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BirdLife International

Helmeted Hornbill

Article By Jamie Wyver



The ape-like song of the Helmeted Hornbill has to be heard to be believed. It builds from single loud hoots into double notes, speeding up until the bird lets out a loud cackle!


It’s also an extraordinary looking species, like one of Jim Henson’s more fantastical creations. Indeed, this is a ‘Big Bird’, standing over a metre high with a 50cm tail. Witnessing a Helmeted Hornbill fly overhead is as dramatic as seeing one close up, its wings creating a whooshing rush of air as it glides over. It feels like you’re looking back in time at some prehistoric scene where the first dinosaurs have started to take flight.


On the top of this bird’s large, bright yellow bill is the red helmet-like casque that gives the Helmeted Hornbill its name. The birds have been seen using this (almost completely) solid structure in aerial battles, fighting over food or territories. The clashing of their casques as they head-butt in mid-air can be heard 100m away or more on the forest floor!

Casques, crime and crisis

The casque has always been a source of fascination for people. For over a thousand years Helmeted Hornbills have been hunted in Borneo for their casques. These are sold primarily in China to be carved into jewellery and ornaments. But in the last decade that trade has increased significantly, with extensive poaching by organised crime networks. In the year 2012/2013 it was estimated that 6,000 of the birds were killed. Since 2010, enforcement agencies have seized more than 2,500 casques mostly at airports.

That’s completely unsustainable for a bird that breeds slowly. Helmeted Hornbills can live as long as 40 to 50 years. However they’ll only raise one chick a year, and that process takes around five months! During this time the female will have sealed herself and her chick inside a hole high in a tree, with just a small opening through which the male will pass food. Males that are tending to nesting females are easy hunting targets because males are quite vocal at that time and stay close to the nest tree. If the male is killed she can usually escape, but not if this happens while she’s moulting and unable to fly. If that happens, both she and the chick would die too.

Populations of Helmeted Hornbills have now seriously declined in Indonesia. We’re concerned that as numbers become depleted there, people will start poaching them in some of the other places they’re found. These include the lowland forests of Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Since 2015, this bird has been classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List due to the pressures of hunting, and the loss of the forests it depends on. The Governments of the range countries are committed to saving this species, but need (and are happy to work with) the support of BirdLife Partners and other conservation organisations to combat this clear example of organised crime assaulting some of the world’s rarest and most spectacular wildlife.

How you can help the Helmeted Hornbill


Each year Birdfair raises funds for vital bird conservation around the world,

working through BirdLife International and with a range of regional and local BirdLife Partners.

This year we’ll be asking for your donations for a project aiming to stop the poaching and trade of the Helmeted Hornbill. We want to secure safe havens for this bird and close down trade channels by supporting local and country enforcement agencies, getting local communities involved and encouraging people to change their behaviour. For example, we need to get the message across that these are the ‘farmers of the forest’ helping to spread tree seeds through their droppings. We’ll also make sure the population of this bird and trade of its casques is carefully monitored and consumer groups profiled so we have an in-depth knowledge of whose behaviour to change.

The project is part of a broader programme to review the impact of the global wild bird trade, which we believe is threatening the populations of a growing number of species. It’s worth remembering that the trade of wildlife has implications for human health too. Birds and animals caught in the wild and traded in markets have been linked to the origins of the current coronavirus pandemic as well as SARS and avian flu strains.

In addition, we’ll continue the BirdLife-Birdfair Young Conservation Leaders programme to support young conservationists fighting illegal bird trade in Asia.

The Helmeted Hornbill is surely one of the most incredible birds on the planet. With your help, we can help secure its future and gain a better understanding of how the bird trade is impacting some of the world’s most threatened species. All you need to do is come along (virtually) to Birdfair from 18 August and make a donation – why not donate your ticket money £15.

Helmeted Hornbill – Photo credit - Doug Janson / CC BY-SA

Photo credit Tim Plowden/

Here are some interviews about previous BirdLife International projects that Birdfair has raised money for:

2000 Birdfair: saving the Albatross

Looking for some positive news? 15 of the planet’s 22 Albatross species are currently threatened with extinction – but there’s hope in the form of a dedicated team changing the way the world fishes. Birdfair 2000 raised funds for BirdLife’s Save the Albatross appeal, which led a few years late to RSPB and BirdLife International launching the Albatross Task Force (ATF). Jamie Wyver interviews ATF’s Project Officer, Nina DaRocha, who highlights some of the team’s incredible successes in preventing seabird bycatch around the world.

Birdfair and BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme

What’s the connection between an enthusiastic annual gathering of wildlife lovers on the shores of Rutland Water and saving nature around the world? Between 2007 and 2009, Birdfair supported BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme. Jamie Wyver interviews Jim Lawrence, BirdLife’s Global Marketing Manager about this work which focuses on some of the most threatened birds on the planet. Jim explains how Birdfair has made a real difference to global bird conservation and outlines the vital role of Species Champions.

Saving the unique forests of Madagascar

Madagascar is home to a wide range of unique wildlife. In 2016, Birdfair boosted BirdLife’s work here by raising £350,000 for conservation in the Tsitongambarika Forest. In this video Jamie Wyver interviews Roger Safford, who manages BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme, looking at how BirdLife’s work, through country Partner Asity Madagascar, is helping prevent deforestation.

Young conservation leaders

Your Birdfair contributions change lives and make an incredible difference for birds and other wildlife around the world. Since 2017 Birdfair has made a significant contribution towards the training and mentoring of young conservation leaders as part of a programme complementing the event’s annual funding of BirdLife projects.

In this video Jamie interviews BirdLife’s Kiragu Mwangi and Sherilyn Bos, looking at some examples of where the funding has helped.

2018 Birdfair: the marvels of Mar Chiquita

In 2018 Birdfair raised £322,000 for an exciting BirdLife international Partner project in Argentina. In this video Hernán Casañas, Director of the Argentina BirdLife Partner Aves Argentinas, tells Jamie Wyver about the spectacular wildlife spectacle at the world fifth biggest lake, Mar Chiquita. As well as providing crucial funding, Birdfair helped considerably raise the global profile of this special site.

This year’s Birdfair project: the Helmeted Hornbill

Virtual Birdfair 2020 is fundraising for a project to save the Critically Endangered Helmeted Hornbill which is seriously threatened by hunting. Jamie Wyver interviews BirdLife International’s Anuj Jain who begins by describing this extraordinary bird – finding out why it’s called the ‘Laughing Grandmother’ – and its unusual nesting technique. Anuj and Jamie then explore the reasons for the Helmeted Hornbill’s decline and how BirdLife, working with Partners across South East Asia, aims to give this bird a brighter future.

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