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Helmeted Hornbill

These photos were taken for PLANET INDONESIA - an organization serving rural communities and critically endangered animals in Borneo through a rights-based approach to nature conservation.  

Saving the helmeted hornbill  

     The largest of the Asian hornbill species, the helmeted hornbill is an incredibly unique bird with a lot of bizarre attributes. First off, this animal gets its name from the large solid “helmet” or casque on its head used by the males for aerial jousting for territory and mating rights. This is the only bird species in the world that has a solid protrusion on its head as all other species have hollow casques. In addition, the hornbill has very long tail feathers which can measure several feet in length. The call of the helmeted hornbill is extremely distinct and sounds like a maniacal cackle echoing throughout the rainforest. What’s likely the most bizarre attribute of this animal is its nesting behavior. For a period of several months during the rainy season, the female helmeted hornbill will lock herself in a tree cavity high off the ground. This cavity will be sealed with mud and droppings to close her in where she will then lay an egg. She will incubate the egg until it hatches, then she will sit inside with the chick where the adult female will undergo an entire molt of her feathers. During this time, both hornbills are dependent upon the male helmeted hornbill, who is responsible for flying around the rainforest to collect food such as ficus nuts, insects, and even reptiles for his family. The male will return several times throughout the day with food stored in his crop - the wrinkly red pouch on his neck. The male will carefully slide food through the cavity hole until the female is fully molted and ready to emerge, giving space the the growing chick. 


     This animal is critically endangered because of habitat loss due to palm oil development and poaching for its unique casque. Known as rose ivory, poachers will kill the bird for the chance to sell that casque on the black market where it will fetch a price three times higher than elephant ivory per kilogram. These casques are often carved into intricate statues and sold as curios or jewelry to buyers.

Helmeted hornbill audioPlanet Indonesia
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     Across much of its range, the helmeted hornbill has similar conservation challenges, but in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, an organization called Planet Indonesia has a unique approach to protecting this species. Planet Indonesia forms partnerships with local communities to help support their conservation efforts in at-risk ecosystems to protect biodiversity. These partnerships, also called Conservation Cooperatives, help give support to the communities Planet Indonesia partners with in unique ways. Support in the shape of business loans, additional business training opportunities, education opportunities, health programs, and agricultural programs are all ways that Planet Indonesia helps the communities build economic resilience and stability. 


     Further, to help protect the helmeted hornbill, Planet Indonesia employs a small team of local researchers made up of staff, partnering community members, and government officials to monitor the birds during nesting season. Every day, researchers sit and watch the nest cavity and collect data on the male’s interaction with his family, the food he is carrying, the frequency in which he visits the nest, climatic conditions of the forest and more. This data is important in helping organizations like Planet Indonesia understand what is needed to help protect the helmeted hornbill. Additionally, Planet Indonesia facilitates SMART patrols made up of staff members, community members and government officials who are tasked with safeguarding protected areas from encroachment, poaching, and illegal activities in the forest. SMART stands for Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tools - which means the patrols are armed with technology that allow them to better track illegal activity and enforce local governmental regulations. Their presence deters exploitation, thus protecting the species from extinction. During nesting season - when the hornbills are most vulnerable, there will be a SMART patrol camped nearby, making sure the bird is protected.

My journey

     My journey to film the helmeted hornbill began nearly three years ago when I went on Planet Indonesia’s first SMART patrol. Then, when we entered the forest, it was silent. The lack of wildlife vocalizations coupled with the amount of traps meant to catch wildlife that we dismantled was disheartening. What’s more, there was little to no record of a helmeted hornbill nesting in the forest for the last several years. I had entered the forest hopeful of seeing a hornbill, but the chances were slim. After a week of searching, I only came up with hearing the call once, and seeing the tail end of the bird fly away.


     After I had left the forest and had traveled back home to the United States, a member of the monitoring team discovered a nesting helmeted hornbill within the area Planet Indonesia was working to support community-led conservation efforts. The community helped protect the bird, and I was invited to return six months later to try and photograph the animal. Since so little is known about the natural history of the species, upon arrival to indonesia, I was informed that the baby had left the nest cavity and the pair were gone. Although disappointing, this news was incredible because there was a hornbill pair nesting in an area that hadn't had a pair in recent memory. 


     Two years later, I would finally get my next attempt at filming the helmeted hornbill in the wild as the monitoring team found two active nests within the project site. I packed my bags and traveled to the forest again where I was able to observe both nests. I remember the first time I saw the helmeted hornbill in the wild, first hearing its loud wingbeats and then seeing the nearly six foot bird plop down onto a branch at the entrance of its nest cavity with a gulet full of ficus seeds. For a week, I spent every day with the monitoring and SMART patrol teams, watching the bird, collecting footage and recording critical data.

Photogapher: Justin Grubb | Planet Indonesia

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