A Brighter Future for the Hornbills of India

Magnus Lidén is a plant systematist who has taught in India as guest faculty at Rajiv Gandhi University. During a trip to a local market, he was told an interesting tale about hornbill hats and decided to look into the matter. What follows is his account of the evolution of local traditions for conservation.

By Magnus Lidén

Today, given that counterfeit bills are such a widespread problem, it is perhaps nice to hear that they may play a positive role—in this case, in nature conservation in Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India. However, these bills aren’t fake monetary notes; rather, they are replacements for bird beaks!

The Nyishi are one of many Tibeto-Burmese tribes that inhabit the valleys and foothills of the eastern Himalayas. The tribe is descended from paleo-mongoloid ancestors and speaks the Tibeto-Burman group of languages. In the Nyishi ceremonial bopia (hat), the bill of the endangered Asian hornbill (Buceros bicornis) is a prominent and indispensable feature. An ingenious innovation by the Nyishi forest officer Chukhu Loma now enables survival of both tradition and hornbills. Newly produced bopias have a plastic bill replica, a change that has been widely accepted by the Nyishi community. As these hats have a very long lifetime, we may expect both kinds to occur side by side for many decades to come. The desirable orange tint will, however, eventually fade in the originals, as it depends on repeated polishing with a fatty hornbill secretion.

Professor Tana Showren, head of the department of History at Rajiv Gandhi University (Arunachal Pradesh) is a prominent proponent of the preservation of religious practices and traditions of the Nyishi. He kindly agreed to model for the pictures below. As a passionate nature conservationist, he is all in favor of the artificial beak, but sees no harm in the continuous use of the old bopias as long as they last, especially by the nyubh (priests).

An original bopia hat with an actual hornbill beak. (Photo by Magnus Lidén)
A fake hornbill bopia hat that never loses its orange flair. (Photo by Magnus Lidén)

It is our hope that practices such as these will become more widespread and also can serve as inspiration for other local conservation efforts. The hornbills are certainly happier!

Read More by Magnus Lidén

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Since 2005 senior scientific curator at Uppsala Botanic Garden (50%) and researcher at Evolutionary Biology Center, Uppsala University (50%). Travels a lot, not least hunting plants in Himalaya in my research. Lately, mostly NE India, SW China and Iran.