Booooom… that’s the sound the groundbreaking Mabula Ground Hornbill Project is fighting to protect. Launched in 1999, this conservation initiative strives to combat the declining numbers of the endangered and aptly named Thunder Bird, the Southern Ground Hornbill, of which there are only about 1 500 left in South Africa.
Mabula Game Reserve has been selected as one of the few release and reintroduction sites in South Africa, hosting on-site researchers whose mandate it is to enhance and develop expertise in caring for this endangered species.
As part of the initiative, eggs are harvested in and around the Kruger National Park, where at least half of South Africa’s Southern Ground Hornbill population is located, and are then taken to hand-rearing facilities after which they are either selected for captive breeding or are placed in Bush Schools. Special release sites are then selected once these birds are mature enough to be released in to the wild and form a breeding group, comprising two to nine birds.
The Southern Ground Hornbill is an extraordinarily unique bird species that lives in social, cooperative breeding groups with only one alpha male and one breeding female per group, with the rest of the group helping to rear the fledgling. There are currently only an estimated 417 breeding groups throughout the whole of South Africa and on average only one fledgling per group is raised to adulthood every nine years.
As carnivores, these birds are particularly susceptible to poison traps laid down by farmers against jackals and other predators on farms. The loss of habitat caused by eradication of big trees, which Southern Ground Hornbills require to breed, is a further cause of their rapid demise.
Despite the passionate intervention by Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, recognised internationally as a Species Guardian, and other conservationists, it is estimated that it could take as long as 100 years for this bird species to be at a stable state.
There is hope, however, as with the loss of every bird, the Ground Hornbill Project is tweaking its rearing and reintroduction recipe, with a special focus on education in schools and among farmers and communities in areas in which these birds are endemic.
What’s up with Jac?
Who is Jac and why is he so important to the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project? Jac, named after the location of his nest – Jacaranda – is the first Southern Ground Hornbill in this initiative to have been bred from a captive hand-reared female released in to the wild. He is a success story. Not only is he heading up his very own Southern Ground Hornbill breeding community in the wild, he is also doing something great for his species by teaching other Southern Ground Hornbills released in to his care.