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Comic Field Notes of a Real Life Game Ranger in the South African Bushveld

Updated on June 2, 2016

The Ones we Forgot….

The heat is formidable. The guide even more so. The veld grass shimmers in a wave of gold as our boot-clad weary feet stumble over another hidden log-could be worse-much like our landrover over an N4 pothole. The “Don’t run!, don’t run!” chant that has been taunting your brain for the past 2 hours –designed to remind bush-happy campers that we are in fact infringing on numerous territories of numerous organisms with big teeth, has now become so stale, it might be worth the risk to run –even if just to change the picture in your head.

The booming grunt comes expectantly and the guide stops abruptly. Like a line of dominoes, the remaining 7 bushwhackers duly crash into him –forming a human pile up second to none.

Not all roads lead to Rome, not all grunts lead to lions. Behold, before us, winking at us with eyelashes that look like spiders with lives of their own…is a fine example, according to our guide, of a Bucorvus leadbeateri. “Yes!” says Mr .Know-it-all (every group has one!!), second from the back, and still sporting bits of soil in his hair from the earlier mishap.

At first, it looks as if this mighty specimen has stabbed an unsuspecting alien life form with its large, fearsome beak, until one realises it is in fact gripping in its bill somewhat of a bird buffet –a lizard, a dismembered frog and a family of insects.

In fact, the daily menu also serves up squirrels, mice, smaller birds and in a similar fashion to our cheese fondues (without the cheese), snakes are often stabbed and shared between group members.

It is, as we know it, the Southern Ground Hornbill. These birds are large ,weighing up to 6.4kg and are also able to fly –at lower levels than their

It is, of course, brave and honourable (and important!) to spend one’s life trying to save the African lion, the mighty polar bear and the whales for which our conservation hearts continuously mourn. However, what about the Ones We Forgot? Like the Southern Ground Hornbill?

The Ground Hornbill research project has, in fact, been going since 1999 within the Mabula Game Reserve and interestingly enough the very first Long-term field studies of the species was first initiated in Kruger National Park (KNP), with the first chick being harvested from the KNP in 1973. The project, with its goal being to halt the decline of SGHs in South Africa by 2015, had its origins when Alan Kemp started his post-graduate studies in KNP on small hornbills , at the same time taking an interest in the Ground Hornbills and their movements. Joined in 1968 by his wife Meg, the Kemps initiated a long-term focal study of SGHs around Satara Rest Camp in 1974 and later expanded it to cover the whole of the KNP, especially during 1991-98 (refs 1-9, 13-16), with aspects of data collection continued to this day by the Mabula Project and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). (Full Project History - Compiled by Dr Alan Kemp, Ann Turner and Nicholas Theron-Mabula Ground Hornbill project).

At present, their numbers sit at approximately 1500 individuals within South Africa, with scientists predicting that they could soon move from “Vulnerable Status” with the IUCN to being on the Red Data List Criteria as “Critically Endangered” in South Africa.

Group size varies between 2-9 birds that form cooperatively breeding groups and consisting of only one Alpha male and one breeding female, with the remaining individual being helpers.The handsome males sports striking red facial and throat skin, while the female,(never wanting to outdo the male!),has a paler patch of purple skin on her throat. Juvenile birds are of a dull brown colour while young birds under 2 years of age have yellowish facial skin.

Data from the Kruger National Park shows that, on average, only one chick is raised to adulthood every nine years, with the average adult lifespan being 50 years.

Much like some other birds of prey, the eldest chick always out-competes its younger sibling for food and the younger dies of starvation within a few days of hatching. The critical aspect of Southern Ground Hornbill breeding biology is their naturally low productivity.

The average overall fledging rate in the Kruger National Park is only one chick per group every 9.3 years –an alarming statistic. Loss of habitat, loss of nesting trees, electrocution from transformer boxers and even, in some cases, with birds being killed for traditional medicine usage have all contributed to the decline of these majestic birds.

Bush encroachment also plays a role( when the bush vegetation gets so thick that we are forced to volunteer unsuspecting people to hack it out with all sorts of pangas and weapons-much akin to doing a full body workout. For 8 hours.).

Efforts to conserve the species are being undertaken by various conservation projects and often involve the harvesting and hand rearing of second-hatched chicks that die of starvation in their wild nests. Provision of artificial nests where there are none and reintroduction of these birds back into areas where they have become locally extinct form the basis of these projects. Without a doubt, conservation education and awareness campaigns aimed at the public and rural communities is essential.

With the above in mind, as we at Hartley’s send you out to Find your Africa, we hope that you will spare a thought for some of those that we sometimes forget….Find them, enjoy them, conserve them!

Southern Ground Hornbill

Southern Ground Hornbill
Southern Ground Hornbill | Source

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