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The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project

The Ground Hornbill Project – Endangered Species Day, 19 May

Mabula Reserve | Lucy Kemp interview

I’ve seen that the conservation of Ground Hornbills has always been a part of your life and that your parents were even involved in the early research of the species. Can you tell us a bit about your background and what inspired your conservation work? What led you to where you are today?

My parents started the first research on Ground Hornbills in Kruger in 1969 when nothing was known about these birds. They studied their biology, such as what they ate and how many eggs they laid. For many decades, conservation efforts for the species were primarily based in Kruger.

As a child of an ornithologist, I didn’t want to have anything to do with birds. Instead, I studied marine biology and worked on projects involving high-value plant species, black rhinos, and more. However, 12 years ago, the current manager of this project asked if I would be interested in a caretaker role. Initially, I didn’t want to work with birds, especially not my parents’ species. But when I arrived here, I realized that I had a unique set of skills gathered from my past projects. So I applied for the position and have been working here for 12 years now.

Growing up in Kruger and doing field work every school holiday instilled a love of the bush in me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s important for all of us to have that space to come back to, to recharge and regenerate.

Endangered Species Day is coming up soon. Can you tell us about some of the challenges that Ground Hornbills face as an endangered species, and what the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project is doing to address these challenges? What are some of the reasons for the decline of Ground Hornbills?

Ground hornbills are an endangered species in South Africa, facing two major challenges. The first challenge is simply their life-history strategy. They weren’t built, or didn’t evolve, for this fast-paced, human-filled world that we live in. 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 bush-savvy enough to go out into the wild. This makes them poorly adapted to the fast-paced, human-filled world we live in. The second challenge is human threats, with the biggest threat being poisoning. There are two kinds of poisoning. Farmers still use poison baits for jackals and other pests, and ground hornbills scavenge for meat. If they find a piece of poisoned meat, they will eat it. Ground hornbills feed as a group, which makes them vulnerable to poisoning as they all come together over a piece of poisoned meat.

The second biggest threat is the use of lead ammunition, which is toxic to ground hornbills and used by hunters, park managers, anti-poaching units and the defence force in South Africa. 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, and if any of that meat is left in the fields, which often happens when people are gutting an animal and leaving it, thinking 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, and this is one of our biggest challenges putting hornbills in danger. This has been the biggest reason for reintroduction failure over the last four years. The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project is working to address these challenges by treating poisoned birds and educating people about the dangers of using poison baits and lead ammunition.

The next big issue we’re facing is human-wildlife conflict. This conflict is typically associated with elephants or lions, but ground hornbills are also 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. We’re trying our best to reduce this conflict by covering windows and partnering with insurance providers to educate people about the issue and how to prevent it. However, because this territorial behaviour is ingrained in the birds’ nature, we must change how we react to it.

Another big issue we’re facing is the loss of nests due to a warming climate. We’re experiencing more violent storms and flooding along our big rivers, which washes away all the big trees in Kruger. This is impacting ground hornbills’ ability to make nests. They need big trees with hollows big enough to fit the female and chick in, and we’re losing those trees across the landscape. To combat this, we’re building artificial nests, which is working well. However, one challenge we’ve come up against is climate change itself. During heat waves of a few days over 40 to 43 degrees, we’re seeing embryo death, which is associated to climate change. 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.

What do the artificial nests look like?

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 we’re getting better at designing them, I feel the nests are good for now. But if we continue on the same trajectory, they won’t be good enough for ten years from now. So, that’s one of our big projects at the moment.

You mentioned that the hornbills attack their own reflection when they see themselves in car mirrors or windows. How do you go about educating the community, do you have to literally cover up all mirrors and windows to protect them?

There are different ways to approach the issue of hornbills attacking their reflection. One cheap solution is using a mud paste made of ash and water, which is applied to windows in rural schools during the last day of school and washed off on the first day of term. This way, birds don’t see their reflection and do not cause damage. However, this option is messy and not suitable for lodges.

Another solution that has worked well in remote schools is using perforated vinyl provided by a supporter in Joburg. This vinyl allows light to come in and kids to see out while preventing birds from seeing their reflection.

As for lodges, they are still working on finding a suitable option. 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.

How can individuals who are passionate about protecting endangered species like Ground Hornbills support the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project?

Individuals who are passionate about protecting endangered species like Ground Hornbills can support the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project in several ways. The first thing they can do is reach out to the project if they have Ground Hornbills on their property. The project can then start the education process, help protect their nest, put up camera traps, and train their staff.

Funding is always an issue, as the project is a small nonprofit organization. We lost more than half of the staff to corporate last year due to unsustainable industry-based salaries. Building a more sustainable funding base would be helpful, and the project is looking for CSI partnerships. Reporting sightings of Ground Hornbills anywhere and everywhere is also valuable, as it helps the project understand where the birds are and where the problems are. A lot of our funding comes from overseas, and I would love South Africans to take more of a stand for their own species.

Finding a corporate that would be happy to take this on would be massively helpful. The other thing people can do is report sightings, anywhere and everywhere they are seen! If they see ground hornbills we have a reporting hotline or Whatsapp number for a permanent staff member manning the ground. 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.

The project is also launching an “Adopt a Nest” program, which allows people to pay R10,000 to cover the protection of a wild nest from elephants, or the building of an artificial nest and it would cover the monitoring, and the potential harvesting of chicks from that nest for the reintroduction program.

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.

Can you share what makes you most proud of the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project?

One of the things that makes me most proud of the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project is our focus on protecting birds outside of protected areas. The Kruger is fine. They don’t need us faffing around there. It’s the birds outside of the protected areas that need protection!  We’ve worked hard to raise awareness about the importance of conserving 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.

Another thing that brings me a lot of satisfaction is seeing new chicks fledge out of nests that we built. It’s deeply rewarding to receive camera trap images of that and to know that we’ve given these chicks a fighting chance in a world full of dangers. At least we made it possible for them to have a start. Overall, I feel proud of the work we’re doing to help these amazing birds thrive, and I hope that our efforts will inspire others to join us in this important cause.

Looking ahead, what are some of the project’s goals and plans for the future?

There are a couple of big overriding things that we want to achieve. First, we want to see the population of ground hornbills increase to a point where they are no longer called endangered. This is the ultimate goal of any conservation project, and it would mean that we have succeeded in our efforts. Secondly, we have learned 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. We want to increase the value of the birds, so people know about them, we have often met with people who just don’t know anything about the birds. They have such similar family structures to us, they live as long as we do, and they are so social – I mean, they are almost more primates in behaviour than they are birds. They are amazing tourism attractions, they are a flagship umbrella species and top predators. There’s so much going for them! We also want to continue growing our education program and be a launchpad 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.

Discover more insights into the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project with Dr Lucy Kemp