A Helmeted hornbill perched on a tree branch.

Stop the Playbacks If You Love Helmeted Hornbills

Hornbill researcher and conservationist Ravinder Kaur saw unethical bird photographers at work in Pahang. She shares her experience and concerns.

A MONTH ago, I had just returned from a field trip in Pahang to watch a pair of Helmeted hornbills (Rhinoplax vigil), one of the most endangered hornbill species in Southeast Asia.

The calls of the bird lingered in my ears as I unloaded my car upon return. But the birds themselves did not plant it there.

Rather, over four days in the field, I had been exposed to photographers’ incessant playbacks of the Helmeted hornbill calls from their speakers.

They were using such recorded playbacks to lure the Helmeted hornbills for a photo.

(Photo: Helmeted hornbill, a critically endangered species threatened by poaching and deforestation. (Sanjitpaal Singh / JITSPICS.COM©)

Playbacks are often used by tour guides to lure birds out into the open for tourists to see. Experts say playback stresses the animals, and Helmeted hornbills are already struggling to survive against poaching and deforestation.

Is a photo worth the risk of harming the Helmeted hornbill, or do the photographers not know the impact of their actions?

My team and I have spent years in the forests observing Helmeted hornbills. We have waited for them for hours, day after day for weeks.

Yet we have never resorted to playbacks to get close to the Helmeted hornbills. We observed them and documented their true lives in the wild.

A group of photographers huddling by a road to take a photo of the helmeted hornbill.
Photographers huddled by a narrow road for the best shot of the Helmeted hornbill. The crowd doubles on weekends. (Sanjitpaal Singh / JITSPICS.COM©)T
The scene in Pahang

I had visited Pahang following news of a possible nesting pair of Helmeted hornbills there. But instead of hornbills, I saw up to 30 people poised at the edge of the road with their tripods and cameras.

“Open!” shouted one photographer, to signal to the rest that a Helmeted hornbill was perched in the open. I tried to scan the trees with my binoculars but I was blocked by the wall of photographers.

There was too little space for we were all vying to peer through a small vegetation opening on the side of the road. I caught glimpses of the bird on the screens of their cameras.

It was a male Helmeted hornbill.

Poached and homeless

Helmeted hornbills are a critically endangered species threatened on multiple fronts.

They are persecuted for their solid casques which are carved into decorative items.

Their specific ecological needs also make them particularly vulnerable to disturbance.

They eat mostly fig fruits, a scarce food in the forest, and they must invest lots of energy and time to find it.

They nest only in tree cavities (holes) which are higher than 20 m and have a protruding entrance.

But such cavities are limited: Helmeted hornbills depend on other animals or fungi to create the cavities, and logging has removed large trees with existing cavities.

Furthermore, Helmeted hornbills are slow breeders. They take six months to produce one chick and may not nest every year.

Making life worse

That day in Pahang, most of the photographers carried top-of-the-line gear and had come from across the country.  They placed at least three speakers on the road and attached to their tripods.

Each speaker blasted different calls recorded from different Helmeted hornbill individuals.

As anticipated, the calls drew the male Helmeted hornbill closer. To the bird, the calls were taunts from other males challenging its territory.

The male would be eager to fight this phantom competitor to defend its nest.

And on the ridge, the unsatisfied photographers who wanted better photos kept calling the Helmeted hornbill back.

The camera shutters went ballistic. The playback continued. “Keep calling, it’ll come closer!” exclaimed a photographer.

Can you imagine how confused the poor male Helmeted hornbill must be?

Admiration gone wrong

The Helmeted hornbill male is clearly wasting precious energy and time around the photographers. I have been collecting data on nesting Helmeted hornbills for 6 years (in silence, mind you).

Here’s what my research says: A male Helmeted hornbill caring for its mate and chick could make up to 11 feeding trips to the nest; it travels far to find fruiting fig trees; it delivers up to 200 fruits per trip for its family.

A Helmeted hornbill male labours alone to feed its family which are sealed in the cavity for 5 months. The male has the crucial task of finding protein-rich foods that are hard to find or catch (eg. stick insects) to feed its growing chick.

But when we play calls of various invading males in its territory, the male becomes obsessed and distracted from its family’s needs.

By the time I knew of this situation, the playbacks had been going on for almost a month. If this is not stopped, I fear the hornbills would fail to nest and we would lose a precious new chick.

I shared my concerns with some of the photographers.

“But I came from so far to shoot this bird,” one of them replied. “I don’t want to leave empty handed.” Others responded similarly.

A portable speaker placed on the ground and playing recorded playbacks to lure the hornbill.
Ravinder saw photographers use up to three wireless loud speakers to blare playback to entice the Helmeted hornbill closer. (Sanjitpaal Singh / JITSPICS.COM©)
Respect the animal

Beside me, Sanjitpaal Singh, a conservation photographer and my teammate, stared blankly at the forested valley before him. He returned his camera into the bag.

“There’s no thrill in getting a photo this way,” he said.

Sanjit has spent 14 years photographing wildlife, including the Helmeted hornbills.  True wildlife photographers, said Sanjit, work with field experts to anticipate a shot.

“It’s not like sitting at a cosy restaurant and waiting for your breakfast to be served to you,” he said.

The male Helmeted hornbill seemed stressed and confused to Sanjit. He thought the photographers and their incessant playbacks were “likely to be a contributing factor to the decline of an important species.”

Ghaneshwaran Balachandran, another conservation photographer with us that day, questioned the need for the intrusive playback. 

“What matters the most in wildlife photography is respect, welfare and compassion towards a subject,” said Ghanesh.

“The relevance and integrity of our work is more important than a glorified image that goes nowhere.”

Stop playbacks

Ours are not mere personal opinions. The National Audubon Society, an esteemed bird conservation organisation, specifically says that “the epitome of bad playback etiquette is…the photographer who sets up a device on continuous playback and waits for the bird to fly in”.

That was exactly what the photographers were doing for weeks with the male Helmeted hornbill.

I am greatly concerned for the Helmeted hornbill pair in Pahang. I understand how this rare and beautiful bird captivates the photographers; I am captivated too.

But by unethical use of playback and ignoring the bird’s welfare, they were killing the future of their hobby.

We have already made the world very hostile for Helmeted hornbills by poaching them and destroying the trees they need.

Now, we are making matters worse and exploiting the birds for a mere photo.

Nothing – certainly not a photo – is worth driving a species to extinction.

[Edited by Yao Hua Law]


Ravinder Kaur is the scientific director of Gaia, a social enterprise dedicated to hornbill research and conservation. Listen to her on Macaranga Voices.