City of Joburg

Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo

Johannesburg Zoo


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There are only some 1500 Southern Ground Hornbills left in South Africa; the Joburg Zoo runs a rearing programme to care for the endangered birds, teaching the fledglings social skills so they interact well with the older birds, and eventually breed.

AIMING to ensure the survival of the Southern Ground Hornbill, Joburg Zoo staff successfully hand-reared three birds from the Kruger National Park and the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR).

The Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri), also referred to as a thunder, or rain, bird, is a flagship species for the savannah biome, along with cheetah, white rhino and several vulture species. Savannahs are open grasslands dotted with trees.

South Africa classifies the birds as endangered, with numbers outside of formally protected areas still on the decline. Currently an estimated 1500 Ground Hornbills are left in South Africa, of which half are safe within the protected areas of the greater Kruger National Park.

This year, Nelson, who hatched on 5 December, Mangake, on 8 December, and Tshukudu, on 13 December, have been nurtured to learn social skills so they can recognise and interact with their own species when they are old enough to breed.

The Zoo collaborates with other organisations, including The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute, through the APNR Ground Hornbill Project.

Raising a Southern Ground Hornbill
Southern Ground Hornbills lay two eggs but only rear one chick. This means the other chick is abandoned and needs to be rescued after it has hatched. Fieldworkers safely remove the abandoned chicks from the nests after three or four days.

Annually, Lara Jordan – birds curator at the Zoo – and her team painstakingly tend to these second chicks and initially feed them every two hours. The first 21 days are crucial to ensure the chicks' survival.

"Over the years we have tried various rearing techniques in an attempt to produce birds that are wild enough to be released. Techniques that have been found effective in limiting human imprinting on the birds includes mimicking humming noises to encourage the fledglings to open their mouths and feed as well as limiting the birds' view of humans by keeping them secluded," said Jordan.
The chicks are socialised with the adult birds from the outside of the enclosure from as young as two weeks old. This continues up until they fledge at around 90 days old, when they are placed in the enclosure with the adults to learn disciplinary behaviours.

"Socialising the younger birds with the group of already reared birds is crucial to get them to breed at a later stage, as well as ensuring we are producing birds that are considered wilder or less imprinted.

"Successfully reared birds are sent into captive populations as part of a programme aligned to the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria. However, each year we try to move closer to producing a releasable bird that is not habituated," she said.

Southern Ground Hornbills live in breeding groups of between two to nine birds, with one alpha male and one breeding female per group; the rest of the group are considered helpers.

The birds' declining numbers have been attributed to the loss of its habitat to croplands; bush-encroachment; overgrazing and plantations; loss of nesting trees; and secondary poisoning and electrocution.