Standing solid in black with red-wattled finery, they resemble a bench of conferring bishops. Add long lashes framing pale eyes, a call like a lion blowing a trombone that can be heard five kilometres away and a ferocious beak that can dig deep or snatch anything trying to hide in the grass, and you understand why these majestic carnivorous birds instill a sense of awe in those lucky enough to see them.
There was a time when they roamed our savannah grasslands in droves, but today there are only 1 700 individuals, which equates to just 450 or so breeding groups, left in South Africa – a third in the Kruger National Park. The dwindling numbers are due to urban encroachment on their habitat, the destruction of nesting trees, electrocution from transformer boxes, use in traditional medicine and rituals, persecution for window-breaking, bush-encroachment, plantations and poisoning by commercial farmers.
It took a British woman to do something about it. On seeing a male in captivity, Ann Turner fell in love with his long eyelashes, charismatic beak, and the panache of his gait. Through her research, she met ornithologist Dr Alan Kemp, an expert on hornbills. They started the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project (MGHP) in 1999.
MGHP assistant manager Natasha Nel said Turner saw the project through the early stages of learning to hand-rear and release birds successfully. Although she has returned to the UK, Alan Kemp continues to mentor the team of six conservationists, including Dr Lucy Kemp, MGHP project manager Nthabiseng Monama, leader of an environmental education programme for school children in areas where the hornbills still occur, and research assistants Sophie Neller, Heinrich Nel and Patience Shito.
One conservation tool involves the harvesting and hand-rearing of second-hatched chicks that would usually die of starvation, but reintroduction into the wild is a long process. Kruger Park data shows that only one chick is raised to adulthood every few years, with the average adult lifespan being 50 to 60 years.
Provision of artificial nests for wild groups and the reintroduction of these birds back into areas where they are now locally extinct was the basis of the MGHP project, but the team ran into unforeseen complications.
Natasha Nel said they didn’t appreciate how complex the birds’ social structures are and how to replicate that. Now they know the birds mature sexually at between eight and 10 years, and there can be only one breeding female per gang of between three and nine. The rest are mostly male offspring that help with nest-building, protecting territory and raising subsequent chicks.
“The female will lay two eggs within five days of each other and incubate both. The second chick is a ‘back-up insurance’ in case anything happens to the first. Usually, it starves or dehydrates. We’d harvest and raise the second chick, but before we realised only one female is allowed per group – in the wild, females get kicked out of the group at a young age – we ended up with a female surplus.
“Today Lucy [Kemp] knows how to sex an egg to enable us to harvest mostly males. The egg can then be replaced in the nest as it’s best for the ground hornbills to incubate both eggs, a 37 to 42-day process. When the second chick hatches five days after the first, we harvest it if chick one is strong, and take it to a centre such as MonteCasino Bird Gardens or Loskop Dam to be hand-reared until it’s ready for release into the wild.
“You can’t release a bird that’s too used to humans so, ideally, we want established groups of southern ground hornbills to raise the rescued chicks. We are building a centralised facility to enable us to produce birds of the same quality throughout the country. We chose Loskop Dam because Delecia Gunn, the country’s foremost expert on hand-rearing chicks for rehabilitation into the wild, is based there. Ground hornbills are particularly difficult to raise and she has perfected it.”
I was lucky enough to encounter Mabula’s only gang of five southern ground hornbills and was full of admiration for their majesty as they strode through the bush, one pausing to snatch a frog between a pincer-like beak. They are equally adept at using their beaks to grab a snake behind the head before swallowing it whole. Lizards and tortoises also make a tasty snack but, all too often, the birds suffer from secondary poisoning from eating a toxic carcass put out by farmers to kill hyenas and leopards.
The southern ground hornbill is culturally important, too. Communities who traditionally use their feathers to predict rain – hence their nickname of “thunderbird” – are now given feathers so birds aren’t killed.
But one of the biggest challenges is persuading farmers not to kill them when monetary matters are involved. Ground hornbills are notorious for breaking windows when they attack their reflections!
– travelwrite.co.za & www.ground-hornbill.org.za