Kalimantan’s icon on
the brink of extinction
In the two weeks around the end of August, there were two attempts to smuggle hundreds of body parts of hornbills out of the country. The bird is West Kalimantan’s mascot and included in Appendix 1 (most endangered) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
As many as 285 bills from enggang gading or helmeted hornbills were confiscated in the smuggling attempts, which were foiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Center (BKSDA) of West Kalimantan. The center described the number as unusually large, and has doubtless caused a reduction in the male hornbill population.
The birds’ casques, bound for China, are processed into objects of “art” like sword handles and other items. Middlemen buy them for between Rp 1 million (US$105) and Rp 3 million a piece, while on the international market the price will multiply.
Helmeted hornbills (Buceros/Rhinoplax Vigil), often called rangkong in Indonesian, are one of the eight hornbill species in Kalimantan. This species can also be found in Sumatra. It is a large bird, up to 120 cm long including its tail, with an average body weight over 3 kilograms. Mostly black, it has a white belly and a white tail with a black stripe at its extremity. Helmeted hornbills are adorned with fairly long pairs of mid-tail feathers, making them look very attractive in flight. They feed on the fruit of banyan and palm trees, besides insects, mice, lizards and small birds.
They live in pairs rather than flocks, and the female only lays one to two eggs, usually with only one hatching, which leads to very slow reproduction. They build nests in naturally formed tree holes that are hard to reach. While incubating, the female hornbills is completely incarcerated in the nest hole which is sealed with mud by the male, leaving only a small crack to supply food. Distinctively, if the female dies, male helmeted hornbills rarely seek new mates, which again contributes to slow population growth.
An adult male helmeted hornbill has a horny, maroon casque (or crown) weighing about 1 kilogram, made of solid keratin. This is his curse. The material is known as hornbill ivory or “golden jade”, and it is why people want to kill them.
Rangkong’s impressive and distinctive physical features have put it in a both a dangerous and prestigious position. He has inspired countries, regions and institutions.
The helmeted hornbill serves as the coat of arms of the Malaysian State of Sarawak. Enggang gading is the seal of Central Kalimantan province, and is the mascot of West Kalimantan. Lambung Mangkurat University in South Kalimantan and Palangkaraya University in Central Kalimantan use rangkong as their symbol. In Southern India, the Naga Tribe has a special festival to honor hornbills.
In daily life helmeted hornbills are admired by the Dayak in Kalimantan, for the lessons the community can learn from the behavior of the species. Using many different reverencial names for the birds, the Dayak have many myths and legends in which hornbills are envoys of the gods with the task of conveying divine messages.
In their beliefs, the birds give living examples of fidelity to a spouse and responsibility for family life. The Dayak teach their children not to hurt or kill the sacred birds. Such deeds are taboo.
The position of enggang gading is illustrated in Dayak carving and art, particularly that of Dayak Iban, Ngaju and Kayaan Kenyah sub-groups. Kaharingan (Dayak religion) which places the birds atop the pyramid of being, in the realm of gods, with other creatures and men below them, and mythical animals like dragons at the base.
The birds have also inspired various craft products, songs, icons and patterns of clothing, especially as reflected in the images of Kalimantan batik.
Leonardus Dungo, 42, an artist in Pontianak, said the use of body parts from the helmeted hornbills like tail feathers, wings and beaks by certain individuals was indicative of their social position and status. Today their use for this purpose is rare except in customary rituals.
Some Dayak use the feathers and beaks of hornbills that have died naturally, usually after the birds have fought with each other. In recent years the community has avoided using genuine hornbill body parts as clothing accessories due to the increasing awareness of the birds’ shrinking numbers.
Dungo deplores the hunting of helmeted hornbills for their beaks or casques that threatens the birds with extinction. He called on the provincial BKSDA to take proactive action by intensifying its operation against hornbill hunting.
Napa J. Awat, 74, former rector of Palangkaraya University, says smuggling of hornbill casques reflects the situation in Kalimantan with its diverse issues. “Development today is inconsistent with the aim of regional autonomy. The people go hunting not as a hobby, but for survival.”
It is now very hard to find the birds in nature. Their remaining habitat in West Kalimantan, such as in Betung Kerihun National Park, Bukit Raya — Bukit Baka National Park, Gunung Palung National Park and Mount Niut Nature Reserve, has been reduced by forest destruction and the ceaseless expansion of monoculture estates, mainly for palm oil.
It is very important to start a movement for the protection of this near extinct bird. Social organizations like the Dayak Custom Communal Council (DAD) must be engaged in the campaign.
Boby Arya Anggen Umar, 37, a youth activist in Palangkaraya, said “DAD must work with the local government. They need funds for their campaigns and they need to end the killing of these birds. The government is either for us, or against us.”
According to Boby, DAD it is a matter of NGOs, activists and academics, working together to arouse public sentiment and make people understand the significance of protecting helmeted hornbills. The bird is a cultural and social icon, an inspirational source of Dayak culture.
Apart from hunting, population decline is caused by environmental degradation and habitat damage. Forest Watch Indonesia in its 2011 report said the forest destruction in Kalimantan during 2000–2009 was over 36 percent, higher than any other island in Indonesia.