This Project was founded in 1999 by Ann Turner when researchers were looking for a new release site for harvested chicks from Kruger National Park.
What started as one woman’s passion to help these endangered birds has become a nationwide conservation project. We are now, under the Species Recovery Plan, responsible for the re-wilding and reintroduction of harvested chicks along with research into threats and mitigations, education and awareness.
There are only about 1500 Southern Ground-Hornbills (Bucorvus leadbeateri) left in South Africa of which half are safely within the borders of the Kruger National Park. The other half of the population spans the rest of their range – Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal – and this population is in decline.
The majority of the causes of the decline are human-induced. Expanding human settlements, villages and cites are cutting away at remaining savannah habitat, their large nesting trees are being removed for wood (and blown down in big storms or being washed away by floods), non-target poisoning, persecution for breaking windows, use in traditional practises and electrocution on the transformer boxes that bring our electricity to our homes, lodges and farms.
We are mandated to slow and then reverse the decline. We do this by harvesting the second chicks from wild nests (in the Kruger National Park and Timbavati / Klaserie / Umbabat area).
These second chicks are nature’s insurance policy against any weakness in the first chick – if there is a problem that chick is neglected and the second one is raised. This ensures one healthy chick fledges. The second chick though usually dies of parental neglect (starvation and dehydration) leaving this as a very exciting conservation option for us to increase the population in other areas.
We rescue the second chick only if we are sure the first chick is healthy to ensure we in no way affect the breeding success of the wild nests. The chicks then go to the expert hand-rearers at Johannesburg Zoo and Loskop Dam where they remain until they are of fledging age.
These chicks then go either to the captive-breeding programme or into ‘bush-schools’ which are established free-roaming Ground-Hornbill groups where the alpha male will teach them all he knows about bush survival. These birds know very little instinctually and need to learn from other Ground-Hornbill what to hunt, how to hunt, where to sleep and what to be afraid of. These groups are kept safe and monitored by a hornbill shepherd.
From there, when we are sure they are bush-savvy, we then move them to their final release site.
These release sites, in areas where the hornbills have become locally extinct, are chosen on a basis of safety for the birds (all original threats to that habitat must be removed or mitigated for).
Here they will be monitored for their first year and they are free of human interference.
In addition to the releases we run an integrated education and awareness campaign as in many release site the birds have been locally extinct for a number of generations and the collective memory of them is lost.
We need to reintroduce the bird to the people, along with empower them with the true threats to the birds and their importance as a Flagship Species for the savannah biome.
In this way the ‘lost’ chicks from wild nests are now forming the basis of a whole new population of Ground Hornbills as we strive to have this bird removed from the Red Data List.