Mabula Ground Hornbill Project

To promote the survival of southern ground hornbills in South Africa


Not too long ago the total South African population of the southern ground hornbill, Bucorvus leadbeateri, has been estimate at between 1500 and 2000 birds, with the majority in the Kruger National Park and adjacent Private Reserves. Historical records indicate a much wider distribution. The principle causes for their decline appear to be habitat change, in particular loss of large trees for nest sites and loss of foraging habitat to monocultures such as crops and timber, but also poisoning, and shooting of whole groups on farms.

Currently about half of the southern ground hornbills in South Africa occur in the Kruger National Park, an estimated 200 breeding pairs. About 217 breeding pairs are believed to occur in the rest of South Africa, in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape Provinces. The population in the Kruger National Park is surrounded on all sides by declining populations and is probably separated from populations further south. The estimates for non-protected areas outside the Park are considered optimistic, given recent evidence of extinction in Swaziland, southern Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal, and reduced estimates for Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Neighbouring populations in Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique are also reported to be declining or losing range. The Botswana population is data deficient.

The local extinction of the species can be predicted if the current trend is not reversed soon.


The Project started in April, 1999, with the donation of 3 southern ground hornbill juveniles, which had been harvested as ‘doomed' second chicks from the Kruger National Park, to release them into the wild. This was achieved and the group still remains on the Mabula Reserve, and is actively nesting. As juveniles require their group for food and protection until they are two and a half years old, a shepherd followed them for two years in the reserve. A wild adult male was acquired which obviated the necessity for human contact and habituation, apart from supplementary feeding of the additional chicks each year, and monitoring.

Each breeding season the project harvests second chicks (which always die of starvation in the wild) from the Kruger National Park, and hand rears them. In 2005, the first chicks hatched at Umgeni River Bird Park were integrated into the project. The chicks are reared at Mabula by experienced hand rearers in ghosts and with puppets and in silence. On fledging they join the wild group on the Reserve, with whom they have been communicating from the nest, after which at six months old they are released, individually, into non-viable groups in the wild, or new wild groups are made up.

It is hoped that increasing the depleted wild population will eventually increase breeding in the wild of this very slow breeding species (average of 9 years for a group to raise a chick to adulthood). Also partificial nests are provided for groups who have lost their nest or where there are no suitable trees with large nest cavities.

The ex situ Breeding Programme has paired and re-paired harvested/hand reared birds in zoos, and the first chicks were successfully bred for the first time in South Africa, in January 2005. Umgeni River Bird Park hand reared chicks, and Loskop Nature Reserve parent reared successfully. Five project-reared birds, deemed unsuitable for release, have been given to breeding programs in 2005/06.

A Public Awareness Programme has been instigated in 2000, addressing schools, libraries, clubs etc. A Population Habitat Viability Assessment was carried out in 2005, and in situ research has been carried out in Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces. 30 artificial nests were erected in the Limpopo Valley to encourage groups to breed where nesting trees have been felled.

At the 4th International Hornbill Conference, held for the first time in Africa at Mabula in November, 2005, 15 zoos sent delegates with an interest in breeding ground hornbills in their zoos, and discussions were held for proposed wild releases in South Africa of overseas zoo bred ground hornbill juveniles.

A genetic study has almost been completed, as many of the overseas birds are from Tanzania. Contacts have also been made with the other African countries with sSouthern ground hornbill populations, which are to be pursued, as the birds are also in danger there. The project is in need of further funding in order to achieve all the additional work that has slowly been taken on by the project staff.

Since spring 2007, a GIS map showing the distribution of records has been put on the project website along with a preliminary analysis by Alan Kemp. This map will be continuously updated.

A research centre is planned to be constructed on a neighbouring reserve to Mabula to house the growing and necessary research.

WAZA Conservation Project 06003 is implemented by the Mabula Ground Hornbill Research & Conservation Nonprofit Organisation, and supported by the National Zoo of South Africa, Pretoria, Johannesburg Zoo, Montecasino Bird Gardens, Umgeni River Bird Park (all South Africa), San Diego Wildlife Park (USA), Marwell Zoological Park, Chester Zoo (both UK) as well as by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), WWF South Africa, Sasol Ltd., Mabula Game Lodge, The Three Cities Group, and United Breweries.


> to project overview
  • The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, South Africa
  • The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, South Africa
  • The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, South Africa
  • The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, South Africa

    The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, South Africa

    Adult Female © Hendry Coetzee, The Ground Horbill Project

    Artificial nest at release site © Dee de Waal, The Ground Horbill Project

    Handrearing chicks at Mabula © The Ground Horbill Project

    Fitting a transmitter before release © The Ground Horbill Project