Tree of life for ground-hornbills

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Georgina Lockwood looks into the lives of southern ground-hornbills and the work the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project is doing to secure a future for these birds.

The mighty baobab is often regarded as the tree of life, attracting an array of wildlife – from bats, bees and birds to the southern ground-hornbill. For this reason, the baobab was selected as the symbolic design for the new ground-hornbill chick-rearing centre that opened in October 2018 at Loskop Dam Nature Reserve in Mpumalanga.

As part of a population-bolstering programme, the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project (MGHP) and its partners harvest the second egg from wild ground-hornbill nests and raise the chick by hand, or if possible they encourage a captive pair of adult birds to become ‘foster’ parents. The birds are listed as Regionally Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List and populations continue
to decline.

In nature the second chick simply dies of parental neglect if the first chick is strong and healthy. Because ground-hornbills only rear a chick an average of every six years, the survival of every chick is vital.
“The facility plays a very important role in centralising and standardising the rearing of ground-hornbills,” says Dr Lucy Kemp, project manager of MGHP. “It is designed to maximise research opportunities and improve the hornbill chicks’ chances of survival once they are reintroduced into areas where they have already become locally extinct.”

Ground-hornbills are clever and gregarious birds, and the chicks need to be properly socialised and taught life skills by other ground-hornbills. Human interaction is minimised and everything is as natural as possible.

A family group of ground-hornbills. Sketch: Graham Kearney Love this sketch? Own it: www.safarinews.org/africas-palette/

Mimicking nature

‘The Baobab’ has been designed to mimic nature and has been constructed from soft durable netting. At nine metres high, it gives the birds space in which to fly and build their flight strength. Much of the original vegetation has been kept in the aviaries too, to create a natural ecosystem. Each aviary has a built-in management camp that allows for appropriate introductions for new birds, and aids capture of sick or injured birds.

“The opening on the second floor is set at an approximate height of the average nest in the wild,” Kemp explains. “The chicks can then fledge from their ‘nest’ into the aviary and a foster family, when they are ready.” As part of the socialisation process chicks are exposed to audio, visual, and safe interaction with other birds.

Five nests are embedded on the second storey of the circular building where the rearing takes place. The centre can house 25 birds within five primary groups. The bottom floor is an observation room for researchers.

Delecia Gunn has been successfully rearing chicks for over 18 years, and has made an important contribution to the chicks’ survival. A member of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, Gunn has mastered the art of rearing well-socialised chicks that have gone on to breed in the wild, says Kemp.

Another important aspect of The Baobab is ensuring the development of additional skilled and intuitive rearers like Gunn. MGHP raised six chicks during the 2018/19 breeding season. Two hand-reared males are currently being released into wild flocks managed by the MGHP.

Did you know?

Ground-hornbills are culturally revered as they are associated with good rain. In Zulu culture it is believed that just one ground-hornbill feather laid in a dry riverbed can break a drought.

HELP the project

Want to help the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project with their work and securing a future for these magnificent birds? Click here to find out more.

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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