A carved hornbill beak. Image: Bird Conservation Society of Thailand / Facebook

BANGKOK — Craze for helmeted hornbill heads as amulets and decorations is posing a serious to the birds’ small population in Thailand’s forests, conservation activists said Monday.

The campaigners spoke at an event where they announced a new campaign to raise awareness over the dwindling number of rare animals in the wild. They were joined by celebrities and government officials who urged Thais to eliminate the use of animal parts, such as hornbill heads, tiger teeth, and ivory.

While ivory and tiger teeth have long been targeted by poachers, a recent fad for helmeted hornbill in the black market is particularly worrying because there are only about 200 hornbills left in Thailand, according to an activist from environment group Traffic.

Yet, despite the birds’ potential extinction, their plight is not well known among the public, group coordinator Maethinee Passaraudomsuk said.

Image: Thailand Hornbill Project / Facebook

Hornbills lost their head so that the orange-colored parts of their bills, or casques, could be carved into base reliefs of Buddha or even King Rama IX, the activist said.

Speaking at the same panel, popular Buddhist monk and preacher Phra Medhivajirodom agreed with Maethinee that there’s a need to raise the public’s attention not just to elephants and tigers, but hornbills as well.

“Don’t you know that killing [hornbills] will affect us, because one hornbill help plant 200,000 trees per year?” the monk said.

Read: Conservation Rhetoric Falls Apart as 1,000 Tiger Amulets Seized From Temple

The monk also said killing wildlife animals to make tributes to Lord Buddha will not bring any blessing to their lives.

“It’s superstitious,” Phra Medhivajirodom said. “I should like to say it’s foolish, but dare not to, as I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Another panelist is actor and volunteer Bin Banloerit, who was also chosen by the groups to be the public face of their campaigns. He admitted to having bought and possessed amulets made from wildlife animals in the past – his collection even included a tooth of a dugong – out of belief that they would bring good luck.

But he changed his mind after working as a rescue volunteer. One day, Bin recalled, he realized that his belief was groundless because many dead bodies he retrieved from accident sites or crime scenes were wearing the same amulets he had, yet they met horrible deaths nonetheless.

The panel on Oct. 7, 2019.

“In the past I used to really misunderstand about tiger teeth and ivory,” Bin, who has been heading a relief effort in flood-struck Isaan region, said at the panel. “I heard these stories about its potency, that a knife or a bullet cannot penetrate the owner. That was twenty years ago.”

The actor-turned-volunteer added that he once lost a football gamble, and his pair of ivory tusks were taken away by the loan shark, which also proved to him that the tusks didn’t bring him any luck after all.

A study published in 2018 by USAID Wildlife Asia said about 500,000 Thais are believed to own ivory products, and 250,000 own artifacts made from tiger parts.

Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation official Somkiat Soontornpitakkool said his agency has tried to visit some Buddhist temples that organized ceremonies to impart spiritual power into amulets made from ivory or tiger teeth, but his officials couldn’t do much.

The matter was mostly left to religious authorities because the situation is “sensitive,” Somkiat said.

He added that a revised edition of the Wildlife Protection Act is coming into effect in late November. Under the revision, violators who trade illegal wildlife items face up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to one million baht.

Additional writing Teeranai Charuvastra