Southern Ground Hornbill

(Bucorvus cafer)


Southern Ground Hornbill IUCN VULNERABLE (VU)


Facts about this animal

Very large, turkey-like, mostly black bird with a long, strong, black bill, white primary feathers, and distinctive red facial skin and throat sac. They walk on stout relatively long legs and fly well but infrequently. The female has a dark purplish patch on the bare skin below the bill, and the juvenile facial skin is cream before slowly turning red over 4 years. They live in co-operative groups of 2 - 10, with an alpha breeding pair, and generally only adult males and juveniles as helpers. They are a very slow breeding bird on average only rearing one chick to fledging every 9 years, but the annual turnover is only about 2% and mean lifespan is estimated at 40-50 years. They lay 1-3 eggs in a large cavity in a big trees or cliff. They are only known to rear one chick, the second and third chick nearly always dying of starvation within a week. They are almost entirely carnivorous and kill their prey with their bill. They do not drink water and acquire the necessary moisture from fresh food. They spend the day walking large distances foraging for insects, reptiles, (including tortoises), beetles, grasshoppers, snakes, frogs and also mammals up to the size of a spring hare or small monkey. They are vocal mostly in the early morning with a deep, booming 4-note territorial call. They have acute eyesight with long eyelashes, possibly acting as sunshades as they walk across the veld (Ref. Martin, G. 2002)


(Ref. Kemp, A.C. & Kemp, M.I. 1980, Kemp 1995)

Did you know?
that, in South Africa, ground hornbills have been used in traditional medicine? It was also custom to have one of these birds in the village because the villagers believed it brings them good luck. In Sudan, native hunters will tie a stuffed hornbill head to their own head and will crawl through the grass while searching for prey. When the prey see this image they think that it is only the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill and are not suspicious.


Class AVES
Name (Scientific) Bucorvus cafer
Name (English) Southern Ground Hornbill
Name (French) Bucorve du Sud, Calao terrestre du Sud
Name (German) Kaffernhornrabe
Name (Spanish) Cálao terrestre sureño
Local names Afrikaans: Bromvoël, Wilde-kalkoen
CITES Status Not listed
CMS Status Not listed



Photo Copyright by
Peter Massas



Range Africa south of the equator, from southern Kenya to the Eastern Cape in South Africa, but absent from the arid Kalahari and Namib Deserts, and from the forests of the Congo Basin.
Habitat Savanna, from open grassland to tall woodland, also visiting agricultural lands.
Wild population An estimated 1.500 birds in South Africa, declining from loss of habitat through degradation, encroachment and settlement, destruction of large nesting trees, poisoning, shooting, trade in exotic birds and traditional medicinal use. 50% of original habit has been lost in the past 60 years. Also declining in areas of Zimbabwe, exported from Tanzania in numbers, but status in the rest of Africa largely unknown.
Zoo population 229 reported to ISIS

In the Zoo

Southern Ground Hornbill


How this animal should be transported

For air transport, Container Note 13 of the IATA Live Animals Regulations should be followed.


Find this animal on ZooLex


Photo Copyright by
D. GOrdon E. Robertson

Why do zoos keep this animal

This large, dramatic bird is an ideal flagship species of the African Savanna habitat, offering opportunities for public exhibition and public awareness, and as an indicator of the plight of many species in the Savannah grasslands, particularly in South Africa (cheetah, wild dog, roan, sable, ground hornbill).

Important conservation opportunities for breeding programmes to maintain long-term ex-situ populations linked to in-situ conservation projects for augmentation of non-viable groups in the wild, and reintroduction in case of wild extinction in parts of their range. Zoo programmes might also provide funding and materials for research into the biology, husbandry, demography and genetics as a backup to efforts with wild populations.


(Ref. The Mabula Ground Hornbill Research Project, South Africa)