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.

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.

 

Melbourne woman combats illegal rhino-horn trade

One highly motivated person can have the impact of 10,000.  That's what one must conclude from the story of Lynn Johnson.

Johnson, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, was disturbed by a documentary about the slaughter of rhinos to sustain the illegal trade in rhino horn.  And she was appalled by a WWF report that the illegal trade has skyrocketed by 5000% since 2007.

Let the rhino keep his horns...

Let the rhino keep his horns...

So, despite having no training in wildlife conservation, Johnson set her mind to doing something about it.

Johnson decided to focus on Vietnam, a major consumer of rhino horn, which is a putative treatment for cancer and other ills.  So far she has raised $20,000 to place ads in Vietnamese newspapers and magazines, to fight the illegal trade.

But rather than pushing conservation, Johnson uses a different tack--emphasizing the potential risks for human health.  This is because South Africa has begun putting powerful poisons into rhino horn, to help deter the illegal trade. 

One of Johnson's ads cautions Vietnamese mothers not to risk poisoning their children.  Another warns businesspeople--who often give gifts of rhino horn during negotiations--not to risk sinking their business deal.

Johnson's next goal is to raise $250,000 on Breakingthebrand.org to put similar advertisements in major airports in Vietnam.

As Lynn Johnson is showing us, where there's a will, there's a way.  If rhinos could talk, they'd surely be thanking her.

 

China imposes serious prison time for wildlife offences

China is overwhelmingly the world's biggest consumer of illegal wildlife products.  Now, Chinese citizens caught buying banned species could spend serious time in the clink.

Happy hanging onto its own skin (photo by Priya Davidar)

Happy hanging onto its own skin (photo by Priya Davidar)

This is welcome news to those who've watched massive poaching of elephants and rhinos in recent years to supply China's voracious appetite for ivory and rhino horn.  Other exploited species include tigers, pangolins, and many species of sharks, which are killed to make shark-fin soup.

In total, some 420 rare or endangered species will be protected under a reinterpretation of Chinese law by the the National People's Congress.  Those caught breaking the law could be sentenced to over 10 years in prison, depending on the offense.

This latest measure comes on the heels of other Chinese-government efforts to discourage the domestic trade in illegal ivory.

ALERT hasn't hesitated to criticize China for predatory practices, but it's also important to laud China's efforts when important progress is being made.  Credit where credit is due.

ALERT helps lead efforts to protect 'Heart of the Jungle'

In just a two-month period last year, poachers in northern India slaughtered 13 one-horned rhinos--one of the world's most critically endangered species.  It's for this reason that ALERT is helping to lead efforts to protect the most important refuge for one-horned rhinos anywhere--Chitwan National Park in Nepal (see our press release on this issue).

Chitwan: A haven for rhinos--for now.

Chitwan: A haven for rhinos--for now.

In Nepalese, 'Chitwan' means 'Heart of the Jungle', and its name reflects the astonish variety and abundance of wildlife there--over 700 species, including many of the Indian subcontinent's most spectacular animals. 

As a refuge for impressive wildlife, Chitwan really is the Serengeti of Nepal, despite being far smaller than Tanzania's iconic park.  Among its denizens are a fifth of the world's one-horned rhinos.  These animals are highly vulnerable to poachers, who slaughter the animals for their single horn--prized for traditional medicines and as a putative aphrodisiac in parts of Asia.

Unfortunately, the Nepalese and Indian governments are planning to push a major leg of the East-West Railway right through Chitwan, as well as eight feeder roads.  This is despite there being viable alternative routes for the railroad along the park's margins.  It is likely that these projects will increase access to the park for poachers, and might fragment and disrupt the park ecosystem.

Beyond its stunning natural values, Chitwan is important for people too.  It attracts upward of 100,000 tourists each year and helps to sustain around 400 hotels and nature lodges--an important foundation of the regional economy.

ALERT members urge the Nepalese government to take all steps to protect the 'Heart of the Jungle'.