Eurasian birds 2016 highlights

This is a video series by BirdLife Europe and Central Asia.

From BirdLife:

Birds of a Feather: Our partners’ highlights from 2016

By Gui-Xi Young, 16 Jan 2017

From the wild North Atlantic to the Caspian Sea; from the fjords of Breiðafjörður to the Iron Gates on the Danube, from the high Pyrenees to the Kazakh Steppe – how better to bask in the spectacular natural beauty of Europe & Central Asia than with a bird’s eye view? Here are just some of our partners’ highlights from 2016!

2016 was a busy year for the BirdLife Europe & Central Asia family – a partnership of 48 national NGOs in 47 countries. As the old proverb goes, ‘birds of a feather, flock together’ and, together, our local to global approach to nature conservation shows just what the power of many can achieve for birds and people alike. We rounded-out the year with a stunning victory – the safeguarding of the EU’s Nature Directives. But there are so many other stories to tell.

Science: The BirdLife Gold Standard

At BirdLife, science is the Gold Standard; it’s the very foundation of our approach to nature conservation. Year on year, our partners raise the bar for ornithological knowledge and push forward the frontiers of learning – and 2016 was no exception. For example, our Kazakh partners, ACBK conducted their country’s most extensive census of rare geese species and other water birds to date, while over in Croatia, BIOM finished a benchmark three year study of national bird distribution, establishing a whole new baseline for future bird atlases. Meanwhile, many partners have been embracing innovative techniques for data-collection with some fantastic results, such as DOPPS (Slovenia) equipping a White-backed woodpecker with a telemetric logger for the first time in Europe. And in neighbouring Hungary, MME launched its Bird ID mobile app that has been downloaded by 50,000 users since April.

This commitment to evidence-based advocacy has earned world-wide recognition for our network of IBAs (Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas) which are sites of international significance for the conservation of threatened birds as well as other plant and animal species. Happily, thanks to our partners’ hard work, we made many welcome additions to this spectacular network: from Finland’s Baltic coast to the floodplain of Belarus’ River Iput to Lakes Mashankul and Khozhakul in Uzbekistan and more.

Taking Flight: Our Research in Action

In a bid to protect key natural habitats from man-made threats, our partners are actively engaged in long-term ecological restoration and sustainable management projects, working closely with local communities, other NGOs, government agencies and private businesses to find innovative ways for birds and people to peacefully coexist. Last year, SOS/BirdLife Slovakia completed work with local farmers in Medzibodrožie to pump water back into the drying wetlands of the region. Nature’s response was nothing short of amazing: Great bitterns began to return, several pairs of the very rare Ferruginous duck were spotted, and a whole new colony of waders – Purple heron, Great White egret, Black-crowned Night Heron – was established!

Their success will certainly be encouraging for those embarking on (or continuing) equally ambitious projects in 2017. In the … Mediterranean alone, BirdLife Cyprus will be working to restore the Akrotiri Marsh to the thriving mosaic of diverse habitats it once was, SPNI will endeavour to secure the future of Israel’s Sdom Saltmarsh – home to the only viable population of the endangered Tamarisk Nubian Nightjar – while BirdLife Malta will be writing the next chapter of the Salini Salt Pans’ 600 year history, having recently been awarded land-management responsibility for the marshlands that attract great flocks of flamingos during migration season. There are exciting times ahead further north as well: OTOP, for example, will be developing the eco-tourism potential of Poland’s Beka nature reserve, while neighbour BirdLife Belarus undertakes a huge project to recover over 1000 ha of peatlands in Białowieża Forest National Park, to the certain benefit of raptors, owls and woodpeckers.

Flights of Imagination: Engaging the Public

Of course, none of this could be achieved without widespread public support. Time and time again, across all our countries, young and old alike come out in full force to enjoy – and when necessary, defend – nature. Last year, our determined French partner LPO continued its tireless fight to strengthen France’s Biodiversity Law by collecting a staggering 669,102 signatures to give to Minister of the Environment, Ségolène Royal, against the use of neonicotinoids – a type of pesticide that has been killing off our bees.

Some fine-feathered fun has also been order of the day: great new events have popped up on the annual calendar, with the BirdLife Suomi’s ‘Finnish Bird Fair’ and SVS/BirdLife Switzerland’s ‘Festival of Nature’ joining more established events such as SPEA’s ‘Sagres Birdwatching Festival’ in Portugal and SOF/BirdLife Sweden’s national ‘Garden Bird Count’ – all attracting tens of thousands of visitors and participants. In Romania, SOR’s popular ‘Bucharest Got Wings’ project saw members of the public place home-made bird feeders and nest boxes all around the capital’s parks and squares – much to the delight of local blue tits and great tits. And, who says politics can’t be fun? APB BirdLife Belarus organized an election with a difference – ‘Bird of the District’, with the noble Kingfisher claiming a superb victory: long may he reign!

Some of our partners even managed to get their members to break a sweat: in Turkey, Doğa volunteers ran the Istanbul Marathon to raise funds for the threatened Imperial Eagle; in Belgium, our Flemish partner’s two-day challenge of hiking, biking and canoeing – ‘Expeditie Natuurpunt‘ raised €133,000 for nature conservation projects; and in Israel, SPNI’s fantastic ‘Champions of the Flyway’ competition – a real-time bird spotting ‘race’ live on Twitter – raised $80,000 for our Greek partner’s (HOS) efforts to tackle illegal bird killing.

Art has often taken inspiration from the natural world – Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Carnival of the Animals’, Albrecht Dürer’s ‘Young Hare’, John Constable’s great rural landscapes…– and the BirdLife family is continuing this rich creative tradition in all sorts of imaginative ways. Both LOB in Latvia and BirdLife Cyprus held very successful drawing competitions, with both the former’s ‘Bird of the Year’ competition and the latter’s ‘153 Birds’ (i.e. the 153 species affected by illegal trapping in Cyprus) receiving hundreds of submissions.

Meanwhile, in the world of sound and vision, there were some quality contributions to film, television and radio. Gregor Subic’s poignant documentary ‘The Endangered Treasure of Ulcinj’ told the story of our Montenegrin partner’s (CZIP) efforts to save Ulcinj Salina, one of the most important bird wintering sites in Europe, from being turned into a luxury tourist resort. On Spanish television, SEO/BirdLife earned more than 5 million viewers for their stunning documentary series, ‘Red Natura 2000’. And BirdWatch Ireland filled the radio waves with birdsong, collaborating with presenter Derek Mooney’s on his ‘European Dawn Chorus’ broadcast, a much-deserved winner of a Rose d’Or (Europe’s most prestigious broadcasting award) for Radio Event of the Year.

Numerous activities have focused on inspiring the next generation of bird lovers and nature conservationists: the Caucasus are leading the way with both AOS’ ‘Bird Camp Besh’ in Azerbaijan, ASPB’s ‘Dsegh Eco-club’ combining birdwatching, outdoor training and classes for young students. And in Belgium, our Walloon partner Natagora has developed a video game about biodiversity that has been adopted by many schools. After all, if children these days can memorize the names of 500 different ‘species’ of Pokémon, then why not 500 species of birds?

Onwards & Upwards!

We can all agree that the finest moments come when we finally see species protection measures pay off and bird numbers rebound. 2016 has given us many fine examples to give us hope in 2017. BirdLife Austria celebrated its most successful breeding season for Imperial Eagles and in Georgia, an adult pair was spotted performing diving flights near an artificial nest recently built by SABUKO – a remarkable sighting in a country with no more than 40 breeding pairs. Over in Bulgaria, after years and years of active efforts from BSPB, a second colony of Dalmatian pelicans finally started breeding on Belene Island.

In Serbia, BPSSS advanced its decade long struggle to save the Red-listed Turtledove by securing a moratorium on its hunting for another year. SVS/BirdLife Switzerland has also observed a record – 153 breeding pairs of the endangered Little Owl. Going northwards to Norway, there is new hope for seabirds: after concerted efforts by NOF, the government will start its seabird Action Plan in 2017. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the RSPB is enjoying a ‘boom time’ for Bitterns – a thickset heron that has bounced back from local extinction at the turn of the 20th century to near full recovery!

On that positive note, we shall draw to a close. While this whistle-stop tour cannot possibly do justice to all our partners’ achievements and hard work, it does provide a lot of inspiration as we move onwards to 2017 and continue looking upwards to the skies. Just look at what we can achieve together – as we proclaimed during the Nature Alert campaign, ‘All for Nature, Nature for all!’

Gui Xi Young is a writer and editor with BirdLife Europe & Central Asia.

163 wildlife species discovered in Asia

This video says about itself:

21 December 2016

A rainbow-headed snake resembling David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character, a dragon-like lizard and a newt that looks like Klingon from Star Trek are among the 163 new species recently discovered by scientists in the Greater Mekong Region, according to a report released by WWF.

The report, Species Oddity, documents the work of hundreds of scientists who discovered nine amphibians, 11 fish, 14 reptiles, 126 plants and three mammals in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. These discoveries bring the total new species of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians discovered in the Greater Mekong Region to 2,409 since WWF began compiling new species reports in 1997. “These scientists, the unsung heroes of conservation, know they are racing against time to ensure that these newly discovered species are protected,” said Jimmy Borah, Wildlife Program Manager for WWF-Greater Mekong.

The Greater Mekong is also home to some of the planet’s most endangered wild species, including the tiger, saola, Asian elephant, Mekong dolphin and Mekong giant catfish. The region is under intense development pressure that threatens the survival of the natural landscapes that make it so unique. Poaching puts additional pressure on the region’s wildlife, meaning many species could be lost before they are even discovered.

A rainbow-headed snake, Parafimbrios lao, that has been likened to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character was found among steep karst cliffs in Northern Laos and while originally thought to exist in only one location, it has since been seen in a second one, increasing its chances of survival.

The Phuket Horned Tree Agamid, Acanthosaura phuketensis, has a fearsome set of horns on its head and spine and was found among the few remaining forest patches on the popular Thai tourist island of Phuket. It is threatened by rapid habitat loss and collection for the pet trade.

A bat, Murina kontumensis, found in the Central Highlands of Vietnam with thick and woolly fur on its head and forearms.

A newt between 6 and 7 cm long, distinguished by a dorsal ridge and unique red markings. Only the fourth newt species found to exist in Thailand. With its striking red and black markings contrasting dramatically with the green of the surrounding landscape, these newts add to the list of unique amphibians found in Thailand.

A new frog species from Cambodia and Vietnam, Leptolalax isos, has a name that is about as long as its body. At 3 cm, this diminutive amphibian is threatened by some major forces – logging, agricultural expansion and hydroelectric projects.

A gecko discovered in the remote karst mountains of Laos by a team of scientists who often had to rely on water dripping off stalactites in caves. Gekko bonkowskii is believed to be the discovery that may hold the key to understanding lizard evolution in the Annamite Mountain Range.

A rare banana species discovered in Northern Thailand. With a fluorescent red flower blossom and significant tiny flower structures differing from all other members of the banana family, only two small populations of the species have been discovered.

A plant from the Chin Hills of North-western Myanmar that has two petal coverings (sepals) resembling mouse ears. Discovered on Mount Victoria, Impatiens kingdon-wardii is a reminder that Myanmar’s rich biodiversity needs protection as the country rapidly opens up to development.

See also here.

Spoon-billed sandpiper news

This video says about itself:

17 January 2012

Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project has been working in Bangladesh in an organized manner since 2009. The goal of the project is to conserve and conduct research on the critically endangered Spoon-Billed Sandpipers wintering along the coast of Bangladesh especially on Sonadia island. The project discovered local hunters have been hunting SBS along with other shorebirds. Since 2011 the project is working with the hunters to provide alternative income generation options, things are changing and here is a glimpse.

From BirdLife:

One to Watch – Spoon-billed Sandpiper

By Irene Lorenzo, 2 Dec 2016

In our “One to Watch” series, we take a quick look at the status of some of the iconic species we’re working on.

Fondly known in birding circles as Spoonie, the charismatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea occupies a limited breeding range in north-eastern Russia, from where it migrates down the western Pacific coast to its main wintering grounds in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Due to the Spoonie’s particular liking to certain types of mudflats – lagoon spits with crowberry-lichen vegetation or dwarf birch and willow sedges – it has probably always been a scarce species.

However, numbers have dropped by 88% in just 10 years according to our latest surveys. Their favourite stopover sites are being reclaimed for industry, infrastructure and aquaculture and the mudflats that remain are getting heavily polluted. With only less than 200 pairs left in the wild, we’re taking urgent action to save the species from imminent extinction. Do you want to help?

Read more about our work to help Spoonie and donate to scale it up: here.

Birds of the Yellow Sea

This video says about itself:

31 October 2016

The intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea contain the most important stopover sites for migratory shorebirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – a flyway that has transported birds from breeding grounds in the Russian and Alaskan Arctic to wintering areas in Southern Asia, Australia and New Zealand for hundreds of thousands of years. The productivity of the Yellow Sea’s mudflats and the food they provide to migratory birds are critical to the survival of many species.

This film provides a primer on the basic biological principles of migratory shorebird ecology and why the Yellow Sea is a critical international hub for bird migration.

Film is also available in Korean, Mandarin, Japanese and Russian.

Filmed and narrated by Gerrit Vyn

Edited by Tom Swarthout


“Trip,” “Long Road,” “Ways,” Ehrlich, Loy (SACEM) Kosinus APM (ASCAP), Courtesy APM

This video says about itself:

31 October 2016

The Yellow Sea lies at the center of one of the most populated regions on earth. More than 420 million people live in it’s vicinity and the pressure on natural resources cannot be overstated. Already more than half of the Yellow Sea’s intertidal areas have been converted to land through a process dubbed “reclamation” and the pace of this reclamation is accelerating.

If the remaining intertidal areas are lost, long distance migrant bird species and the livelihoods of people that make their living from these mudflats will be lost as well. Already, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s population has declined to only a few hundred individuals and the IUCN has stated “that unless major steps are taken taken to reverse current trends, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway is likely to experience extinctions and associated collapses of essential and valuable ecological services in the near future.”

Through satellite imagery, animations and on the ground footage this film visualizes the scale and speed of changes that have occurred along the Yellow Sea’s coastlines in recent years.

Owls of the Arabian Peninsula

This video from Oman says about itself:

18 June 2015

Saeed and I left Salalah at 7.15pm and headed to Wadi Darbat in the Dhofar Mountains, spotlighting for night-active animals and owls.

Half-way along the flat far bit of the wadi we heard a strange screeching call on the south side of the road. We could not identify it and went by foot to locate the origin.

It turned out to be an immature Arabian Spotted Eagle-owl, Bubo (africanus) milesi.

We left the bird in peace and it continued to call from the same area for another hour. No adults were seen or heard.

Hopefully Saeed made it back there the next night to record it; I was by then well on my way back to Dubai.

From BirdLife, with photos there:

Birds of the Arabian Night

By Faisal Hajwal, 16 Oct 2016

When the Sun begins to set on the Middle East, the majority of the region’s birdlife settle down to roost for the night. Yet for others, the day is just beginning. We are of course talking about owls – those nocturnal birds of prey that bewitch us with their secrets and unusual behaviours.

We are all surely all familiar with owls; this large and distinctive order of around 234 species spreads its wings across the world, and can be found on every continent except for Antarctica. Despite the existence of such an enormous number of species, the Arabian Peninsula is host to a relatively small number of owls that are considered either resident, transient or migrant.

Nonetheless, these charismatic birds have left their mark on the psyche of the region. In some Middle Eastern cultures, owls are often associated with death and ruin, and are said to represent the souls of those who have died unavenged. For this reason, owls are often considered bad luck in this part of the world, but this perception may be changing, particularly among the region’s farmers. Incredibly effective predators who are specially adapted for night hunting, owls offer great environmental services for humans, reducing the population growth of rodents and helping to maintain an ecological balance.

Because owls are generally active at night, they have a highly developed hearing system and extraordinary night vision. The forward facing aspect of the eyes gives the owl its “wise” appearance, but also more practically gives it tremendous depth perception. Additionally, their eyes are very efficient at collecting and processing light, allowing it to hunt effectively in dark conditions. In addition to that, owls have specialized feathers that enable near-silent flight by altering air turbulence and absorbing noise.

Owl size and weight varies greatly among owl species, with the Great Grey Owl, which is considered the largest species of owl, weighing up to approximately 3 kg with a length reaching up to 76 cm. Other species are very small, with a length that does not exceed 14 cm and weigh 40 g. Although the Arabian Peninsula isn’t typically considered an owl hotspot, these stunning images show that the few species that do make the region their home perfectly illustrate the variety and charisma of this iconic bird family.

Pharaoh Eagle Owl (Bubo ascalaphus)

This striking species, with its eyes as orange as the richest sand dune, is found across most of the Peninsula and in particular the east coast. Also known as the Eagle or Pharaonic Owl, it is the largest species in the area. Its size is about 68 cm, with a wingspan reaching up to 147 cm. It lives in desert environments and use rocky formations cavities as a nest.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Resident throughout the year and considered the most common species in the region. It is medium-sized with a length reaching 35 cm, and 89 cm wing span. It is easily distinguishable from the rest of other species, with its heart-shaped face and piercing black eyes. True to its name, it likes to nests in abandoned buildings, especially ceilings and concrete gaps. …

Pallid Scops Owl (Otus brucei)

A rare resident, known in Arabic as the Striped Trees Owl. Small, with a length not exceeding 20 cm and 50 cm wing span. It is a resident to the eastern regions of the Peninsula; however, it is not common. It nests in tree holes, often in arid foothills and rocky gorges, but can be found in urban gardens, too. According to our research there is no certain record for its breeding time. In winter, it migrates to the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent.

Eurasian Scops Owl (Otus scops)

A migrant that is resident in several countries and regions such as northern India, northern Iran, Turkey and the Mediterranean basin. It migrates in winter to Africa, its route running across the peninsula. It is significantly exposed to hunting during the season of migration.

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Uncommon resident, also known as the small owl or the ringed owl. It reaches 22 cm in length and is often seen in the daytime. Marked by rows of sand colour and a rounded head. It is recorded breeding in most of the Gulf States. It is a widespread species, with a range that spreads from the UK to Eastern China, but the subspecies Athene noctua lilith, which is a softer sandy colour, is found only in this region.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

A rare winter visitor, also known as the Short-Eared owl or the Deaf Owl. Length may reach up to 38 cm. It has been recorded in most of the Gulf States but in low numbers. It prefers open, marshy countryside, where it is active both day and night, flying a few feet above ground and often hovering over prey before pouncing.

Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

Its size is similar to its shorter-eared cousin, with a length that reaches up 36 cm. This agile predator prefers to roost in woodland, stretching its wings and body to disguise itself as a tree branch. Its migration route does not pass the Arabian Peninsula region, with very few observations in some Gulf countries, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Altai mountains book, its author interviewed

This video from the Netherlands says about itself:

Reconnecting with landscape in a globalized world. | Arita Baaijens | TEDxHaarlem

1 June 2015

Contemporary maps leave out the human connection, the sense of awe one feels standing face to face with the mountains, the taste of its water, the messages carried by the wind. To really understand our position and establish a sense of place in a rapidly changing world we need to revise our maps and add the human connection.

Arita Baaijens is an explorer, biologist, author, photographer, and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Explorers Club, the Long Riders Guild, and WINGS Worldquest, who recently selected her for one of their distinguished awards.

The Dutch adventurer has already completed over 25 desert expeditions on camel throughout Egypt and Sudan. She is the first woman to have crossed the Western Desert of Egypt solo on camel and the first Western woman to have travelled the Forty Days Road on camel twice. In Mauritania she photographed the last surviving female caravaneers.

Currently Arita Baaijens travels and works in Siberia and Central Eurasia, to research sacred landscapes and traditional cultures. In 2013 she was the first to circumambulate the Altai Golden Mountains in the heart of Eurasia: 4 countries, 101 days, 1500 km on horseback. March 2015 the Spanish Geographical Society honored Arita Baaijens as Traveler of the year.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

This December 2015 Dutch video is about Ms Baaijens’ new book, about her journey to and in the Altai mountains.

That book, Zoektocht naar het paradijs, was on a shortlist of five books for this year’s Jan Wolkers Prize, the prize for best Dutch natural history book; though it did not win.

Ms Baaijens was the first one of three prize nominated authors to lecture on 16 October 2016 in the Lakenhal museum. Though it was more of an interview than a lecture: with as interviewer Ms Anneke Naafs, of Vroege Vogels radio. Both ladies wore high heels. A bit of a contrast with the subject of the book, an often arduous journey through mountains and valleys of Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and China. A journey in which Arita Baaijens did not avoid potential dangers; and where, like in an airplane which may crash, high heel shoes should be removed.

The Altai mountains, Ms Baaijens said, are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Not anywhere else had she seen so many beautiful wild flowers.

Snow leopards live there.

Arita Baaijens talked about the Karakol valley in the Russian part of the Altai.

Some of the local people are Christians; some are Tengrist, an ancient Central Asian religion:

Historically, it was the prevailing religion of the Turks, Mongols, and Hungarians, as well as the Xiongnu and the Huns.

Ms Baaijens told that Altai people were careful about Erlik, the god of the underworld and death.

How can tensions between these ideas of local people, and other ideas, like of scientists, be dealt with? she asked herself.

Arita Baaijens intends to go to Papua New Guinea for her next journey.

Next in the Lakenhal that day came a lecture on crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans. So, stay tuned!

Helmeted hornbills endangered by poachers

This video says about itself:

14 February 2016

Indonesia is home to thirteen hornbill species, three of which are endemic. This makes Indonesia the richest and the most important country for hornbill conservation in the world.

Hornbills are the largest and most effective seed disperser agent in Asia’s tropical rainforests and they are forest dependent. Among Asian hornbills, the Helmeted hornbill is the most unique species starting from species life requirement and features a solid casque that has been recognized for its ivory-like quality. It is the only Hornbill in the world which has this feature.

From Wildlife Extra:

Ivory poachers driving rare bird to extinction

By Nigel Collar, 28 Sep 2016

A sudden explosion of demand for the Helmeted Hornbill’s casque as “ivory” is plunging the species to extinction at frightening speed. Yesterday the government of Indonesia once again explained the issue during the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – a gathering of 182 nations currently underway in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Perhaps the single most iconic bird species in what remains of the great dipterocarp forests of the Greater Sundas (Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo) has suddenly been discovered to be plunging at frightening speed towards extinction. In November 2015, BirdLife placed the Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil on the IUCN Red List in the highest category of threat: Critically Endangered. The reason: a sudden explosion of demand for the “ivory” that its casque (the “horn” on the top of its bill) uniquely possesses.

At 1.5 metres long the Helmeted Hornbill is the largest of its kind in Asia; but this is the least of its remarkable features. It has a surprisingly short, spiky bill, a thick, carunculated bare neck which is deep red in the male and whitish in the female, as well as much the longest tail of any hornbill, with wonderful black and white central feathers greatly prized by the indigenous peoples of the forest.

It also has a very striking sheer-fronted casque rising over the front of its head. Other hornbill casques are ornamental and hollow, but the casque of the Helmeted Hornbill has evolved into a weapon of sorts. “Very striking” is an apt term, because the casque is used in rarely seen aerial jousts in which two birds fly from a treetop in opposite directions, circle round and swoop at each other, cracking their casques together in mid-air in a spectacular contest for supremacy. Casque-butting has been thought to be an elaborate ritual for deciding who gets to stay in a tree to eat its fruit, but it may be more to do with wider territoriality and is perhaps closely related to pair bond reinforcement.

Whatever the explanation, these contests have evidently driven the evolution of the solid front to the casque of the Helmeted Hornbill; old males develop particularly awesome structures. For millennia, indigenous people in the Sundaic rainforests have used the casques of hunted birds to carve various kinds of ornament; when these were traded with Chinese merchants over a thousand years ago, the interest in China in hornbill “ivory” was ignited.

Chinese craftsmen, working within an oral tradition that has left no trace of their techniques, made use of hornbill ivory to carve the most exquisite pieces, engraving them with traditional scenes and themes. Items from buckles to snuff boxes were made from the material; as a demonstration of their sheer genius, some of the carvers left the casque on the head of the bird, producing the most breathtakingly elaborate miniature scenes. The nineteenth century western craze for chinoiserie resulted in hornbill ivory products also being exported to Europe and America.

But the trade dwindled in the early twentieth century, while the Second World War seemed to kill it off completely. There was no evidence of any external trade during the second half of the century although, perhaps as a precaution, the Helmeted Hornbill was placed on Appendix I of CITES from the first implementation of the convention in 1975. BirdLife treated it as threatened in 1988, owing to fears over habitat loss, but further evaluation indicated that Near Threatened was a more suitable listing; it remained in this category from 1994 until the end of 2015.

But two years ago Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, an independent hornbill research expert based in Indonesia, began to uncover evidence that the species was the target of a new clandestine trade for its “ivory”. His further research, using Asian trading websites, now reveals that the demand for hornbill artefacts, far more crudely carved than in centuries past, suddenly took off in 2011, feeding a new interest among the Chinese nouveau riche. His work in West Kalimantan, checking on reports of confiscations and talking to villagers, foresters and officials, suggested that in 2012–2013 as many as 500 Helmeted Hornbills were being hunted in the province every month, a rate of 6,000 birds a year. The heads were then being smuggled to major ports in Sumatra and Java and thence to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Separate studies by the Environmental Investigation Agency and by TRAFFIC South-East Asia have now confirmed the scale of the slaughter in Indonesia. The arrest this year of smugglers in Sumatra, in part to the credit of Indonesian staff of the Wildlife Conservation Society, has also indicated how wide and how fast the network of criminal gangs has spread in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo, with local hunters being recruited to go into the forest and shoot down every large hornbill in the hope that it would prove to be Helmeted. All the evidence suggests that this trade is simply an extension of the illegal trafficking of other wildlife products, as well as in drugs and other illicit goods, being conducted with ruthless efficiency across Indonesia’s two great islands.

BirdLife has moved as fast as possible to lend its support to the international conservation response that is clearly urgently needed to address this crisis. First, it conducted an emergency evaluation of the Helmeted Hornbill’s threat status. The new evidence concerning the pervasiveness of poaching in Indonesia, including reports from seasoned bird tour leaders that the species has suddenly become much harder to find, were obviously decisive; but the facts that the birds have such a low reproductive rate, with the female sealing herself into the nest cavity for around five months, and that killing the male who feeds her in the nest will certainly cause the chick’s death and possibly also the female’s, clearly also mean that populations will be unable to recover for many years. Moreover, the large emergent trees which bear the cavities in which the species habitually nests are commonly the target for logging operations. If being listed now as Critically Endangered has one consolation, it is that the species becomes eligible for support from a number of charitable sources.

The second step BirdLife took, through its regional division and national Partners, was to join forces with a group of conservationists in South-East Asia who are developing a plan of campaign to bring the crisis to world attention and to promote all possible measures to resolve it.

The group will be seeking to achieve a range of objectives: to promote awareness among consumers of both the illegality and the impact of the trade; to arouse expressions of concern by range states; to raise support from high profile sympathisers; to increase vigilance and activity by enforcement agencies at all levels; to involve NGO-backed protection units operating for other charismatic animals targeted by poachers; to create hornbill guardians among local citizenry; and to develop nest adoption schemes and community incentives for conservation.

To date, the gangs appear not to have moved into Malaysia or southern Thailand, but it is surely only a matter of time. Heading them off, while spiking their guns in Indonesia, is going to be a major undertaking in 2016; one for which the newly formed Helmeted Hornbill Working Group will need all the help it can enlist.