Their saviours might be some high-maintenance chicks
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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)