For the last two months the still morning air has been filled with the booming call of the ‘Thunder Bird’. Just as the sun peaks over the horizon, the call of the Southern ground-hornbill carries across the Lowveld, echoing like the bush’s call to prayer. It is a prayer that begs for rain and one that has at last come true.
Southern ground-hornbills are revered in most African cultures because they are associated with the life-giving rain. Some cultures claim that if you kill a hornbill, your lands will be washed away in a great deluge; others claim that unspeakable drought will famish your land and some believe that by killing a bird, attaching a stone to it and tossing it in the river you can in fact bring drought to an end.
In all likelihood these various beliefs stemmed from the fact that the rainy season coincides with the start of the birds’ breeding season and the time at which, they are at their most vocal, establishing territories and calling mates. Whatever the belief, it is clear that these birds carry with them a great sense of veneration.
Southern ground-hornbills are listed as endangered in South Africa with only about 1500 individuals estimated. The Greater Kruger National Park, of which we are a part, provides habitat for about half of the South African population. One of the reasons the birds are so endangered is because of their poor breeding success rate. The hornbills move in groups of up to nine birds but only one of the pair will breed and the rest act as helpers. Despite laying up to three eggs, the family will only raise one fledgling.
On Londolozi we are lucky enough to have a group nesting in the north of our property. As rangers we are out in the bush frequently, which allows us the opportunity to report ground-hornbill sightings to research groups such as the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project (MGHP). For the general public, however there is a free app available on Playstore or iTunes called BirdLasser that is going to make an enormous difference to how the research team is able to monitor the national population and gain insights into the rest of the range. All you have to do is download it, accept the MGHP as a cause and record all the details of the ground hornbills you see – anywhere from Kenya to South Africa. With this data and continued research they hope to ascertain why it is exactly that ground-hornbill numbers are dropping and what we can do to save this special bird.
In the meantime however, we smile with the call of the ‘Thunder Bird’, grateful that one more of these endangered species has found refuge on Londolozi. And as the bush slowly greens up around us, we hope that its morning prayer continues to bring us rain.
Written by Amy Attenborough