In addition to its notorious battling lion prides, exciting on-foot safaris, an incredible biosphere and bird species galore, Klaserie and its neighbors host a number of conservation projects that are imperative to the study and survival of some of our favourite species. This is the location of the Southern ground hornbill conservation project (SGHP) and the breeding ground of the rare and endangered White-backed vulture. The SGHP has been successfully operating for 10 years and monitors all 23 Ground hornbill groups in the Klaserie, Timbavati and Umbabat reserves.
The social structure of these large, carnivorous ground birds is interesting, with groups of 2 to 11 individuals usually having only one breeding pair per group. Furthermore, the breeding female will lay just one to two eggs once every nine years, during the breeding season (from October to March). It is no wonder then that these Jurassic-looking birds are in need of protection for their species to survive.
As if an infrequent breeding pattern isn’t enough to put the Southern ground hornbill’s future at risk, the hatchlings are born into a battle for survival that begins in the nest. If two eggs are laid, one chick hatches three to five days before the other, and enjoys a substantial weight difference of about 250 g compared to a mere 60 g. True to nature’s motto: ‘the survival of the fittest’, the stronger chick will dominate the food supply, ultimately resulting in the death of the weaker one. In a movement to save the species, which is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ in South Africa, Klaserie’s SGHP has intervened.
Run by the Percy Fitz Patrick Institute of African Ornithology, the programme is primarily a research project that incorporates the fieldwork of students at the University of Cape Town. Over the years, the SGHP has aimed to understand how the ground hornbills use their home ranges, which can occupy a territory of up to 100 square kilometres, and decipher which habitats they prefer or avoid when nesting. The programme monitors both natural and artificial nests in the area, recording invaluable information on nesting activity. Kate Carstens, manager of the project, has emphasised the effectiveness of the research carried out, “For the first time, we’ve been able to visualise changes in home ranges from the wetter seasons to the drier seasons, something that has never been done before in this species.” she says, “We’ve also been able to understand what factors influence the success of breeding.”
Southern Ground Hornbills are estimated to number only about 1 500 in South Africa, with about half residing in the Greater Kruger area. The project’s aim therefore has a vital impact on the species. Naturally, these birds only raise one chick to adulthood once every 9 years, making reproduction exceptionally slow. In an attempt to increase the population, the SGHP collects the second-hatched eggs every breeding season. These are then hand-reared for re-release into the wild and for captive breeding programmes run by Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project, based in Mabula Private Game Reserve but operating throughout the Kruger area.
There is a large discrepancy in reproductive success within the 23 groups of ground hornbills being monitored. “From 2001 to 2008 there were some highly successful groups that bred and fledged a chick almost every year, whereas other groups either did not breed or rear young at all. In that time (184 possible group breeding years), there were 67 breeding attempts by 17 of the 23 groups,” I was told. This is truly a situation in which nature requires the help of humans to prevent such a unique and specialised species from becoming extinct. Thank you to these dedicated teams of conservationists.
For more information visit the Sun Safaris website.