BORNEO’S NATURE AND CULTURE AT RISK DUE TO SALE OF MAGNIFICENT HORNBILL
By Erik Meijaard on 11:20 pm Oct 23, 2014
“Hornbill and Dragon, Arts and Culture of Borneo,” is a book by Bernard Sellato, one of Borneo’s most famous anthropologists. The title nicely captures the great reverence that Borneo’s indigenous people have for hornbills. These birds were once powerful omens that determined the lives of many people on the island.
For the Iban people of West Kalimantan and Sarawak, the hornbill took messages from the human world to the world of spirits. When people on Borneo saw a hornbill fly over, they would consider it either a good or bad omen depending on the direction of flight. And up until today, traditional dancers use hornbill feathers to mimic the flight of these birds, further suggesting the close connections between people and nature. Soon enough though, Borneo’s Dayaks may need to look for other symbols, because people are rapidly hunting hornbills to extinction.
Hornbills are large birds with oversized beaks and outrageous casques on top of those beaks. One theory goes that these massive bill structures evolved as part of sexual displays in which males could show females that they were powerful enough to function despite these totally clumsy appendices. Weird or what?
Hornbills are also unusual in their breeding behavior. Females seek out hollows in large trees, where they make their nests. Once inside, they close off the opening, leaving only a narrow slit, so that neither can she get out nor predators come in. It’s the male’s task to supply food to keep the female and her young alive.
People have been hunting hornbills for millennia. Hornbills are large and with a rifle or blowpipe they are easy targets. Stuck in their nests, they are sitting ducks — although admittedly strangely shaped ones — and hunters can easily climb trees to catch the females and young. Their final ‘design fault’ is that these birds are really noisy, with, for example, the Helmeted Hornbill having a loud, raucous call, which some have described as “hoots followed by maniacal laughter.” So, their presence in a particular forest area is hardly a secret.
Traditionally the feathers of these birds were used in ceremonial clothing, the hornbill “ivory” for carving, and, with a body the size of a small chicken, they regularly ended up in the pot. Carvings of hornbill “ivory” over 2,000 years old have been found in Borneo, and Chinese carvings have been traced back to the 6th century A.D. The Chinese held the material in high regard, preferring it to real (rhino and elephant) ivory, and calling it “golden jade.”
Despite hunting for various purposes, most hornbill species remained relatively common until quite recently. When I was traveling on the large rivers of Borneo in the early 1990s, I often saw them fly overhead. Much has changed since then.
A few years ago, commercial animal traders started to specifically demand hornbill casques to feed an increasing demand, particularly from China, for hornbill ivory for medicinal purposes and carvings. This created significant additional pressure on many hornbill populations, and the hornbills are now rapidly disappearing from forest areas.
Hornbill casques and bills sell for between Rp 2 million and Rp 3 million (or around $250), making these beautiful and enigmatic birds a new favorite of local hunters. Groups of hunters as large as 60 people now roam the extensive and remote forest areas of central Borneo, listening out for hornbills and killing any that they can lay their hands on.
The amounts of birds involved are staggering. A recent confiscation in the Melawi district of West Kalimantan resulted in 229 hornbill heads, while in 2013 four Chinese nationals were apprehended at Soekarno-Hatta Interational Airport with 248 hornbill beaks in their luggage. I am sure, though, that much higher numbers slip through. It must be really easy to smuggle these hornbills along with other internationally traded bulk goods.
So far there has been little action by the government to combat this trade. There are no concerted efforts to document the scale of the problem and understand its dynamics. But if the authorities apprehended middlemen and traders, it would be easy to significantly reduce demand from hunters. Without anyone buying, people would soon stop making lengthy forest trips required to obtain these birds.
Also, the non-governmental sector seems to largely ignore the issue, although there are exceptions, with organizations such as TRAFFIC, Birdlife and the Wildlife Conservation Society drawing attention to the problem.
I have no doubt that most people would prefer to live in areas where the magnificent hornbills would still noisily fly overhead. But as with most natural resources, the greed of a few who benefit from the trade, and the total lack of commitment for effectively addressing the problem, could so easily end up with the loss of these cultural icons.
Concerted efforts could still prevent hornbill extinctions. If you see or hear of any hornbill heads for sale, take note of the details including name and address of traders, ask who is buying and for how much, and where hunters obtain the birds. Take photos if possible, and feel free to pass information on to me.
Solutions ultimately lie with the people who live alongside the hornbills. They need to decide what they want their future to look like. What we can do is to help them understand what choices they have and what means to influence the outcome of these choices.
It is possible to retain healthy and prosperous forest landscapes in Borneo with hornbills in the sky, but this requires major change in development thinking and much better management of environments and resources.
Erik Meijaard is a conservation scientist based in Jakarta. He coordinates the Borneo Futures — Science for Change research program.