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Artificial Beaks Helping to Save Hornbills from Extinction in India

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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For centuries the tribal Nyishi people in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh have worn the magnificent beaks of hornbill birds as a part of their traditional headgear, called pudum, which are considered a sign of manhood and tribal identity. Hornbills are the state birds of Arunachal Pradesh, but overhunting for pudum threatened all five resident species with regional extinction at the end of the 20th century. According to a recent article from Firstpost, forestry officials had almost given up hope on saving the birds, which were growing increasingly rare in the state.

But in 2000 Deputy Chief Wildlife Warden Chukhu Loma came up with an idea: fabricate synthetic hornbill beaks and offer them to the Nyishi for use instead of real beaks. He enlisted the aid of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and other organizations to manufacture and distribute the fiberglass beaks, which cost about 15 Rupees (30 cents) each.

At first the idea was not openly welcomed. The Telegraph reported in 2007 that Loma, a member of the Nyishi tribe, “drew the wrath of the tribal community” when he first proposed the artificial hornbill beaks.

But tribal elders quickly began to warm up to the fabricated beaks, and some tribal members even got involved with making them. In addition to wider distribution efforts by the WTI, Loma hands out the fiberglass beaks from his home, where tribal members can exchange real beaks for the synthetic ones after promising to spread awareness about the need to preserve the hornbills in the wild.

Can you tell which headdress contains a real hornbill beak and which one uses a fabricated version?

Soon after the synthetic beak distribution began, hornbill populations started to rebound. In 2000, just 500 of the birds were left in Arunachal Pradesh. By 2007, their numbers had grown to around 2,000.

Today the birds are still threatened by hunting and deforestation, but other efforts are also underway to help preserve them. In 2006, the Nature Conservation Foundation started a hornbill nest adoption program which enlists and pays Nyishi villagers to collect ecological data on hornbill nesting and monitor their populations. The effort has been credited with an increase in tourism to the Pakke Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary, the only government-protected hornbill habitat in India.

Five hornbill species live in Arunachal Pradesh: the great hornbill (Buceros bicornis), Rufous-necked hornbill (Aceros nipalensis), Austen’s brown hornbill (Anorrhinus austeni), wreathed hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus) and Oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris). The great, Rufous and Austen’s brown species are all listed as globally “Near Threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

Photo 1: Great hornbill by Lip Kee Yap via Flickr. Photo 2: Nyishi tribesman wearing hornbill feathers and bill. By Prashanth, N. S. via Flickr. Both used under Creative Commons license. Photo 3: Nyishi tribesman wearing an artificial hornbill beak, by Sashanka Barbaruah/Wildlife Trust of India

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jctgonzalez 12:49 am 05/30/2013

    I am glad that this conservation project continues to effectively help safeguard the hornbills of Arunachal Pradesh, and that the elders of Nyishi tribe have accepted the use of synthetic beaks. I remember this project was presented at the 4th International Hornbill Conference held at South Africa in November 2005. It was well received thus prompting a standing ovation. My sincere congratulations to Deputy Chief Wildlife Warden Chukhu Loma, Wildlife Trust of India and their collaborators for a job well done. I would also like to point out an error in the hornbill species enumerated for Arunachal Pradesh in the article. The Rufous Hornbill (Buceros hydrocorax) is a species endemic to the Philippines, and does not occur in India. However, the Rufous-necked Hornbill (Aceros nipalensis) is a species recorded from Arunachal Pradesh. Hopefully, this idea of using synthetic bills can also be implemented in the Philippines, where Rufous Hornbill heads have been used for decorating tribal headgear.

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  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 7:53 am 05/30/2013

    Thanks for your comment and correction, JCT. I have fixed the species list.

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