The Hornbill Hunters of Sumatra

In 2011, a Taiwanese businessman named Hsien arrived in Indonesia with a plan to make himself rich and in the process to systematically wipe out one of the world’s most majestic and rarest birds, the helmeted hornbill, Rhinoplax vigil, also known as the “King Hornbill” in the provinces of Kalimantan and Sumatra.

He has made considerable progress. According to an article on the website Borneo Features titled “Planning a Path to Perdition,” middlemen were recruited to put out the word that there was someone willing to pay US$10 for the head of one helmeted hornbill. Over the next year, according to the article, the middlemen hired a network of people using cars, buses, motorcycles and boats, heading up the great rivers of Borneo, the Barito, Mahakam, Kapuas. In the interior of this vast island, they spent time talking to villagers, telling them they would come every three months to collect, and leaving their telephone numbers, no questions asked.” “I will come here every three months to collect.” “This is my phone number. You can call me if you have a good stock ready for collection, say at least 50 heads.”

Prices have skyrocketed since then, and the organized network of villagers hunting Helmeted Hornbills has expanded throughout all of Sumatra as well as Peninsular Malaysia and Southern Thailand—the entire range for the species.

I saw the carnage first-hand, hiring a personal bird guide – a hunter in fact – to move into the mountains south of Lake Toba, along the Sippongang River in Sumatra. As we talked, Entu let out a hearty, whooping laugh of excitement that drowned out my own when we saw the first group of Wreathed Hornbills – not the king hornbill – swoop over us on the Sippongang River in Sumatra, jabbing his finger skyward to make sure I noticed them.

Entu and his uncle Sihoul, a retired hunter, are among those who expertly call in the birds, then fire a long metal rod that penetrates the great bird’s torsos, bringing them down to earth dead. Just minutes later a flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills flew overhead, making a nervous detour back to the hillside when they spotted us. Entu laughed again, shaking his head with a big smile. I love all hornbill species, but what I was really hoping to spot or hear on this expedition was the rare king. Today, as Mr Tsien and his confederates wreak their butchery, helmeted hornbills have been listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as Critically Endangered across their range. We learned that 27 were taken from this landscape alone in the past two years.


Sitoul and his dog. Credit Arky

After the birds are killed, frantic telephone calls are placed to Chinese middlemen in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra and Indonesia’s third largest city, for it is the Chinese who are—and have always been since the old days of trade with the Dayaks of Borneo—the end consumers of Helmeted Hornbill “red ivory.”


Helmeted hornbill in flight. Credit: Chairunas Adha Putra

The Helmeted Hornbill’s “red ivory” casque is now more sought after than elephant ivory, and hunters can earn more than US$600 for a Rhinoplax vigil’s head—an astronomical sum for villagers who live in hamlets so remote that the one we visited hadn’t seen a western face in the 300 years since the Dutch colonial government sent in a census team. In carved and polished form in China, this red ivory sells for thousands of dollars.

We were not on a birding trip per se but an expedition to install camera traps on a remote flat-topped mountain known locally as Dolok Silang Layang—Batak for “The Mountain Where the Wind Rustles the Leaves of the Trees.” It was extremely difficult trekking that took us into pathless terrain where we hacked our way in bog-like earth, sinking at times to the waist in meter-thick organic matter, and camped on a 35-degree angle hillside where we cut small trees and built a sleeping platform for the night high above a river.

And yet even in this extreme terrain, hornbills are scarce. There was a noticeable lack of forest sounds save for gibbons across the valley. It wasn’t until we reached a sheer cliff where we had to improvise a harness from our tarp ropes to lower ourselves down that my heart soared. As we took turns lowering down the precipice a pair of Rhinoceros hornbills – Buceros rhinoceros – came roaring by, letting out what must be one of the most primal sounds in all of nature. We could see them through the breaks in the canopy, two huge, gorgeous black-winged demons swatting their wings through the air, growling with every breath in a scene straight out of the original King Kong.

Although Rhinoceros hornbills don’t have red ivory, they are often shot out of the sky as a kind of cruel bycatch, since hornbill hunters will often shoot any hornbills in the hopes that they hit the Kings. Who were these people who could camp out in the jungle for days on end, using incredible wit and guile to poach out the most gorgeous, mysterious, and rare birds on the planet? They must be stone-eyed, soulless killers.

How wrong I could be! Sihoul, Entu’s uncle, was the most enthusiastic and gracious host I have ever met in my travels, inviting us into his home on the edge of the forest, putting us up and feeding our entire team and volunteering to guide us to Dolok Silang Layang at the drop of a cigarette butt. His laughter was infectious, and it was a laugh that came from the heart and shook his entire body when it came out. He was a pleasure to be around, and he imitated bird calls so perfectly one could be forgiven for believing that a winged creature and flitted into our midst. He also pointed out slits in a tree trunk where he had stuck latex-covered twigs and called in birds to land and get stuck, whence he would pounce on them with a net and sell them into the caged bird trade.

Entu was quieter and more reserved, but he had an easy smile and a pleasant demeanor. Probably half the age of his uncle, Entu was tall, lean, and handsome. If he had been born in New York or California he’d have been a basketball player, a hip-hop dancer, a playboy. But he was born in a tiny village on the edge of the forest in South Tapanuli Regency in the distant backwaters of North Sumatra. To say his options in life were limited would be a gross understatement.

And on that July morning on our way back to civilization on the Sippongang River he seemed as genuinely happy as I was to spot those hornbills. How could it be? Could someone be a naturalist and a poacher? Could these two opposite endeavors coexist in one’s heart? Although we spoke only four or five words of each other’s language the excitement we shared was real when we came upon those hornbills, and it continued as we found trogons, little spider-hunters, minivets, and raptors darting and soaring through the sky. I could imagine no one else I would rather be with on the river that morning.

The real scourge isn’t people like Entu and his uncle Sihoul, but heartless sociopaths like Hsien. According to Borneo Features, “by 2013 an estimated 2,000 heads arrived in Mr. Hsien’s warehouse in Shanghai. In 2015, 6,000 heads were reliably tracked to three warehouses in China, all owned by Hsien’s group of companies. To put this number into perspective, each hornbill head has only about 300 grams of ivory. Ten birds would give you three kilograms of ivory. 6,000 birds would produce 1,800kg. At a market price of USD 6,000 per kg, this is worth about US$10.8 million.”

Prices have skyrocketed since then, and the organized network of villagers hunting Helmeted Hornbills has expanded throughout all of Sumatra as well as Peninsular Malaysia and Southern Thailand—the entire range for this species.

Entu saw us all the way to our initial starting point, another distant Batak village called Lobu Tayas. The village headman here was also a Helmeted Hornbill hunter, and he had his weapon handy, just in case there happened to be a King flying in the sky. And yet we would have never made it to our destination without the help of these men, and in addition to being gracious and generous hosts they were very good company and great bird guides. If only their cleverness could be put to better use.

Our Lobu Tayas host climbed a coconut tree and came down with a half a dozen for our famished party while his wife cooked us dinner. I don’t wish any of them luck on their next hunt, but for me a human face has been put on what I thought would be a monster, and the target of my scorn is Hsien and his cohorts, and all the people who buy the red ivory and leave a trail of blood in the forests of Sumatra and beyond from the most enchanting bird in the world.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.