In late 2015, IUCN uplisted helmeted hornbill from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered, just one category away from Extinct. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES lists the helmeted hornbill as Appendix I species, in which all forms of trade are prohibited.
Although easy to recognize, the helmeted hornbill is rarely seen. It inhabits dense tropical forest with tall, large trees in lowland to sub-montane forest up to 1,500 m asl. The species is found in the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Thailand, and a small population occurs in Myanmar.
Indonesia has the most extensive habitat for helmeted hornbills. However, the species only nests in large trees with natural hollow and a stump next to the entrance that allows the male to perch while feeding the female and chick inside the nest. This unique nesting requirement is not found in other hornbill species.
The helmeted hornbill is a large bird with a long central tail feather. Its length from tip of beak to tip of tail can reach 190 cm with a 90 cm wingspan and weighing at 3 kg. The species has a featherless patch on the neck that is red in males and bluish white on females. Its beak is symmetrical and ends in a point.
The casque on the upper mandible is a solid block, weighing up to 13% of its body weight. As observed in the wild, the casques function during aerial casque-butting that take place near fruiting fig trees. The helmeted hornbill’s laugh is described as maniacal and can be heard from 2 km away.
The helmeted hornbill’s main diet is relatively specific, namely large fruits of the Ficus spp. tree. Only undisturbed forests are able to provide such fruits in large quantities year-long. Other food items include small animals which only make up 2% of its diet.
As with other hornbill species, the helmeted hornbill mates for life (monogamous). After selecting an appropriate nest hole, the female will enter and seal herself. It takes a pair of helmeted hornbills 180 days to produce one chick. Along with its mate, the pair will plaster the nest entrance with a mixture of clayey soil and droppings. A small slit allows the male to pass food through inside, and to maintain nest temperatures and cleanliness.
Inside the nest the female will molt its flight feathers to cushion and incubate the eggs. Female helmeted hornbill cannot fly at this time and relies on its mate until the chick is ready to leave its nest. The time of egg-laying, incubation, hatching to the point that the chick is ready to leave its nest takes approximately six months.
The loss of forest as its main habitat, lack of conservation efforts and rampant poaching make for a terrifying combination for the future of helmeted hornbills. Fig trees that provide the main component of the hornbill’s diet are regarded to be of no economic value, and thus their presence cannot be expected.
Since the era of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, Chinese nobility have sought after helmeted hornbill’s casque or hornbill ivory to carve into ornaments. An investigation conducted by Rangkong Indonesia and Titian Foundation, supported by Chester Zoo’s Conservation Fund, recorded that in 2013 approximately 6,000 adult helmeted hornbills were slaughtered for their ivory. In 2015, as many as 2,343 helmeted hornbill beaks were seized from illegal trade. The majority of demand for helmeted hornbills comes from China.
The helmeted hornbill is protected under Law No. 5 of 1990 on Conservation of Natural Resources and Ecosystems and listed for national protection in Government Regulation No. 7 of 1999. In addition, Regulation of Minister of Forestry No. P.57/Menhut-II/2008 on 2008-2018 Strategic Direction for Species National Conservation lists the helmeted hornbill as a priority species in the hornbill group.
In the Kalimantan culture, the helmeted hornbill is a symbol of “Alam Atas” or the spiritual world and is masculine in nature. Helmeted hornbill is regarded as a symbol of courage, a protector and bridge to connect the Dayak people with their ancestors’ afterlife.
In the southernmost province of Sumatra, the helmeted hornbill’s cultural significance symbolizes grace and leadership for native of Lampung Province residents.