Mabula Private Game Reserve has been the home of the award-winning Mabula Ground Hornbill Project since 1999. This non-profit conservation project aims to change perceptions – and the fortunes – of this iconic but endangered species, through multi-disciplinary and evidence-based conservation techniques.
The charismatic Southern Ground-Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) is a bird that many people already know well. They are culturally important as the ‘thunder’ or ‘rain’ birds and are a flagship species for the savannah biome (along with cheetah, white rhino and several vulture species).
At present, Southern Ground-Hornbills are considered internationally as ‘Vulnerable’ throughout their range in Africa by the IUCN, but within South Africa and Namibia they have been classified as Endangered with their numbers outside of formally protected areas still in decline.
It is estimated that there are only about 1 500 Ground Hornbills left in South Africa, of which only a third are safe within the protected areas of the greater Kruger National Park. The birds live in social, cooperatively breeding groups that consist of between two and nine birds, but with only one alpha male and one breeding female per group, the rest of the group are helpers to defend the territory and feed the female and chick. This means there are only an estimated 400-500 breeding groups in the whole of South Africa, while data from the Kruger National Park shows that, on average, only one chick is raised to adulthood every nine years.
The reasons for their decline are predominantly loss of nesting trees, secondary poisoning, electrocution, loss of habitat to croplands, bush encroachment, overgrazing and monoculture.
The Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project is working to slow the decline by:
- Harvesting and assisting the hand-rearing of second-hatched chicks that would otherwise die of starvation in 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 risks in those areas have been mitigated.
- Provision of artificial nests for wild groups with no or inadequate nests.
- Research into genetics, behaviour and other important unanswered questions necessary for successful re-establishment.
- A country-wide awareness campaign, to educate the public about the threats facing this flagship indicator species and to reinstate the bird into collective memory in areas where it has become locally extinct.