally threatened with extinction.  The trafficking along one particular route is now so prevalent that it has been labeled “the Pangolin express”.

The legal trade of certified products from CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- lists species such as the Pangolin as a key priority. 

Another concern is ivory, which has led to the widespread slaughter of Elephant species in Africa and Asia.  Legally traded ivory has provided a loophole for its illegal trade, with studies showing that almost 60% of certified traders violate regulations and these loopholes prevent and weaken enforcement efforts.

Bushmeat has changed from being a subsistence activity to provide food for the poor, to an internationally commercialized industry to serve the demands of the rich.  As a result hunters, using lethal technologies such as high-powered rifles and cable snares, go to increasing lengths to procure valuable bushmeat.

These transnational issues in the trade in endangered species and the lack of enforcement in their trade threaten the future existence of many vulnerable species on regional and global scales.

Better education to limit demand, and increased enforcement to restrict trade -- including a complete ban in the trade of CITES-listed species -- will likely be needed to change trade patterns and save imperiled wildlife.