The helmeted hornbill

The bird that’s more valuable than ivory


The illegal trade in elephant tusks is well reported, but there’s a type of “ivory” that’s even more valuable. It comes from the helmeted hornbill – a bird that lives in the rainforests of East Asia and is now under threat, writes Mary Colwell.

It wouldn’t be wise to go head to head with a helmeted hornbill. They weigh 3kg and have their own built-in battering ram – a solid lump of keratin (a fibrous protein) extends along the top of the bill and on to the skull. This “casque” can account for as much as 11% of a bird’s weight.

In all other species of hornbill – there are more than 60 in Africa and Asia – the casque is hollow, but the helmeted hornbill’s is solid. The males use it in head-to-head combat and both sexes use it as a weighted tool to dig out insects from rotting trees. Read more.