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Helmeted Hornbill

In every animal-lover’s heart, there is bound to be one. A creature without the fluffy clumsiness of the panda, the predatory grace of a big cat, or the magnificent sentience of the whale, but with a fascinating story which you think is deserving of more attention: an Unloved species.

For Wildscreen Arkive’s #LoveSpecies campaign, they have asked a number of wildlife charities to nominate their own Unloved species, and now it is open to a vote.

At World Land Trust (WLT), we have nominated the Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), which can be found in our project area with Hutan in Malaysian Borneo, the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain. With a striking crimson casque adorning its bill and a matching, wrinkled wattle, its appearance is more alien and striking than the soulful stare of the most well-known inhabitant of its forest: the Bornean Orang-utan.

Red ivory

However, it is just as deserving of conservation attention. The casque on its face has been labelled ‘red ivory’ by the wildlife trafficking trade, and it is worth five times more than elephant ivory, the illegal trade of which is much more widely known. The demand for red ivory has shot up in recent years, with increasing numbers of hornbill casques being discovered in airport seizures, alongside pangolin scales, tiger skins and elephant ivory.

One investigation, carried out by Flora & Fauna International (FFI) in 2013, found that in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, 2-5 poaching teams were operating in each of the five study areas, making 1-3 hunting trips a month, poaching 10-30 hornbills per trip (usually removing females and chicks from their nesting holes in fruiting fig trees). On a larger scale, hornbill ivory trade fits into a highly organised network of wildlife trafficking, with snares and firearms for a number of targeted species being supplied to poachers with access to wildlife habitats.


In 2015 the Helmeted Hornbill was updated from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which is defined as the brink of extinction, in urgent need of conservation action. The three important channels of conservation action are on the ground, in the trade and out in the public.

Keepers of the Wild badge

On the ground, trained rangers are required to guard reserve areas to deter poachers from entering habitats and gaining access to hornbill nesting trees. WLT’s Keepers of the Wild programme supports the salary of a ranger, Berjaya Elahan, who patrols Bornean rainforest working for WLT partner Hutan. Berjaya is also involved in Hutan’s nest box program, which provides safe nesting locations where hornbills can be monitored and protected.

In the trade, investigations such as that described above by FFI are necessary to determine the reach and the impact of the trade, which can inform seizures and arrests, as well as educate the target market. Last year, at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a resolution was passed for the Parties to enforce the legislation which protects hornbills (they are legally protected in all their range states, but enforcement is low). The resolution also calls for cross-border cooperation between range states on habitat protection, anti-poaching patrols and hornbill monitoring. 

Raising awareness

Out in the public, the case of the Helmeted Hornbill is still relatively unknown, which limits public understanding, financial support for conservation actions, and knowledge in the communities where red ivory is bought. 

In his rainforest home, the Helmeted Hornbill has a resonating call which accelerates into a crescendo of laughter and can be heard from at least a kilometre away. We have entered the Helmeted Hornbill into the Unloved Species competition because we believe this the conservation call to action for this Critically Endangered bird needs to reach a far larger audience.

Voting has now closed. The Helmeted Hornbill came in fourth in the contest for the World's Most Unloved Species. Find out more here.

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