Helmeted hornbill in tropical forest
A living dinosaur – the helmeted hornbill, being hunted to extinction for the Chinese market. Photo: ©Shutterstock

Of hornbills and international ecocide

This post was intended as a spleen-vent about the latest Chinese demand-led environmental atrocity – the mass killing of helmeted hornbills.

But my research led to something far more brazen and a great deal more threatening to our very existence.

I’m talking about what has been dubbed ‘the missing crime’ of ecocide – the serious loss, damage or destruction of ecosystems caused by corporate or state inaction.

Remember the Vale-BHP Billiton Samarco mine tailings dam in Brazil that burst its banks in 2015, killing 19 people, spilling 40 million litres of toxic waste, polluting the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people and decimating wildlife?

It was Brazil’s worst environmental disaster – not counting its ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest – and it has been alleged that the mining consortium knew of the potential impact months before it happened .

A pittance

Brazilian authorities brought a civil suit against Samarco for around A$6 billion, and the company settled earlier this year at A$650 million. A pittance in the circumstances.

In the context of culpable state inaction, we need only look at Donald Trump and the other disbelievers in high public office who continue to play down the clear and present danger of climate change.

There should be some sort of legally binding duty of care to which politicians and the countries they administer are held accountable. But it seems there is not.

Environmental lawyer, Polly Higgins portrait
Polly Higgins – fighting to make ecocide a crime. Photo: ©Ruth Davey, look-again.org

Binding acceptance

High profile UK environmental lawyer Polly Higgins gave up an extremely lucrative career as a London barrister to fight for international and binding acceptance that ecocide is “the missing international crime”.

(Wikipedia says the word ecocide may have been created to describe potent pesticides like the infamous 1080. But in the modern parlance, it describes the destructive influence of humanity on its own natural environment.)

It is widely accepted that worldwide destruction of ecosystems is worse now than at any other time. Higgins is campaigning to have ecocide added to the list of crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague – but so far without success.

Cannot be vetoed

“Any member of the ICC can propose [an addition] to the governing document – the Rome Statute – and once tabled, it cannot be vetoed. And when two-thirds of members sign, it is law,” she tells audiences all over the world.

“All we want is climate justice … A universal code of higher authority that puts people and the planet first; and starts with ‘do no harm’. Any signatory head of state who is an ICC member is free to take this initial step.”

Higgins says ecocide as “the greatest injustice of our time” – click the link to her book, Eradicating Ecocide.

Rhinoceros hornbill in tropical forest
Fortunately for the distinctive rhinoceros hornbill, its casque is of lesser interest to Chinese carvers. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The hornbills

Meanwhile, back to the unique and now critically endangered helmeted hornbill – fading fast from the forests of Southeast Asia.

Chinese money and demand are at the root of unprecedented trade in the wood, creatures, minerals and medicines from the equatorial regions of our planet. And the ‘ivory’ of the helmeted hornbill is the latest on the shopping list.

The bizarre-looking living dinosaur is about 1.5 m long (including its tail feathers), with a massive head that includes a red ‘helmet’ or casque above its yellow beak.

And it is the horny casque – softer than ivory, which can be finely carved into all manner of adornments and grotesque pieces – that the newly wealthy Chinese market wants.

Year of the bird

National Geographic has highlighted the plight of the helmeted hornbill as part of its Year of the Bird campaign. One of 57 hornbill species, it is found only in the lowland forests of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Brunei.

The number of helmeted hornbills being poached in Southeast Asia and sold for their heads is unknown, but a 2013 investigation in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan estimated at least 6000 had been killed in that state alone. (The modern trade appears not to have existed before 2012.)

©Natural Images 2018


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.


3 thoughts on “MISSING CRIME

  • Patrick Baird February 4, 2019 at 1:42 PM Reply

    It’s about time China pulled itself into the 21st century and abandoned barbaric, medieval practices such as carving hornbill casques into trinkets, logging endangered hardwoods for something as prosaic as concrete shuttering or killing rhinoceros so as to turn their horns into utterly useless quasi-aphrodisiacs.

    By now, one would have hoped the civilized world would be thoroughly fed up with Chinese eco-imperialism. How bloody dare they! But how do we stop them? One answer: don’t buy their products. When the girl or guy in the shop asks why you won’t buy the Chinese version, tell them. Individual actions such as this obviously make a very tiny impact – but if we all thought-before-we-bought, the message would soon get through.

    • Tony Neilson February 7, 2019 at 8:41 AM Reply

      Thanks Patrick (from ‘Norn Iron’) – there is nothing useful I can add, other than to say how sick and helpless I feel when these things come to light. Good luck with Brexit!

    • Tony Neilson February 7, 2019 at 8:45 AM Reply

      Thanks Patrick from ‘Norn Iron’. You can understand why the forest dwellers are enticed to catch the birds, but as for the rest, I’m with you. good luck with you own crisis: Brexit.

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