Caring for thunderbirds


The southern ground-hornbill is the fastest-declining bird species in South Africa. Lucy Kemp, who manages the country’s ground-hornbill metapopulation, talks to Safari News about the survival of this bird beyond the borders of its protected areas…

A ground-hornbill in flight. Photo: Mabula Ground Hornbill Project

Five facts

2 500: The estimated number of ground-hornbills in South Africa.

200: The estimated number of ground-hornbill family groups in Kruger National Park.

Thunder or rain bird: Their nickname, as they are associated with the first good rains of summer.

Social hierarchy: There is an alpha breeding pair and the remaining group members are all subordinates, much like the African wild dog.

90%: The success rate with raising redundant chicks (the second egg) that would naturally die.


Ground-hornbills are seen so often in the Greater Kruger National Park that many people might not be aware of the plight of this iconic savannah and grassland species. Within the borders of our greatest protected areas they are doing well. The groups are at capacity, with an average density of one family group every 80–100km2. They still face a few natural threats in these areas, such as predation by leopards, caracal, martial eagles or crowned eagles, and the trees they nest in may be lost to elephant impacts or floods, fires and strong winds, but the population remains viable.

Ground-hornbill up close. Photo: Mabula Ground Hornbill Project.

Outside protected areas, however, the ground-hornbill population lacks this protection and faces a myriad of human-induced threats. These include electrocution from landing on a transformer box, injury from broken glass when they attack their own reflections in windows, and even lethal responses from angry landowners. Simply being a charismatic bird may lead to capture for the avifauna trade, and some farmers continue to use indiscriminate poisoned baits to target ‘pest’ species. Shooting with lead ammunition and leaving offal in the veld for scavengers, or injuring animals, places species like the ground-hornbill at risk. The smallest amount of lead can prove fatal for these birds. These are only a handful of threats, but for a slow-breeding, long-lived bird, it is enough to drive them to extinction.

At this critical stage, every group counts. There is only one breeding female per group, and the males protect her, her nest and territory, and feed her and the chicks.

Fortunately, in some regions of South Africa there is a strong cultural association with the species. It is seen as the bringer or predictor of good rain and the thunder- or rain bird, as it is known, enjoys protection. There is concern that this protected status may disappear.

An artificial nest constructed for the ground-hornbills. Photo: Mabula Ground Hornbill Project.Ground-hornbills are resident in their territory, so many communities have a known and locally accepted family group of them in their region. This local-level conservation will keep the species from declining further. If each ground-hornbill group can have a cohort of people who share their habitat and protect their nest, and try to remove as many of the threats as possible, ground-hornbill groups will be much safer.

One of the conservation ideas is the reintroduction of ground-hornbills into areas where they have become locally extinct. The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project harvests the second egg from wild populations. These birds are hand-reared with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. Introductions are now taking place in many parts of the Limpopo province and northern Zululand.

One of the key focus points is growing a core population in the southern Waterberg district of the Limpopo province. This population will ultimately join up with the remaining population in Botswana. Three fully functional groups have already been established, with another two scheduled for early 2020.


Ground-hornbill eggs. Photo: Mabula Ground Hornbill Project

Two bush schools have been established at Loskop Dam Nature Reserve where the hand-reared chicks learn their bush skills. One of them is breeding successfully. A specialised centre, called The Baobab, opened in October 2018, and will be capable of rearing up to 15 new birds per year from 2020. This will allow the reintroduction programme to grow rapidly and to release three functional groups.

These groups, released to form cores of at least 10 groups, will secure the long-term sustainability
of the populations. It is a monumental task and to safeguard the 10 000km2 of habitat required to support these cores from known threats is no mean feat. A team of conservation collaborators work tirelessly to support, protect and grow ground-hornbill populations, beyond the protected areas.

For more information, visit

Secure a future for southern ground-hornbills

A chick born at The Baobab. Photo: Mabula Ground Hornbill Project.

Apart from helping to hand-rear chicks, conduct research, undertake reintroductions and conduct a nationwide education campaign, the team at the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project also focuses on constructing artificial nest boxes due to loss of suitable nesting trees. You can assist by adopting a ground-hornbill today!  Funds raised through the Safari News virtual adoptions portal support this project.
Visit for more details.




Written by Lucy Kemp. 

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