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.

Why are Indonesia's forests so imperiled?

No nation on Earth is losing forest faster than Indonesia--the magical land of over 13,000 islands.  But what is causing all that deforestation?

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

Sinan Abood, ALERT member Lian Pin Koh, and their colleagues assessed the specific drivers of forest loss in Indonesia, between 2000 and 2010.  The picture that emerged has some surprises.

For one thing, the biggest driver of forest loss wasn't oil palm, but rather industrial pulpwood plantations.  Mega-corporations such as Asia Pulp & Paper and APRIL have cleared vast expanses of rainforest and peat-swamp forest for such plantations, especially in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

Second on the list was industrial logging.  This indicates that logged forests in Indonesia, which still harbor a great deal of biodiversity (see this blog), are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.

Oil palm, while still important, was actually number three on the list of industrial forest destroyers. 

Notably, the authors surmised that over half of all deforestation was caused by actors other than the big three above--including slash-and-burn farming, legal and illegal mining, and other causes.

The authors conclude that vast expanses of Indonesia's forest have been allocated to industrial concessions, especially logging concessions, where they are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.  Some of the greatest conservation opportunities in Asia revolve around finding ways to protect these imperiled industrial forests

Why local people don't like deforestation

If you live someplace warm, deforestation may make you decidedly hot under the collar.

Yeah, but it's a dry heat...  (photo by William Laurance)

Yeah, but it's a dry heat...  (photo by William Laurance)

Compared to rainforests, deforested lands often suffer more flooding, soil erosion, and mosquitoes--which can carry deadly diseases like malaria.  Water quality also frequently declines.

But what do local residents dislike most about deforestation?  The fact that it gets hotter--a lot hotter.

According to a recent study in Climatic Change, for instance, oil palm plantations were on average 4.7 degrees Celsius (8.5 degrees F) hotter than nearby rainforests.  One would imagine that open croplands and cattle pastures are even worse.

In Borneo, Erik Meijaard and colleagues surveyed nearly 8000 local residents in 800 villages.  When asked how deforestation affected them, by far the most common response from the villagers was that it made their climate uncomfortably "hotter".

The hotter conditions reduced crop yields, increased mosquitoes and disease, and made people more tired, according to the villagers.  Overall, quality of life was perceived to diminish substantially.

These findings align well with an intriguing study by Paul West and colleagues, who found tropical rainforests and boreal forests both have a big influence on their local climates. 

Rainforests keep things cool both by preventing most sunlight from reaching the ground surface and by promoting evaporative cooling.

The bottom line: deforestation doesn't just harm biodiversity and native ecosystems.  It can make people very hot and bothered as well.

World's biggest oil palm producer criticized for breaking pledge

Wilmar, the world's biggest producer of palm oil, has been heavily criticized for holding a sham public hearing in Balikpapan, Indonesia.

Make way for oil palm...

Make way for oil palm...

Wilmar made headlines recently for its pledge to stop clearing any habitats considered of 'High Conservation Value' (HCV)--such as native forest and carbon-rich peatlands. 

But in Balikpapan, Wilmar held a recent public hearing in an attempt to have an important, wildlife-rich forest tract classified as non-HCV, so it could then clear that forest.  But it didn't invite conservation groups or scientists--the very people who were most concerned and best informed about the forest--to the meeting.

Incensed NGOs and scientists have decried Wilmar's tack, saying it violates the spirit and intent of its no-deforestation pledge.

Clearly, Wilmar will have to be watched closely in future to see if it upholds its key promises.  When it comes to such things, actions speak louder than words.