Poached for Its Horn, This Rare Bird Struggles to Survive

The mysterious helmeted hornbill fades from Southeast Asia’s forests as poachers and traffickers target it for the illegal wildlife trade.

In a forest in southern Thailand, a male helmeted hornbill approaches a tree where his mate and chick have been sequestered for months, relying on him to bring food.

I have come to this steaming forest to find a bird. I’m starting to wonder if it’s worth it.

The terrain in Budo-Su-ngai Padi National Park in southern Thailand is so steep in places that you can reach out and touch the path in front of you. With each step on the rain-drenched ground, you risk sliding back down. Insects buzz in nose and ears, and if you stop long enough to look around, you’ll see an army of land leeches inching their wormy, blood-hungry little bodies toward you.

The bird my fellow trekkers and I are after is the ancient, bizarre-looking, and now increasingly rare helmeted hornbill. The leader of our group is Pilai Poonswad, a Thai scientist known as the “great mother of hornbills.” She’s been studying the birds, and working to protect them, since 1978. Photographer Tim Laman is with us, as are a videographer, several members of Pilai’s team, and some people from the village at the bottom of the mountain who are carrying supplies and will help set up our camp. We knew it would be a slog—these birds are shy to begin with, but the growing rate of decline makes finding them something of an odyssey.

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