BANGKOK (AP) — Time is running out for Thailand’s dwindling population of helmeted hornbills thanks to poaching of the exotic birds for the ivory-like casques atop their big red and yellow beaks.
The species, known by the scientific name Rhinoplax vigil, is listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“Currently, there are fewer than 100 of the birds in Thailand’s forests,” said Dr. Kaset Sutacha, chairman of the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand and head of the Exotic Pet and Wildlife Clinic at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bangkok.
“Critically endangered” is just a step away from “extinct in the wild” and two steps from becoming considered “extinct.”
Demand from China is helping drive demand for their distinctive casques, “helmets” in French, which males deploy in battle. The material is used to make rings, pendants and other decorative items.
Worries over the species’ survival intensified after the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC recently posted photos online of dozens of skulls of the endangered avian for sale.
A campaign on the change.org online petition site is pressuring the government to add the bird to Thailand’s Wildlife Preservation List as soon as possible. It now lists 19 other species.
The bird is already on Thailand’s official list of protected animals, but would get much better protection if it’s included in the Wildlife Preservation List, Kaset said.
That “means we can get money, officers and tools from the government, including a national conservation plan designed just for this species,” he said.
The population of the bird, found in Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of Myanmar and southern Thailand, is dwindling, the IUCN said.
Most types of hornbills have hollow casques. The helmeted hornbills’ are a hard, solid block that in the illegal wildlife market is called “red ivory.”
China appears to be the main market for helmeted hornbill parts and products, though there is also demand in Laos and Thailand, said Elizabeth John, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia’s senior communications officer.