Shenton Safaris

Southern ground hornbill conservation

On a recent visit to Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, which borders the western Kruger National Park, I was thrilled to learn about the number of conservation initiatives on the go over there.

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One of nature’s more unusual-looking specimens – the Southern ground hornbill. This critically endangered species is the focus of a conservation project taking place in the greater Kruger National Park area. © Cassie Carstens

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.

A male and female Southern Ground Hornbill. The birds generally have just one breeding pair per 2–11-strong group.

A male and female Southern ground hornbill. The birds generally have just one breeding pair per group. © Cassie Carstens

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.

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A Ground hornbill chick and a second egg in the nest. Breeding females lay just 1 to 2 eggs once every 9 years. The first-born chick commandeers the food supply, leaving the second to die slowly of malnourishment. © Kate Carstens

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Chick in natural nest. © Kate Carstens

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.”

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Ground Hornbill footprints. © Kate Carstens

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.

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A tussle for lunch! While the birds happily engage in their daily lives, wildlife watchers and scientists are keeping a close eye on their numbers. © Cassie Carstens

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.

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Harvesting second chick. © Kate Carstens

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Artificial nest. © Kate Carstens

For more information visit the Sun Safaris website.



Chloe Cooper

Hi, I’m Chloe. I’ve recently learnt that life is full of surprises and that one should learn to embrace that, as there’s little else to do when confronted with the element of surprise. This became obvious to me during the months I spent in the Kruger National Park, where my FGASA group would set out on game drive with bated breath, camera at the ready and snap-happy fingers poised. What we were to see could never be predicted. After obtaining my degree in organisational psychology at the University of Cape Town, I headed off, rather surprisingly, into the bush to learn game-rangering. Even more surprisingly, I became a qualified field guide (despite the lack of any sort of vertebrate present during my practical). I'll cut out the long, weepy story of how I came to leave the magnificent veld, and fast-forward to the part where I can happily announce that I’m living the dream – so very nearly. My job at Sun Safaris requires that I read and watch and look and listen to everything that is safari. I relish in the responsibility to write about this fascinating world, and to blog for Africa Geographic is the cherry on top. The ‘so very nearly’ part? Well that’s in anticipation of a surprise offer to visit the glorious African countries I love to read and write about!

Africa Geographic