This project was made possible with support from the Robert F. Schumann Foundation, a charitable trust dedicated to improving the quality of life of both humans and animals by supporting environmental, educational, arts, and cultural organizations and agencies.
The photography and videography were produced in collaboration with National Geographic Magazineand are part of a multimedia effort to raise international awareness about the plight of the Helmeted Hornbill.
Alive or dead? Living free, or a decoration in someone’s home? What is to be the fate of the Helmeted Hornbill?
I was forced to confront this question in the past year, as I mounted expeditions to document this unique bird in the wild—before it disappears.
I’ve been fascinated by hornbills since the first year I spent living in the rainforests of Borneo, now 30 years ago. I’ve photographed many hornbill species in many forests of Southeast Asia over the last few decades, but the Helmeted Hornbill remained the most elusive. They live in the most remote tracts of old-growth forests, so they’ve always been hard to find. And I never had great success trying to photograph them.
Then in 2015 the International Union for Conservation of Nature made an emergency declaration, elevating the Helmeted Hornbill’s status to “critically endangered”—the last category before “extinct.” The poaching of hornbills for their elaborate, ivory-like rostrum (called a casque) had escalated to a rate that could mean extinction within a decade.
Hornbills are a favorite photographic subject for Laman, but few are as difficult to locate as the Helmeted. This Great Hornbill in Thailand’s Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary was relatively easy by comparison.
Rhinoceros Hornbills are also easier to find and occur in less remote areas of rainforest than the Helmeted Hornbill.
It was now or never to document the Helmeted Hornbill in the wild. So in 2017 and 2018, I made a series of expeditions to tell the story of this majestic, ornamented bird before it was too late. My journeys took me deep into some of the most pristine remaining forests in southeast Asia. I built blinds near fig trees and waited for hornbills to come and feed—which yielded excellent luck with Rhinoceros Hornbills and Great Hornbills, two related speces that are not valuable for the black market in ornamental carving, because their casques are hollow.
But the Helmeted Hornbill has a solid keratin casque, like a softer version of elephant ivory. That solid casque is targeted by poachers, and it has been the reason for the species’s demise. If Helmeted Hornbills had ever foraged among these fig trees, they were gone now. Or perhaps they were hiding. Helmeted Hornbills are notoriously reclusive, keenly alert to humans in their forest. Their scientific name attests to their cunning: Buceros vigil—the vigilant hornbill.
Old Growth Denizen
In all the world, Helmeted Hornbills are only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, and up the Malay peninsula into southern Thailand. Within this range, they are limited to intact, old-growth rainforest where the trees grow large enough to accommodate hornbill nests. Because of deforestation in this region, Helmeted Hornbill habitat shrank significantly in recent decades.
I journeyed to Thailand’s Budo-Sungai Padi National Park, one of the hornbill’s few remaining strongholds, to team up with researcher Pilai Poonswad of the Thailand Hornbill Project. She and her team have been studying Helmeted Hornbills in Budo-Sungai Padi for over two decades. With their guidance, I located a tree along a flight path for a male Helmeted Hornbill flying to and from his nest. From my blind 100 feet up, secreted away in the treetops, I was able to wait out the coming of dawn for the moment when the male flew past, capturing an image of a mature male Helmeted Hornbill winging out over the canopy.
A male Helmeted Hornbill arrives to inspect a potential nest hole.
In March of 2018, I got an exciting tip from an Indonesian conservation group working in West Kalimantan province. Indonesian scientists were surveying bird populations in remote forests on the island of Borneo, and they had discovered a pair of Helmeted Hornbills making regular visits to a potential nest cavity in a huge dipterocarp tree. I was already in Indonesia on another photo assignment, so getting to the site involved only a short plane flight, a six-hour drive, an hour on a motorbike in the dark, and then a three-hour hike into the mountains after sleeping on a floor in a village.
On the very afternoon I arrived, I was rewarded by seeing first the male, and then the female, fly to the nest tree and land by the cavity. The female spent 15 minutes putting her head into the opening, and knocking at it with her bill, perhaps to enlarge it slightly or make other home improvements. After I left, the hornbill pair commenced nesting.
A female Helmeted Hornbill pledges her life when entering the nest. After mating, she enters the nest cavity and lays her egg (usually just one). She then seals up the entrance to the nest, using a plaster she makes from regurgitated fruit pulp and feces. The only opening left into the nest is just big enough for the male to pass her food. Then, for the next five months—the entire incubation and nestling period until fledging—the female remains inside, sequestered from the world and entirely dependent on the male for food.