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Brett Westwood explores how hornbills have influenced art, religion and feminism. Their bizarre looks, strange breeding behaviour and carvable beaks have thrust them into society.

Exotic and bizarre, hornbills wowed European society when the first live specimens arrived in the nineteenth century. Their almost human like walk combined with their unbelievable bills and strange calls presented an image of nature most Europeans had never encountered. When their odd breeding behaviour became known - the males seal up the female in a hole in a tree cavity so that only her beak can protrude for weeks on end - they became great curiosities. The bill of the helmeted hornbill was particularly prized for carving the Victorian obsession - netsuke. Beautifully coloured, especially if reddened by the oil from a preen gland, the "ivory" became the most sought after material for Victorian display cabinets. Hornbill ivory is still so highly prized by the Chinese that the helmeted hornbill is on the verge of extinction; its bill fetches a higher price than elephant ivory. However in their Indonesian homeland they are seen as mythical creatures that guard the thin veil between life and death, ferrying souls between the earth and heaven. This sacred belief is now being used by modern conservationists to help protect them as they disappear at an alarming rate from the face of the earth. Because many of the Asian Hornbills nest in the largest trees, they are at greatest risk from loggers, legal or illegal, and therefore stand as flagship species for forest conservation in SE Asia.

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28 minutes

Last on

Mon 19 Oct 2015 21:00

Dr Joanne Cooper

Dr Joanne Cooper
Dr Joanne Cooper is a senior curator of the avian anatomical collections at the Natural History Museum, including both the avian osteological and spirit collections, some 35,000 specimens in total. 

After nearly 20 years working on the skeleton collection in particular, she has become an internationally recognised authority in avian osteology and has particular experience and expertise in the taxonomic identification of bird bones.

She is interested in the history of the bird collections, and is currently investigating Charles Darwin’s domestic birds, Captain Fitzroy’s bird collection from the famous 1831-36 voyage of HMS Beagle and John Gould’s collection of hummingbird cases.

Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon
Singapore-based Mark Gordon is a corporate communications consultant who originally trained as an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York and the University of Michigan.

He has maintained a passionate life-long interest in Southeast Asian Tribal Art. He has assembled a world-class collection of more than 400 pieces that has been exhibited in museums and galleries in Asia and featured in numerous publications, including the illustrated book, Ancient Echoes; the Mark Gordon Collection of Southeast Asian Indigenous Art.

Dr Alan Kemp

Dr Alan Kemp
Dr Alan Kemp and his wife Meg began a long-term population study of hornbills in Kruger National Park, South Africa, in 1967. Alan is the author of a photographic guide to Hornbills entitled Hornbills of the World.

He and Meg work with the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, which re-introduces hand-reared ground hornbill chicks into areas where they have become locally extinct, once the original threats in those areas have been mitigated.

The project also researches the genetics, behaviour and other important unanswered questions necessary for successful re-establishment of ground hornbills and runs awareness campaigns to educate the general public to the threats facing the species and to reinstate the bird into collective memory in areas where it has become locally extinct. 

Andrew Owen

Andrew Owen
Andrew Owen began his career as a bird keeper 33 years ago at Padstow Bird Gardens in Cornwall. Since then he has worked all over the country in diverse places from Chessington World of Adventures to Jersey Zoo (Durrell wildlife conservation trust), Waddesdon Manor and the Wildfowl & Wetlands trust at Slimbridge. Andrew also spent four years in the United Arab Emirates working on a bird conservation project.

Now at Chester Zoo, he is actively involved in many field conservation projects in Mauritius and South East Asia. One of his projects is looking at the critically endangered songbirds of Bali, many of which will feature in a huge free flight aviary in Chester Zoo’s Monsoon Forest – the UK’s largest ever indoor zoo exhibit. He is the European studbook keeper for the Sumatran Laughingthrush. 

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