On the Hunt to Save Red Ivory

     After about four hours of continuous hiking, slipping, falling and smashing through some of the thickest, steamiest and loudest rainforest I have ever been to, I finally got a glimpse of what brought me all the way to Borneo.

     It was late morning. The sky was white with overcast, and if you stopped for a minute, your glasses steamed up from the humidity. The research team I was with took a quick break in a large clearing. I sat down with my camera and stared at an enormous millipede somewhere around the length of my size 10 boot crawling up a log. Suddenly, one of the researchers started whispering at me in Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesia’s official language) and waving me to their spot. I didn't speak his language, but I got what excited waving meant, so I quietly creeped over to him, careful not to butt scoot down the side of a mountain. I plopped down and we both stared into a tree. 

     After a few minutes, a large dark bird shot out of the tree in a few wing beats and back twisted away as quickly as it emerged. It was airborne enough for me to see its bright yellow beak, its handsome red helmet and award-winning quintuple chin. I only had three seconds with the bird, but this was a wildlife encounter like I've never had before. Moments later, a call busted out into the forest. took...... took..... took.. took. tooktooktookwhakakakakaka. Then, silence.

     The helmeted hornbill is a large bird (its wingspan is 6 feet long) endemic to Southeast Asia. In addition to a mystifying call and beautiful black feathers, this hornbill is incredibly important to the ecosystem as it helps spread the seeds of dozens of tree species. It has an impressive protuberance known as a casque that sits on top of the head and is highly valued by wildlife traffickers. So valued, in fact, that the bird is being hunted to extinction: The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed helmeted hornbills as critically endangered. The casque material resembles ivory and is carved into intricate designs to be sold in Laos, China and other markets.

     While long considered a traditional practice for the people who live in these forests, casque carving has seen a recent explosion in trafficking over the past half-decade or so.

     Many wildlife conservation groups are alarmed by the speed in which this animal's wild population has declined. And that’s where my story begins. I’m a fellow in the Emerging Wildlife and Conservation Leaders (EWCL), which in 2017 partnered with a local organization called Yayasan Planet Indonesia to address the many urgent issues facing the helmeted hornbill. As a regular part of the EWCL training, fellows form groups and associate themselves with a particular conservation program, and I, along with five other EWCLers, as we call ourselves, chose to work on the helmeted hornbill. For the first part of our plan, we solicited grants for a special training of local forest rangers within the helmeted hornbill’s home range. (We'll get to that a little bit later.) Building upon this training, the next phase of our project is to create a film showcasing the work of our conservation partner and how they save hornbills. This film will be an important recruiting tool for Planet Indonesia to increase their capacity for this special training and was supported by the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. 

     I was first introduced to Gunung Niut, a forest reserve nestled in the mountains of West Kalimantan province, by Planet Indonesia's bird research team — a group of dedicated and hardcore individuals who perform transects, in the forest to listen for the auditory evidence of the presence of certain bird species. We chose this area because it may have one of the last robust populations of helmeted hornbills in the world (to protect the species, I’ll refrain from describing any specific locations within the area where hornbills may be found).

     My first experience in this forest was to carry a live chicken up the mountain for dinner. When I arrived at the campsite, after about a three-hour hike up a mountain, I was welcomed with open arms and even treated to some fried frog that the rangers had prepared a few hours before. What they say is true, it really does taste like chicken. I even ate chicken (my old hiking companion) right after and couldn't tell the difference. The night consisted of cards, laughing and a smoky fire, but everyone settled in quickly because an early morning awaited.

Click the image to the right so scroll. 

     At 4 a.m. the next day, we were off into the forest to listen for birds and record the sounds of the forest. I picked the "adventurous" path, as the researchers called it, to get the best footage of everyone hiking on ledges and ridges as well as climbing around some big trees. This route was real steep and wet, which did a number on my butt and my camera gear.

     As soon as I was starting to feel frustrated with the conditions, one of the rangers waved me over to his position to quietly stare into a tree with him. I had no idea why, but I went with it, and looked into the tree. That is when I had my moment with the helmeted hornbill.

     It was like being in the presence of childhood hero.

     Following the encounter, I spent days hiking up and down mountains, frequenting trees where researchers said they saw a hornbill hanging out by before. Through my remaining time in the forest, I only heard that call two more times, and never saw another helmeted hornbill. 

     After my quick expedition with the research team, I traveled back to Pontianak, West Kalimantan’s capital, to attend a critical training session that will change the way enforcement is done in Gunung Niut — and eventually (fingers crossed) the entire country. It was SMART training time. SMART is the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool used by rangers all over the world to track and assess poaching activity to prevent the loss of wildlife. This training was supported by the Education for Nature grant by the World Wildlife Fund and was written by our EWCL team. While I did quite a bit of filming during the training, I did step out to visit a bird shop in the city to see what I could find. These shops act as fronts for wildlife trafficking, and often, people can wander into them and walk out with native birds that are illegal to own. In Kalimantan, Borneo alone, more than 25,000 birds from nearly 150 different species were found for sale from 2015-2017 in shops just like the one I visited. While snooping through the store, I found a few native birds (a fairy blue bird pictured here, and the long tail shrike) as well as more popularly traded birds such as the cockatiel and the lovebird. Though not as destructive as the red ivory trade, the trading of live hornbills for the pet trade does occur, and leads to their decline.

     When the training came to an end, it was time for me, yet again, to hike into the rainforest to film. This time, I was with the first SMART patrol unit in Gunung Niut, and our mission was to walk part of the reserve and record our findings. This was a new section of the reserve for me and required a lot of hiking to get to the first camp. It was also much thicker and harder to hike than the previous area we visited but had some incredible waterfalls and amazing views. 

     Walking through the narrow rainforest trails with the rangers, I witnessed an alarming amount of wildlife traps. It was an eerie sight. About every 20 minutes or so, the whole ranger party would have to stop and assess a new source of evidence for illegal activity in the forest. As we kept coming across traps, it became more and more evident why the forest was so still and void of large animals. Just a few decades ago, groups of orangutans lived in this forest. Now, they are considered absent, hunted for their meat. Once the trap was assessed, documented and logged into the GPS, the rangers would tear apart the stick pole wall or machete down the bent-over tree with glue to catch bird's feet. During one of the nights, shotgun blasts silenced the chirping insects as a poacher took yet another animal from the forest. All the evidence of poaching I witnessed made me realize just how much harder we need to work to protect this forest and the wildlife that call it home.

     Everyone I met during my time in Borneo all shared one common feature: They were extremely energetic and had a positive outlook on the work ahead. Planet Indonesia is currently looking for more people to join their movement to protect forests like Gunung Niut, and the film that our EWCL team will create hopefully will play a critical role in engaging the community to join the cause. As for filming a hornbill, I feel like I have a hole in my being that I need to fulfill before it is too late. I plan to go back to Borneo soon and meet up with Planet Indonesia to get my fix of the helmeted hornbill — alive and free.

Written by Justin Grubb - @journeying_justin - justin.runningwild@gmail.com

Special Thanks:

Funding Partners - Education for Nature World Wildlife Fund - Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund

Partners - Emerging Wildlife and Conservation Leaders - Yayasan Planet Indonesia 



Justin Grubb