Hornbill SOS

Their saviours might be some high-main­te­nance chicks

South African Country Life - - In This Issue - WORDS LES­LEY STONES PIC­TURES SUP­PLIED

When an odd drum­ming noise starts to re­ver­ber­ate through the bushes, Dr Lucy Kemp jumps up, with a grin. “Come on, they’re here,” she urges, rush­ing out­side.

Four pre­his­toric-look­ing birds are stalk­ing across the ground like un­der­tak­ers at a fu­neral, their bright-red necks a startling con­trast to their solemn black bodies. They’re chat­ting to each other in a boom-box beat, like djembe drum­mers on a go-slow.

Lucy, whose fa­ther Dr Alan Kemp was head cu­ra­tor of the Transvaal Mu­seum (now Dit­song

Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory) Bird Depart­ment, is the man­ager of Mab­ula Ground Hornbill Project, and this is Storm and his fam­ily, her clos­est neigh­bours at Mab­ula Pri­vate Game Re­serve in Lim­popo.

Var­i­ous threats have dec­i­mated South­ern Ground Horn­bills to ren­der them En­dan­gered, and Lucy and her col­leagues and var­i­ous part­ners are try­ing to re­verse their de­cline by hand-rear­ing aban­doned chicks to re­plen­ish the wild pop­u­la­tion.

“There are an es­ti­mated 2 000 birds left in South Africa in 400 to 500 breed­ing groups, and if we don’t do some­thing about it we’re go­ing to lose them al­to­gether,” she says. “With 60 per cent of their land and 50 per cent of their pop­u­la­tion lost in just the last 30 years, it’s prob­a­bly the swiftest-de­clin­ing bird species in South Africa.”

The more they learn about horn­bills, the more they re­alise they still don’t know, says Lucy – and the more sur­pris­ing it is that they sur­vive at all in our fast-paced world. A big hand­i­cap is that they barely have a sex life. They take eight to ten years to reach ma­tu­rity, and even then only the al­pha pair of a group will breed, and not nec­es­sar­ily ev­ery year.

When they do get it on, they need to have iden­ti­fied a suit­able cav­ity in a large tree to lay their eggs, be­cause they can’t build nests. The same cav­ity can be used for gen­er­a­tions, but if the old trees are de­stroyed (by storms, ele­phants or hu­mans), they just stop breed­ing

if no other suit­able hol­low ex­ists on their home turf.

Two eggs are usu­ally laid, but a chick is so vo­ra­cious that the fam­ily must all feed it with a con­stant suc­ces­sion of snakes, scor­pi­ons, lizards, small ro­dents and other tasty treats. The ha­rassed par­ents can’t cope with two hun­gry beaks, so if the first chick is healthy, the sec­ond that hatches a few days later will en­dure a brief life of ne­glect un­til it dies of de­hy­dra­tion.

The one-chick pol­icy has kept the species alive for eons, but hu­mans have brought fa­tal threats. Each clan rules a large ter­ri­tory of about 100km², and their na­tive sa­van­nah has been lost to farms and tim­ber forests. Some are elec­tro­cuted when their grand wings and large bills spark across power lines. Oth­ers die from eat­ing poi­son put out by farm­ers to kill jack­als or leop­ards, or die from lead poi­son­ing if they eat from a car­cass killed by a lead bul­let.

“If hu­mans weren’t de­stroy­ing ev­ery­thing the horn­bills would be fine,” Lucy says. “Peo­ple are the prob­lem, so they have to be the so­lu­tion as well.” The an­swer hope­fully lies with those aban­doned chicks, and the team and its part­ners have ex­per­i­mented for years to per­fect hand-rear­ing tech­niques to re­lease them into the wild. It’s a tricky task. Even if they are res­cued be­fore they die, and thrive on a diet of chopped-up mice, their hu­man hand­maid­ens can’t teach them how to be birds. These high-main­te­nance chicks must learn that from an ex­pe­ri­enced adult.

“Some bird species just hatch and get on with it, but oth­ers need a learn­ing process,” Lucy ex­plains. “These chicks are re­ally naive for the first three years of their life. They kill highly ven­omous snakes like puff adders, and need an ex­pe­ri­enced mem­ber of the group to show them how to kill the adders, where to sleep safely, how to avoid chee­tah and so on.”

This year, the tech­nique is be­ing fine-tuned to im­prove the al­ready im­pres­sive 90 per cent suc­cess rate. From now on, the team will only col­lect male chicks in a sex­ist strat­egy to mimic the nat­u­rally skewed wild pop­u­la­tion. Thanks to their pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety, young males get to stay with the fam­ily, while fe­males are booted out to fend for them­selves. They may try to form a girl group, but fam­ily life will only en­sue if a ma­tri­arch dies and a va­cancy arises.

Since horn­bills breed to co­in­cide with the first ma­jor rains of the sea­son, the team al­ready knows when the chicks will hatch. They visit

“If hu­mans weren’t de­stroy­ing ev­ery­thing the horn­bills would be fine,” Lucy says. “Peo­ple are the prob­lem, so they have to be the so­lu­tion as well

the nests dur­ing the in­cu­ba­tion pe­riod to weigh and mea­sure the eggs and to ‘can­dle’ them against an LED light to age the em­bryo and work out when it will hatch. The mother flaps away when a lad­der butts up against her tree, but re­turns seem­ingly un­per­turbed once the hu­mans with­draw, as long as care­ful pro­to­cols are fol­lowed.

Now Lucy will an­a­lyse the eggs to de­ter­mine which nests to re­turn to. “I’ve been trained by San Diego Zoo to drill into an egg and ex­tract blood from the em­bryo to sex it through DNA, and we’ll only go back to nests that have a male as the sec­ond chick,” she ex­plains.

Hand-rear­ing has taken place at sev­eral cen­tres in­clud­ing Mon­te­casino Bird

Gar­dens, with an av­er­age of five to nine birds reared each year. That’s also about to change. “The chicks were ba­si­cally healthy but we weren’t get­ting the be­havioural stuff right,” Lucy ad­mits.

The rear­ing is now be­ing cen­tralised on the ad­vice of Pro­fes­sor Carl Jones, chief sci­en­tist of the Dur­rell Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust. When the man who’s cred­ited with sav­ing five bird species from ex­tinc­tion in Mau­ri­tius tells you what to do, you do it.

So the Mab­ula team spent two years rais­ing money to build a ded­i­cated fa­cil­ity at Loskop Dam Na­ture Re­serve in Mpumalanga, able to rear up to 15 chicks dur­ing each an­nual breed­ing sea­son. When it opens later this year, hand-rear­ing ex­perts from lo­cal and over­seas con­ser­va­tion part­ners will help turn the cho­rus of rav­en­ous beaks into full grown, pop­u­la­tion re­gen­er­at­ing adults.

The cen­tre will also have a mice-breed­ing room, to pro­vide fresh, safe food for the vo­ra­cious young­sters. Once they’re old enough, they will trans­fer to a ‘bush school’ area hous­ing foster fam­i­lies of wild, ex­pe­ri­enced adults, who will hope­fully teach the naive new­com­ers how to be horn­bills. Fi­nally, three to four years later, they will be re­leased into the wild to form new fam­i­lies.

Hu­man ed­u­ca­tion is another vi­tal part of this con­ser­va­tion story. Many ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties ven­er­ate ground horn­bills as bringers of rain, but when the rains don’t come, birds may be sac­ri­ficed to ca­jole the gods into speed­ing things up a lit­tle. Some com­mu­ni­ties only need the feath­ers for rain-in­vok­ing cer­e­monies, while oth­ers de­mand an en­tire car­cass.

The project is work­ing with these com­mu­ni­ties to bet­ter un­der­stand their cul­ture and how im­por­tant this ven­er­a­tion is for cul­tural con­ser­va­tion, and work to­gether to pro­tect their res­i­dent hornbill groups. Zulu prince and politi­cian Man­go­suthu Buthelezi has be­come a pa­tron, and his pow­er­ful in­flu­ence should win them more pro­tec­tion. Buthelezi is in­tro­duc­ing Lucy and her col­leagues to isiZulu lead­ers to talk about the horn­bills, and to dis­cour­age the use of lead am­mu­ni­tion or poi­son to kill wild an­i­mals.

Lucy be­lieves that pro­tect­ing the ex­ist­ing birds and re­build­ing their num­bers with 15 street-smart chicks ev­ery year will be suf­fi­cient to stave off their ex­tinc­tion.

Many ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties ven­er­ate ground horn­bills as bringers of rain, but when the rains don’t come, birds may be sac­ri­ficed to ca­jole the gods into speed­ing things up a lit­tle

Map ref­er­ence B6 see in­side back cover

Mab­ula Ground Hornbill Project is based in Mab­ula Pri­vate Game Re­serve where guests can stay (www.mab­ula.com). To con­tact the project, project@ground-hornbill.org.za, ground-hornbill.org.za

RIGHT: Some species seem to have a self-de­struct but­ton, and this is one of them. A par­si­mo­nious sex life, fo­cus­ing only on one chick and aban­don­ing the sec­ond, and the in­abil­ity to build a nest, for ex­am­ple, just don’t add up to pro­lific pro­cre­ation.(Photo Hein­rich Nel)

OP­PO­SITE: Lucy Kemp, man­ager of the Mab­ula Ground Hornbill Project, be­lieves their painstak­ing re­search into hand-rear­ing aban­doned chicks will re­stock the di­min­ish­ing wild pop­u­la­tion suf­fi­ciently to pre­vent the species from ex­tinc­tion. (Photo Lucy Kemp) ABOVE: Lucy Kemp waits for Storm and his fam­ily to re­turn af­ter a day spent hunt­ing for snakes, scor­pi­ons and other tit­bits. Al­though ground horn­bills don’t al­ways roost in the same place, the tribe at Mab­ula Pri­vate Game Re­serve has made their home close to the con­ser­va­tion cen­tre. Smart move, given that their ex­is­tence is un­der threat. (Photo Cissy Maritz) ABOVE RIGHT AND RIGHT: The dis­tin­guished ground horn­bills are be­lieved to be bringers of rain in many com­mu­ni­ties, earn­ing them the name of Thun­der Birds. But if the rains don’t come, they may be sac­ri­ficed to speed things up a lit­tle. (Pho­tos Joanne Meyer)

ABOVE: Alan Kemp, now re­tired, con­ducted much of the early re­search into South­ern Ground Horn­bills and has writ­ten sev­eral books about them. The birds he calls ‘fas­ci­nat­ing and chal­leng­ing’ may well be saved from ex­tinc­tion thanks to the re­search he be­gan, and he’s proud that his daugh­ter Lucy is con­tin­u­ing his work. (Photo Werner Maritz)

LEFT: They don’t ma­ture un­til they are eight years old and can live for 40 to 50 years. BE­LOW LEFT: If you think hadedas are noisy, wait for a fam­ily of ground horn­bills to have a chat. The drum-like noise booms across the sa­van­nah for kilo­me­tres. (Pho­tos Joanne Meyer) BE­LOW RIGHT: Tasty Treat. Horn­bills are preda­tory, killing hares, tor­toises, big snakes and even small an­te­lope. (Photo Mab­ula Ground Hornbill Project)

ABOVE: Records of South Africa’s ground hornbill pop­u­la­tions are kept by the Mab­ula team. Some fam­ily groups have the lux­ury of wide open spa­ces in the Kruger, oth­ers live on the out­skirts of town­ships that have en­croached on their tra­di­tional ter­ri­to­ries. (Photo Lucy Kemp) BE­LOW: Ed­u­ca­tion about South­ern Ground Horn­bills is vi­tal in com­mu­ni­ties. The in­flu­ence of pa­tron of the Mab­ula project, Man­go­suthu Buthelezi, should win the horn­bills more pro­tec­tion. (Photo Sophie Neller)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.