From the Editor: This article depicts the nature and impact of wildlife trade on wild species. Names and places used are fictitious.
It all began in 2011, in Taipei. Mr. Hsien was in a meeting with his suppliers. On the table was a most exquisite carved piece of ivory, glowing orange-red in the light. “I don’t deal with hornbill ivory” Mr. Hsien said, leaning back. “My entire business over the past 30 years has been elephant ivory”, he added. Over the course of the next two hours, this group of ivory traders made a monumental decision. Mr. Hsien would invest USD1 million to set up a network to supply his craftsmen with hornbill ivory. If successful, this new venture could rake in millions.
Mr. Hsien sat at the top of an industry that sourced for ivory in Africa and Southeast Asia, controlling a transportation network of collectors, packagers, truckers, and shippers. They could accumulate large amounts of ivory from different places, shipping them to his warehouses in Taipei, Shanghai and Hongkong. From these warehouses, ivory could be sold to anyone who needed this precious material for craftworks. Mr. Hsien was the primary distributor in the world, and his conglomerate was estimated to be worth USD900 million. He was a rich man.
Mr. Hsien was also a rich man with a problem. Supply of ivory was getting more and more difficult. Prices were going up, and many of his clients were moving away. At the Taipei meeting, a new product was proposed to him. His decision to introduce an extremely high quality new product into the market began a path to perdition for an innocent bird half a world away.
Hornbill ivory is in fact not a new product at all. It has been used ever since the first Chinese traders appeared on the shores of Borneo a thousand years ago. Today, Hornbill ivory is the most expensive ivory available. Hornbill ivory is basically the same material as elephant tusks, except that it is softer, and it has colour. Instead of the normal milky white, hornbill ivory has hues of deep yellow and red. Carved, this ivory looks absolutely beautiful. And there is no other animal that has this deep richly coloured ivory. Fetching up to USD6,000 a kilogram, it is worth three times that of elephant ivory.
Within three months of the Taipei meeting, a man from Hongkong flies into Jakarta. He is met by his Indonesian business counterpart. They spend the next five days in discussions in a 5-star hotel, an come up with a plan of action. Just 2 weeks later, three men board flights from Jakarta, to Pontianak, Balikpapan and Banjarmasin. Each of these men set up base in these three towns, staying there for three months.
Over the next year, middlemen are recruited to put the word out amongst the villages throughout Kalimantan that there is someone willing to pay USD10 for one head of the Helmeted Hornbill. These middlemen then hire a network of people who go out into the villages. They use buses, cars, motorcycles and boats. They head up the great rivers of Borneo, the Barito, Mahakam, Kapuas. In the interior of this vast island, they spend time talking to villagers. “I will pay USD10 per hornbill head, no questions asked.” “I will come here every three months to collect”. “This is my phone number. You can call me if you have a good stock ready for collection, say at least 50 heads.”
Across the villages, people quickly learn that there’s someone buying helmeted hornbill heads. Get 10 heads, and that’s USD100. Good money! Additional income for them. While out hunting for wild pig and deer, come across a helmeted hornbill, and hey! That’s a bonus worth going after.
By 2013, an estimated 2,000 heads arrived in Mr. Hsien’s warehouse in Shanghai. In 2015, 6,000 heads were reliably tracked to three warehouses in China, all owned by Mr. Hsien’s group of companies. To put this number in perspective, each hornbill head has only about 300gms of ivory. Ten birds would give you 3kgs of ivory. 6,000 birds would produce 1,800kg. At a market price of USD6,000 per kg, this is worth about USD10.8 million.
For a more sobering perspective, add 150% to the USD10 per head for middlemen salaries, shipping costs, bribes and other costs associated with getting these heads from Borneo to China, and that’s a cost price of USD150 per head, or USD900,000 per year to obtain 1,800kg of hornbill ivory ready for sale and distribution across China. Pretty good business, wouldn’t you say?
The most sobering fact of this story is the Helmeted Hornbill itself. Of the ten hornbills on Borneo, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, only the Helmeted Hornbill has ivory! All the rest have hollow bills. Although basically black and white birds, several hornbills have deep yellows and reds on their bills and white parts of their feathers. This colour comes from the uropygial gland, also known as the preen gland. This gland is found on the lower back of the bird, and secretes a yellow or reddish oil. Just like we use oils and creams to keep our hair healthy and neat, birds use this oil in the same way.
Over time, this oil absorbs into the ivory, and stains it these beautiful yellows and reds. This is why hornbill ivory has these beautiful colours. This is why hornbill ivory is so expensive. This is also why one of Asia’s most beautiful hornbills has become critically endangered.
Mr. Hsien’s network is now expanding to Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and the northern States of Borneo. In 2015, the Helmeted Hornbill was listed as critically endangered globally. This means that if unchecked, current practices will result in extinction of this magnificent hornbill in the very near future.