They look wildly different from us but Southern Ground-Hornbills have surprisingly ‘human’ characteristics when it comes to their behaviour. According to Dr Lucy Kemp, this is just one of the reasons that this species is truly remarkable, and she is certainly the expert.
“Southern Ground-Hornbills are amazing tourism attractions; they are a flagship umbrella species and top predators. There’s so much going for them!” enthuses Dr Kemp.
Many people don’t know about Southern Ground-Hornbills, and safari goers at Mabula Game Reserve often mistake them for wild turkeys. When they discover that these birds are the endangered Southern Ground-Hornbill and learn more about them, they quickly warm up to this fascinating species.
We chat to Dr Kemp about these unique birds and the award-winning Ground-Hornbill Project of the Mabula Game Reserve.
A Little About Dr Lucy Kemp
Dr Lucy Kemp has worked with the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project for 12 years. Her parents were early pioneers in the conservation of the Southern Ground-Hornbill and were the first to study the species, beginning their research in 1969 in the Kruger National Park.
You could say that a love of Southern Ground-Hornbills runs in her genes but in reality, being an ornithologist was the last thing on her mind when she started out on her conservation career path, preferring to study marine biology and work on projects involving black rhinos and high-value plant species.
“I didn’t want to have anything to do with birds, especially not my parents’ species. But when I arrived here, I realised that I had a unique set of skills gathered from my past projects, so I applied for the position”.
So how are Ground-Hornbills so like us? “They have such similar family structures to us. They live as long as we do; they are so social—I mean, they are almost more primates in behaviour than they are bird.”
However, these birds don’t fare well on the peopled planet of today. “They are slow breeders and live very long. The youngsters require at least five to six years of training with the adults before they are bushsavvy enough to go out into the wild. This makes them poorly adapted to the fast-paced, human-filled world we live in.”
The way forward? A ’Dinosaur Egg’ or artificial nest. An innovative solution to challenges such as habitat loss and the massive floods caused by climate change that wash away the large trees that Southern Ground-Hornbills use for nesting.
“The artificial nests we make look quite different. We make them look a bit like dinosaur eggs and call them that. However, we still haven’t come up with the perfect design. We’ve been testing them for seven years now, and every year in the heat of the summer, we put them out to test.’
While the design of these ‘Dinosaur Eggs’ is improving, it needs to be developed over the coming years to address other challenges such as global warming and the heat waves that cause embryo death.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can make the artificial nests as cool as possible to protect the embryos from these rising temperatures.”
There is another major challenge to GroundHornbill Conservation—humans, and this manifests in two ways.
The first is poisoning. Southern Ground-Hornbills are scavengers, and this places them at great risk as the meat they come across can often be poisonous. By scavenging on the remains of animals that have been killed by either poison bait laid by farmers or the lead ammunition used by hunters, park managers, antipoaching units, and the South African National Defence Force, the birds ingest toxic matter.
“There’s a lot of lead pollution going out into the environment. We’re finding that animals shot with lead ammunition release thousands of tiny fragments of lead into their bodies.”
This meat is often left out in the open: “People who discard contaminated animal remains think they’re doing a good thing leaving the gut pile there for scavengers to come and have a free meal but really, it’s just a poison-soaked, free meal.”
There is another, quite surprising reason that humans are one of the greatest threats to Southern Ground-Hornbills:
“Southern Ground-Hornbills are highly territorial. When they see their reflection in a window or a shiny surface such as a car or a side mirror, they see an enemy in their territory who’s trying to steal their nest and mate. As a result, they attack the reflection, causing a lot of broken glass and unhappiness among neighbours. This can sometimes lead to lethal retaliation.”
Addressing the ‘Human’ Problem
In addition to treating poisoned birds, the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project is working with communities and educating people about Ground-Hornbills, specifically regarding poison and lead ammunition and how to react to the species’ territorial behaviour.
Solutions to preventing and managing smashed property include perforated vinyl window coverings provided by a supporter in Johannesburg to remote schools and the partnering with insurance providers.
“SATIB insurance will replace any glass damaged by Ground-Hornbills with no change to your premium and no excess. This has been a huge help as they insure a lot of lodges across the country. We’re working on making this an industry standard, which would be a major step forward in protecting both the birds and the properties they interact with.”
The Mabula GroundHornbill Project has made real strides in Southern Ground-Hornbill conservation from building artificial nests that have seen chicks hatch and grow to raising community awareness and creating successful partnerships.
A huge achievement is the work that the project has done for Southern Ground-Hornbills outside protected areas.
“We’ve worked hard to raise awareness about the importance of conserving these birds living across multiple land uses such as communal grazing, timber, sugarcane, and cattle farming. That’s where we need to be putting the effort in. Shifting the conservation gaze in this way has been a significant accomplishment for us.”
Goals for the Future
The primary goal of the Mabula Southern Ground-Hornbill Project is to raise the number of Southern Ground-Hornbills so that they are no longer an endangered species. “This is the ultimate goal of any conservation project, and it would mean that we have succeeded in our efforts.”
The second goal is to share their treasure trove of experience and knowledge with countries across Africa, giving them the tools to succeed in their conservation of Southern Ground-Hornbills.
“We have learnt a lot of lessons over the years and want to share them with other range states. We are currently supporting conservation planning in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya is next on the list, with the aim of helping other states start up their own conservation projects without making the same mistakes we did. We want to share what does and doesn’t work with them.”
The Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project also continues to pay it forward with their educational programme, a launch pad for young African conservation biologists.
“I love taking in young students who are just finishing their degree and giving them a real feel for conservation on the ground, making sure they have the skills and know how to fundraise, communicate, and run their own projects. It makes us happy to see them move on to new and exciting things.”
How Can We Support the GroundHornbill Project?
Reporting any sightings of Ground-Hornbills on the hotline or WhatsApp number is extremely helpful as sightings enable the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project to collate data and put up camera traps and to know where nests need to be protected and where education and training are needed.
“Every single sighting is like gold to us and helps us understand where the birds are, where they aren’t, and where the problems are.”
People can also ‘Adopt a Nest’ for R10 000. This covers either the building of an artificial nest and the monitoring and potential harvesting of chicks or the protection of a wild nest from elephants.
A Corporate Social Investment (CSI) partnership would also be hugely beneficial in terms of providing the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project with much-needed funding.
“Overall, the project needs long-term funding support and community support. Working with community custodians and champions and getting people to value the birds will also go a long way in protecting the Ground-Hornbills.”
Find out more about the project and donate at: