Southern Ground Hornbill Research Project – Matobo Hills
by PAUL HUBBARD, Project Manager
At present the Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri; SGHB) has been rated as “vulnerable” by the IUCN, a downgrading from its previous status as “Least Concern”. This has serious implications for the long-term survival of the bird as a wild species. The IUCN claims on its website (www.iucnredlist.org) that “Habitat destruction and persecution are estimated to have caused very rapid population declines in South Africa and there are anecdotal reports that they have caused declines in other range countries. There is a high probability that such threats and subsequent declines will continue into the future.”
Famed for its chaotic granite landscape, characterised by awe-inspiring balancing rocks, the Matobo Hills World Heritage Site covers an area of some 3100 square kilometres. The Hills are one of the most ecologically diverse areas in Zimbabwe and play host to an incredible diversity of animal, plant, bird and insect life (cf. Gargett 1990; Hubbard & Burrett 2011; Tredgold 1956; Walker 1995). In addition, the archaeological and historical heritage in the hills is unparalleled over the more than 100,000 year human history of the area (Hubbard 2006; Ranger 1999; Walker 1995).
The Southern Ground Hornbill is a bird still revered by the Matabele people (Msimanga 2000) which will help with its long-term conservation. Nevertheless habitat loss, indirect poisoning, unintentional snaring and trapping, shooting (for breaking windows) and the rise in the trade of exotic birds has seen numbers decline across Zimbabwe. The exact national population of the birds is unclear although from informal observations it is apparent that the Matobo Hills have a relatively high density of breeding pairs.
There have been several previous projects, aimed at assessing the population and breeding habits of the Ground Hornbills (Msimanga 2004) which were usually run on an ad hoc basis. Elspeth Parry started the most comprehensive project to date in 2007 (see http://www.zddt.org/projects.html). She ran the project until 2009, when she decided to retire to South Africa for health reasons. Parry took with her all the data she had collected in three years of study, as well as earlier information loaned to her from the BirdLife library and archives, including nest locations, observation records and information on how the survey had been run. To my knowledge this has not yet been published although I believe plans are well advanced to do so. In early 2011, the Mother Africa Trust (MAT) agreed to restart the project from square one using a model similar to Parry’s with a few changes.
Project Aims and Objectives
As stated in the original project proposal, the long-term aims are:
ñ To conscientise rural schools and communities to the benefits of conservation with the emphasis on the preservation of the Southern Ground Hornbill.
ñ To record accurately all bird sightings, nests and roosts and maintain these records
ñ To monitor breeding over a period of time not less than five years
ñ Publication of material in scientific journals
ñ Keeping all stakeholders informed
ñ To maintain a regular, hopefully long-term social contribution to these communities with the desire to bring about social stability and upliftment
In addition further long-term aims include:
ñ Providing artificial nests where necessary
ñ Collecting and hand-rearing the second chick (which often dies of starvation) for later release into areas where they are currently locally extinct. This is culturally sensitive due to strong beliefs among the Matabele that the nests are sacred and should never be interfered with.
The project is exclusively being run the rural areas in conjunction with various primary, secondary and high schools across Matobo and Umzingwane Districts. At present 13 schools have confirmed their participation and where they did not already exist, conservation clubs (or wildlife clubs) started in each. A further 12 have indicated their interest but resources to include them are presently lacking. It is intended to have at least 30 schools involved by the end of 2012, involving hundreds of pupils aged between 8 and 15. The Mother Africa Trust has been given official permission from the Rural District Council to operate in the district and ward meetings have been held with community members to explain the project, its aims and provide essential information on the conservation of the bird. More meetings will be held as often as possible. In addition I have met with the administration of each school as well as the heads of the SDC/SDA to inform them of the project and get them involved. The response has been overwhelmingly positive!
It was decided to operate out of the schools and surrounding homesteads because it was realised that no project aimed at conservation awareness can hope to achieve much without involving the local community in every way possible. I have realised that few conservation aims can be achieved without assisting those that live in the area – especially the most vulnerable and under-privileged people, notably widows, orphans and child-headed households. Therefore the project has a strong social aspect where donations for development of schools and homes are actively sourced. The project also assists the schools directly with small but gradual improvements in infrastructure – especially replacing broken windows, the territorial SGHB’s favourite pastime during the holidays.
Pupils in the clubs are each given an exercise book and pen and asked to record information about sightings of the birds. The questions they are asked to answer include: Where are the nests? How many birds seen? Can you identify male/female/juvenile? What is the habitat surrounding the birds? The time of day? What were they eating? What was their behaviour? Finally, what stories/myths/legends have you heard about the birds? For the last question, pupils have been encouraged to interview their parents, grandparents and elders.
The clubs are visited by myself once a month and the data collected, evaluated and discussed with the pupils. At the same time, a lesson about different aspects of the environment, conservation is presented or we enjoy free-ranging discussions about different animals/birds/plants/etc. In all cases an attempt is made to match lessons with the national curriculum to enhance the pupil’s understanding.
For weeks at a time, I stay in the area and range as widely as possible during the day. Once the birds are spotted, I follow them for the rest of the day, observing from a non-intrusive distance, and making notes on their behaviour, activity and interaction amongst themselves as well as with other animals and people. I constantly interview people in the area, trying to get a feel for the activities of the birds and where and when they are seen and what they do. This is problematic but useful results have been obtained. An advantage of this approach is that it gives me a chance to discuss the birds with local people and share information and create more awareness about the project, and more importantly, highlight the need to protect them.
Work to Date
In practical terms, the survey has only been operating four months since much of 2011 was spent arranging the necessary permits and fund raising. Nevertheless, there are encouraging results. Seven nesting sites have been recorded and more than ten roosting sites have been confirmed. Five separate families of Ground Hornbills, averaging five individuals, have been tracked and I have begun to map their probable home range. A challenge with this has been the difficulty with the size of the survey area (approximately 3000 sq. km.) and the rugged landscape which makes tracking the birds difficult, especially when they fly over a ridge! Due to the relative abundance of food and nesting sites in the Matobo area, I suspect the birds do not need to defend as large a home range as in other areas, such as the 100km2 noted by Kemp (1987).
The loss of large trees suitable for nesting may have had an impact on the breeding habits of the birds in the past and may continue to do so. This may not be as serious for the Hornbills in the Matobo since there is an abundance of rock shelters and crevices that they have adapted to their own needs. Every nest we have seen was in a rock shelter as were the majority of the roosts.
Food for the Hornbills is abundant year-round. I have observed the birds eating various lizards, insects, scorpions, and young birds. I have also watched them digging up and eating immature groundnuts (peanuts) from the fields and gardens in the area; I do not know if this is typical behaviour or why the birds, which are carnivorous, would do this.
The usual size of the family groups matches the average noted in other studies (e.g. Kemp 1995; Msimanga 2004; Vernon & Herremans 1997) but I have noted “super-groups” of these birds, where two or more groups congregate in an area while feeding. The largest such group yet seen numbered 16 individuals who had gathered to feed in a freshly ploughed field. Three groups, numbering five, five and six individuals, within this aggregation were clearly visible since they did not mingle but were all feeding in the same two-acre area. At present, I am not sure how often this behaviour occurs and I believe such a large grouping may have been a unique, extra ordinary occurrence.
A surprising observation – to me – has been how little the birds react to the presence of domestic animals as well as humans. On more than one occasion, we were able to approach to within 15 metres on foot and to within 10 metres in a vehicle. Often while watching a group of the birds and sitting beneath shady trees during the day, we have been approached to within 20 metres before the hornbills changed direction. I believe this relaxed behaviour may be due to the fact that people do not normally molest the birds (see above) except to occasionally chase them (see below). Additionally the birds grow to maturity in this human landscape and possibly recognise the lack of danger – although they are always alert. Cows, sheep, goats and donkeys are usually ignored by the hornbills. I have seen domestic dogs occasionally chase the birds, who react by flying away, calling vigorously.
From discussions in the schools and with members of the community in general, I have learnt the birds are still revered and are strongly associated with beliefs about rains and weather prediction. Their booming call mimics the sound of thunder and the fact that they are most visible during the start of the rainy season makes such an association almost inevitable. A contradictory belief is that if the birds enter your homestead, a family member will die, so it must be chased off. For reasons of territorial defence, the hornbills love to break windows; they also eat domestic chicks which makes them public enemy number one for many in the community. Killing the birds is a shocking and rare occurrence, usually equated with murder. Most people simply vigorously chase them which can cause accidental injury to the birds. Thankfully I have been told of only one occurrence of three birds being killed by someone identified as coming “from South Africa” for unknown purposes; the bodies were buried in an antbear hole.
Conclusions and Future Plans
The greatest threat to the survival of the Ground Hornbill in the Matobo Hills is habitat destruction (Irwin 1981; Msimanga 2004). One of my long-term aims to expand the project to include conservation in general since many of the pupils are master observers of their environment. Thus far I have encouraged them to report on any other unusual sightings of wild animals and birds and I am beginning to build a database of sightings. There have been some surprising conversations in the classrooms about diverse topics of great importance such as gully reclamation, not shooting birds, effects of monkeys and baboons on crops and the like, showing the pupils (and their teachers) have a wide ranging appreciation of their local environment. I will build on this interest and take it even further by initiating practical conservation projects including planting indigenous trees, filling gullies removing exotic plants, encouraging sustainable agricultural practices and so on. This all lies in the future however, since my aim for the coming year is to focus on the birds and their breeding biology in addition to keeping the school conservation clubs running. Nevertheless the potential for greater things is massive and I am confident of the future.
I would like to thank The Mother Africa Trust and The Amalinda Collection for their unstinted logistical and funding assistance during fieldwork in this project. BirdLife Zimbabwe has provided excellent technical knowledge when needed. Margreet Zwols was a wonderful companion during much of the initial fieldwork stage. Elspeth Parry inspired me to become involved with the project. Matabeleland Branch BirdLife Chairperson Cecilia Hubbard inspires me to continue with it! I would like to gratefully acknowledge the help, input and enthusiasm of the teachers and headmasters of the participating schools without whom the work would falter. Lastly I would like to thank the many school pupils who help out in so many ways and are helping to ensure that their children will know, protect and love these birds and their environment as we do.
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