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 5 km away, and a fe­ro­cious beak, and you un­der­stand why these ma­jes­tic car­niv­o­rous birds in­stil a sense of awe in those lucky enough to see them.

There was a time they roamed our grass­lands in droves but to­day there are only around 1,700 in­di­vid­u­als (which equates to just 450 or so breed­ing groups) left in South Africa, of which a third is within the Kruger Na­tional Park.This is due to the ur­ban en­croach­ment of their habi­tat, the de­struc­tion of nest­ing trees, elec­tro­cu­tion from trans­former boxes, use in tra­di­tional medicine and rit­ual, per­se­cu­tion for win­dow break­ing, bush-en­croach­ment, and poi­son­ing by com­mer­cial farm­ers.


It took a Bri­tish woman to do some­thing about their plight. On see­ing a male in cap­tiv­ity, Ann Turner fell in love with the swag­ger­ing panache of his stilted gait. Through her re­search, she met or­nithol­o­gist Dr Alan Kemp, an ex­pert on horn­bills and rap­tors.To­gether they started the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project (MGHP) in 1999.

Ac­cord­ing to MGHP as­sis­tant man­ager, Natasha Nel, Turner saw the project through the painful early stages of learn­ing to hand-rear and re­lease birds suc­cess­fully. Al­though she has since 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 es­sen­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram 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 han­drea­r­ing of sec­ond-hatched chicks that would usu­ally die of star­va­tion. But rein­tro­duc­tion back into the wild is a long-term 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, formed the ba­sis of the MGHP project. As Natasha Nel re­counts, the team stum­bled over some un­fore­seen com­pli­ca­tions.


“Over the past 18 years, we’ve learnt lessons the hard way,” she says.“Our aim was to rein­tro­duce Ground horn­bills into ar­eas they his­tor­i­cally in­hab­ited, but we didn’t fully ap­pre­ci­ate how com­plex their so­cial struc­tures are. Now we know that the birds reach sex­ual ma­tu­rity be­tween eight and 10 years, and that 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 the ter­ri­tory, and rais­ing sub­se­quent chicks – a process known as co-op­er­a­tive breed­ing.

“The fe­male will lay two eggs within five days of each other and in­cu­bate both.The sec­ond chick is ‘back-up in­sur­ance’ in case any­thing hap­pens to the first. Usu­ally it starves or de­hy­drates. We’d har­vest and raise the sec­ond chick, but then we re­alised only one fe­male is al­lowed per group, and we ended up with a fe­male sur­plus and few places to put them.

“To­day Lucy (Kemp) has learnt how to sex an egg to en­able us to har­vest mostly males. She puts a light un­der the egg in a process called can­dling that also al­lows you to de­ter­mine the age of the chick. Lucy uses a tiny drill to har­vest a drop of blood sent to a lab for DNA sex­ing. The egg can then be re­placed in the nest as it’s best for the Ground horn­bills to in­cu­bate both eggs them­selves, a process which takes 37 to 42 days.

“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.

“Sadly, you can­not re­lease a bird that’s be­come too used to hu­mans, so ide­ally we want es­tab­lished groups of South­ern Ground horn­bills to raise the res­cued chicks. Right now, 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 the recipe.”


I was lucky enough to en­counter Mabula’s only gang of five South­ern Ground horn­bills while vis­it­ing the re­serve, and found my­self brim­ming with ad­mi­ra­tion for the majesty of these mag­nif­i­cent birds as they strode through the bush, one paus­ing to snatch a frog in its pin­cer-like beak.

They are equally adept at us­ing their beaks to grab a puffad­der or black mamba be­hind the head, which they carry about like a tro­phy be­fore swal­low­ing it whole like an ex­otic noo­dle. Lizards and even 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 hyena, leop­ard, and even wild dog.Trag­i­cally, this hap­pened to a group

re­leased at a pri­vate game farm out­sideThabaz­imbi when they moved onto a farmer’s land.

“Ground horn­bills are a nat­u­rally low-den­sity oc­cur­ring species need­ing large tracts of suit­able land – about 100 km2 per fam­ily group – and while we do our best to mon­i­tor them, they are also strong fliers and we can’t al­ways de­ter­mine where they might choose to set­tle,” Natasha adds.


“One way we en­cour­age the birds to stay within a cer­tain area, is by putting up an ar­ti­fi­cial nest­ing box. South­ern Ground horn­bills need big trees to nest in and whether the trees are be­ing har­vested for tim­ber, lost to fires, strong winds, or knocked down by ele­phants, we’re los­ing these nest trees. We will look at the re­lease site and mimic what the birds might have in the wild – hol­lows in es­tab­lished baob­abs, lead­woods, or wild figs.

“Mabula Re­serve, for ex­am­ple, has sev­eral mag­nif­i­cent old fig trees, but when in fruit it at­tracts ba­boons, mon­keys, and other species, which is not ideal, so we used an old dead blue gum in­stead.We put cor­ru­gated iron around the bot­tom to pro­tect the eggs and chicks from pre­da­tion by leop­ard, honey bad­ger, and ba­boons.”


The South­ern Ground hornbill is not just an icon of the African sa­van­nah, it is cul­tur­ally im­por­tant too. Ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties who tra­di­tion­ally use their feath­ers to pre­dict rain – hence their nick­name “thunderbird” – are now given dropped feath­ers so that birds don’t have to be killed.That’s where ed­u­ca­tion comes in, but ac­cord­ing to Natasha, one of the big­gest chal­lenges is per­suad­ing farm­ers not to kill them when mone­tary as­pects are in­volved. Ground horn­bills are no­to­ri­ous for break­ing win­dows by at­tack­ing their own re­flec­tions!

“Some­times your heart breaks when you re­lease a group of birds and they wan­der onto a neigh­bour­ing prop­erty and eat poi­soned bait. It’s a ter­ri­ble loss that sets us back at least three years, but con­ser­va­tion is a cri­sis dis­ci­pline and we all just have to keep go­ing.”

It’s thanks to the Mabula Project team that there’s a glim­mer of light for these mag­nif­i­cent birds, that may soon meet the IUCN Red Data List Cri­te­ria for be­ing crit­i­cally en­dan­gered in South Africa if their num­bers con­tinue to de­cline.

More in­for­ma­tion on the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project email, find them on Face­book (www.face­ or please visit

ONE BIG BIRD! South­ern Ground horn­bills are cer tainly not Fe­males dainty birds. weigh be­tween 4.6 kg, 2.2 to while males weigh 3.5 to 6.2 kg!

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