The loss of tropical forests and associated biodiversity is a global concern. Conservation efforts in tropical countries such as India have mostly focused on state-administered protected areas despite the existence of vast tracts of forest outside these areas. We studied hornbills (Bucerotidae), an ecologically important vertebrate group and a flagship for tropical forest conservation, to assess the importance of forests outside protected areas in Arunachal Pradesh, north-east India. We conducted a state-wide survey to record encounters with hornbills in seven protected areas, six state-managed reserved forests and six community-managed unclassed forests. We estimated the density of hornbills in one protected area, four reserved forests and two unclassed forests in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. The state-wide survey showed that the mean rate of encounter of rufous-necked hornbills Aceros nipalensis was four times higher in protected areas than in reserved forests and 22 times higher in protected areas than in unclassed forests. The mean rate of encounter of wreathed hornbills Rhyticeros undulatus was twice as high in protected areas as in reserved forests and eight times higher in protected areas than in unclassed forests. The densities of rufous-necked hornbill were higher inside protected areas, whereas the densities of great hornbill Buceros bicornis and wreathed hornbill were similar inside and outside protected areas. Key informant surveys revealed possible extirpation of some hornbill species at sites in two protected areas and three unclassed forests. These results highlight a paradoxical situation where individual populations of hornbills are being lost even in some legally protected habitat, whereas they continue to persist over most of the landscape. Better protection within protected areas and creative community-based conservation efforts elsewhere are necessary to maintain hornbill populations in this biodiversity-rich region.