By now, we're all sadly too familiar with the horrific statistics of the ivory and rhino horn trade. Even trade in the little-known scaly anteaters called pangolins has been getting some much-needed media attention. But here's one type of wildlife contraband you may not have heard of: the carved beaks of helmeted hornbills.

Helmeted Hornbill Contraband 2015 01 26
Helmeted hornbill (left) by Doug Janson and carved hornbill beaks (right) illegally sold on the internet.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reports that the main consumer market for the hornbill beaks is China, where they are traded and processed through the same carving industries as ivory and rhino horn. Crafted into jewellery and decorative ornaments, the products are becoming increasingly popular among wealthy Chinese consumers, fetching black market prices up to five times higher than ivory.

Helmeted hornbills (Rhinoplax vigilare classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN and trade in wild-caught specimens is illegal. The largest hornbills in Asia, they're distinguished by a bizarre-looking casque that sits (like a helmet) on the upper half of their beaks. Unlike the hollow casques of other species, helmeted hornbills boast one that's solid and composed of an ivory-like substance, which makes it particularly desirable for carving.

Hornbill head for sale online. Image: EIA

While the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn has been widely publicised, the trafficking of hornbill beaks has gone unnoticed and unhindered, warns the EIA. And proof that this type of trade is growing quickly can be found in the coded jargon traders use to communicate with online suppliers, the EIA's undercover investigators say. While ‘black’ is the code word used to indicate rhino horn and ‘white’ stands for ivory, another colour has been showing up more and more in these illicit exchanges.  

"In recent years [red] has become increasingly prominent in trade; taking its origins from its Chinese name, hedinghong (hong = red), this ‘red’ represents the beaks of helmeted hornbill birds," reveals the EIA in a press release.

"[A]longside the ‘black’ and ‘white’ products in trade that EIA regularly monitors, the volume of ‘red’ products ... has become widespread in recent years and that can only be a profoundly worrying sign for these majestic birds.” 

Top header image: Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr