Southern Ground Hornbills are one of the most charismatic and photogenic of all the great birds of the world. Sadly these wonderful birds are highly endangered and at risk of disappearing completely from many parts of the African bush as a result of deforestation, poisoning and use of their body parts in traditional African medicines. It is estimated that only 1,500 remain wandering in the wild in Southern Africa; a sad situation for such a magnificent bird to find itself in.
Until I started systematically going through my photographs to clean out those that just don’t have the technical quality to justify hard drive space I never realized how many good shots I have accumulated of these birds. Hopefully presenting some of them here will create awareness of the dire plight of this species and help stimulate their conservation.
Southern Ground Hornbills roam enormous territories in groups of 5-10 birds which restrict the numbers of birds that can exist in a given area. They are large black and red birds that spend their days foraging through the bush looking for a wide variety of insects, lizards, snakes and small animals like squirrels and tortoises and bird nestlings. Despite their size and age (they can live up to 50 years) they have an extremely low fertility rate and on average only raise a single chick once every eight or nine years. The birds lay one to two eggs which hatch in the sequence laid which means one hatchling will be three to fourteen days older than the second. The younger chick, unable to compete for food with its older sibling quickly dies of starvation. So the species are highly susceptible to any form of mass predication.
What these photos show is a bush-hardy bird that is clearly wise beyond its years. Its sharp eyes, shielded from the sun by to-die-for eyelashes are set in a wrinkled face of red rubber wrapped in black feathers. Young birds have yellowish skin that darkens and reddens with time. They are fantastic birds to watch and photograph and seeing them wild in the bush makes the day something special.
Searching the internet I was surprised to find that it is known by a wide variety of names by a wide variety of people; Bromvoel (Afrikaans), Insingizi/Intsikizi (Xhosa), iNgududu & iNsingizi (Zulu), Dendera (Shona), Lehututu (Tswana), Ingududu (Swazi) and Nghututu (Tsonga). All revere the bird, but also fear it and as a consequence use its body parts to make traditional medicines. The other main threat to the species comes from Farmers who lay poison and from an overall decline in suitable nesting habitats due to deforestation and other natural cycles such as drought.
There are a number of conservation projects ongoing that appear worth following. The first is the Mabula Ground Hornbill Conservation Project being undertaken in the Mabula private game reserve in South Africa (www.mabulagroundhornbillconservationproject.org.za) This project is actively studying the genetic diversity of these birds and hand rearing chicks for release back into the wild. The second is a schools and community based project run in the Matobo region of Zimbabwe which aims to raise the awareness of the need for conservation of these birds within the local community. (http://www.zddt.org/ground-hornbill-zimbabwe-1019.html )