It is estimated that there are only about 1500 Ground-Hornbills left in South Africa.
The birds live in social, cooperatively breeding groups, the dynamics of which mean there are only an estimated 417 breeding groups in the whole of South Africa, and on average, only one chick is raised to adulthood every nine years.
The reasons for the decline are predominantly loss of habitatto croplands, bush-encroachment, overgrazing and plantations, loss of nesting trees, secondary poisoning and electrocution. One of the main threats to them is that they are shot or poisoned for breaking windows.
The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project strives to halt, and then reverse the decline of the Southern Ground-Hornbill by:
- Harvesting and assisting the hand-rearing of redundant second-hatched chicks that dies of starvation in the wild nests.
- Re-wilding of the hand-reared chicks by established groups in ‘bush’ training schools.
- Reintroduction of these ‘rescued’ birds back into areas where they have become locally extinct, once the original threats in those areas have been mitigated.
- Augmentation of non-viable groups in the wild.
- Provision of artificial nests for wild groups with no or inadequate nests.
- Research on genetics, behaviour and other important unanswered questions necessary for successful re-establishment.
- Coordination of Awareness Campaigns, to educate the general public to the threats facing this flagship indicator species and to reinstate the bird into collective memory in areas where it has become locally extinct.
Between October 2015 and March 2016 a total of eleven weeks were spent in the field to capture the last wild birds needed for completion of the genetic analyses. Several threats to the populations were discovered, including the pending titanium strip mining in Pondoland, but we also met many community members who were happy to become Custodians.
A young female ground-hornbill was found in a snare by community members outside Musina. A local farmer alerted us and, through the local nature conservation official’s intervention, she got the necessary veterinary care. Two weeks later she was ready to be released back into the wild.
We were given the opportunity to use some amazing pieces of equipment over the past six months. A field lead analyser that assesses blood lead levels whilst in the field allowed us to immediately decide if a bird needs chelation treatment. In the past, getting our blood samples to the laboratory in good condition had been difficult, but with a mobile centrifuge we are able to easily separate the serum. We also can’t wait to put the new field candler to good use this coming breeding season.
Our collapsible aviary is up and working. This is a big step towards reducing costs at release sites, and to making them more sustainable in the future. The birds seem happy and it takes just two days to put up the aviary. Once the birds are ready to be moved, the aviary can be dismantled and moved to the next site.
We are currently testing the feasibility of using horses to monitor newly released individuals. It took a few months to fine-tune the team’s riding skills, but we are now able to improve the quality of data collection at release sites.
Figuring out how to keep the released birds on land that is safe from threats has been a challenge. In the past, even though we secured areas as big as 50 000 ha, the birds are still inclined to wander off which led to losses due to poisonings on neighbouring properties. The placement of artificial nests is working well though, and the new group has been seen carrying nest lining. The more we understand what drives their territoriality, the better we will be able to manipulate their landscape and demographics to keep them safe.
Thank you to Identipet for donating the microchips and scanners for the project.
For more information visit the Mabula Ground-Hornbill website.