Captured by TRAFFIC consultant Emerson Sy, these images depict captive Philippine hornbills intended for trade and a headpiece adorned with elements from the at-risk bird species.

A recent study by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC revealed that illegal trade and poaching of Philippine hornbills are escalating threats to its population, with over 100 found for sale online and several individuals apprehended in law enforcement actions.

The organization noted that the dangers are exacerbated by the identification of 143 live hornbills from nine distinct groups being offered for sale on the internet between 2018 and 2022, as documented in the report titled “Farmers of the Forest in Cages: The Online Trade of Hornbills in the Philippines.”

The Tarictic hornbill from Luzon was the most frequently documented species in the study, making up 73% of the total individuals, yet an additional five Visayas Tarictic hornbills (Penelopides panini), categorized as “endangered species,” were identified as being offered for sale.

As reported, the Philippines boasts a diverse range of hornbill species; however, numerous of these species inhabit limited areas and are endangered due to habitat degradation, hunting for food and cultural items, as well as the trade in live birds.

The report noted that the majority of traders, around two-thirds, operated in central Luzon and likely obtained wild hornbills from local or neighboring provinces. Additionally, seizure records indicated that 66 hornbills were confiscated in 24 separate incidents during the same timeframe.

Emerson Sy, co-author of the report and TRAFFIC consultant, expressed deep concern from a conservation standpoint, highlighting that over half of the endemic hornbills in trade were young birds at the stage of development when they are close to leaving the nest and becoming independent.

“From a conservation perspective, this situation is very worrying. More than half the endemic hornbills observed in trade were nestlings about to fledge, which means these birds are being targeted for illegal trade when they are most vulnerable,” Sy said.   

Serene Chng, a senior program officer at TRAFFIC and co-author of the report, emphasized that internet trading of the birds poses a significant threat to the population of Philippine hornbills because these birds have a low breeding rate.

The challenges of increasing their population are compounded by issues such as deforestation and the poaching of their nests.

“Illegal trade, both online and offline, will only make things worse for these endemic hornbills which have low reproduction rates and breeding success,” said Chng.  

Sy said that during the study period from 2018 to 2022, they noted only a single Palawan hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei) available for sale, yet law enforcement operations resulted in the seizure of two individuals within the same timeframe.

“Generally, Palawan hill yyna and blue-naped parrot ang in high demand but occasionally may dumarating rin na Palawan hornbill sa Manila,” he said.

Palawan hornbill stands out with its black plumage and white tail, characterized by a prominent, pale casque atop its bill that serves as its distinctive trait, utilized for diverse behavioral displays and vocalizations.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) holds the Palawan hornbill’s classification as “vulnerable” and its population trend on mature individuals is continuously declining. The number of individuals in largest subpopulation is 20,000-49,999.

TRAFFIC said online trade data about the Philippine hornbills was provided to Facebook, resulting in the swift removal of over 1,800 Philippine wildlife trade groups from 2020 to 2022; nevertheless, the formation of new ones stressed the necessity for ongoing and immediate crackdowns that extend beyond post removal for lasting effectiveness.

It was also discovered that traders are employing creative tactics, like intentionally misspelled words, codes, and emojis, to evade detection by the platform’s algorithm. The authors called on Facebook to permanently close illegal wildlife trade groups, take action against administrators through account suspension or deactivation, and collaborate with enforcement agencies to disrupt the illicit trade network.

As most of the hornbills observed in the study are believed to be wild-sourced and all are protected under national law and CITES¹, a majority of observed trade is suspected to be illegal.  

Appropriate resources should be allocated to the wildlife authorities to conduct in-depth investigations to identify and arrest key wildlife traffickers, suppliers and consumers, the authors said. 

Other recommendations included paying urgent attention to the protection of hornbills onsite to prevent poaching and trafficking, and collaboration between conservation groups and wildlife authorities to develop and implement pragmatic hornbill conservation programs, such as nest guarding, in the wild.

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has been with Palawan News since January 2019. She is its managing editor, overseeing and coordinating day-to-day editorial activities. Her writing interests are politics and governance, health, defense, investigative journalism, civic journalism, and the environment.