The Southern Ground Hornbill is defying the odds favoring extinction despite the lowest reproductive rate of any bird, and unique public relations problems.
By Rex Graham
This plodding 10-to-14-pound (4.6-to-6.2-kg) hornbill has been a fixture in African culture for millennia. It lives in cooperative family groups of up to nine birds, and each one uses its massive beak to seize everything from insects to hares on the open savanna or in riparian areas.
The photogenic bird’s numbers are declining across all of southern Africa. At Kruger National Park, hornbills nest close to tourist roads, “possibly due to lower predation pressure” there.
Birding tour companies, such as South Africa-based Absolute Birding Tours and Photographic Safaris, are committed to protecting hornbills and other vulnerable African birds. The company’s tours in Kruger National Park not only provide intimate views of mammals, but also close views of the Southern Ground Hornbill, Cape Glossy Starling, Crested Barbet, Brown Snake-Eagle, Scarlet Breasted Sunbird and Green Wood-Hoopoe.
Alpha Southern Ground Hornbill females in each family group lay three eggs per breeding season in nests in large trees or rock ledges or crevices. The strongest chick gets rid of the two weaker ones. Fledging the lone survivor can take as long as two years after hatching, which means the hornbill’s rate of reproduction is lower than even the Wandering Albatross.
Threats for Southern Ground Hornbill to Overcome
The hornbill’s hardwired slow reproduction is made worse in South Africa by its ingestion of mercury in their diet, causing “adverse reproductive effects,” according to researchers at the University of Pretoria, Tishwane University of Technology in Pretoria and the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa. (The country depends on coal to produce electricity, and mercury pollution is a byproduct.)
The birds are known for their booming calls and occasionally for breaking windows and aggressively defending their territories even against humans. Some farmers retaliate by cutting down nesting trees, a very effective way to get rid of the birds. In addition to other usual threats – habitat destruction and development – South African researchers noted in a 2015 paper in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety that hornbills are killed by “purposeful poisoning.”
With the negative effects of livestock grazing, human disturbance, persecution and poisoning, it’s a wonder why the Southern Ground Hornbill hasn’t gone extinct.
Bitter Ecological Medicine
It gets worse: hornbills are killed to supply the traditional medicine market and they occupy dark places in the human psyche. In some African cultures, the Southern Ground Hornbill is an omen of death, loss and destruction.
However, there are glimmers of hope.
The Southern Ground Hornbill also is cherished by some African cultures as a timekeeper of seasonal and daily changes. In other cases, the bird is regarded as a protective influence or enabler of altered perceptions and remote viewing.
“The possibility now exists to create interventions aimed at strengthening those beliefs and practices that have protective consequences for the Southern Ground Hornbill,” wrote researchers at North-West University in South Africa in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine.
I believe that the more we watch, photograph, study and enjoy the Southern Ground Hornbill, the better for the species, all birds, all wildlife and all humans.