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The southern ground hornbill chicks at the Joburg Zoo are a coddled lot. The “globally vulnerable” birds are fed delicious treats like mouse and rat, and are lovingly reared until they reach maturity and possible freedom in the wild.
NEW babies at the Johannesburg Zoo are always a celebration, but some of the newborns are particularly special.


The young hornbills are fed delicious servings of rat and rabbitThe young ground hornbills are fed delicious servings of rat and rabbitThe four new southern ground hornbill chicks, which came to the zoo on 30 December, fall into this category.

The species is considered “globally vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List and the birds’ numbers continue to decline. This is what made the introduction of the new hatchlings a triumph.

There are a number of factors conspiring with each other to wipe out the remaining population. The biggest threats to the 1 500 birds still in South Africa, are the loss of habitat for nesting due to farming and cattle, and secondary poisoning.

“The poisoning results from farmers putting out bait for large animals like jackals and leopard, which the hornbills ingest as they are very inquisitive animals,” says the zoo’s executive manager of marketing and education, Louise Gordon.

Added to these threats is the fact that the birds only breed from the age of eight and they only raise one chick to fledgling every nine years. This makes it a slow process to replenish the population. The breeding female lays two eggs, but only raises one chick.

This is where the zoo, in partnership with the Mabula ground hornbill conservation project, comes in. The Mabula initiative observes hornbill nests at two sites in Mpumalanga – at the Kruger National Park and the Association of Private Nature Reserves. After ensuring that the first chick is healthy, they collect the second hatchling for hand-rearing.

The bird is then transported to the zoo in a polystyrene travelling box, where the curator of birds, Lara Jordan, steps into the role of mommy.


A young ground hornbill enjoys quality time in the brooderA young ground hornbill enjoys quality time in the brooder“We have been involved with the Mabula project for about four or five years, and our chief executive [Stephen van der Spuy] has been on the board for a number of years, but the hand-raising of chicks is a new and recent development,” says Gordon.

Once the babies arrive at the zoo, they are fed every two hours with treats such as mice, rats and rabbits. “This lasts the duration of their intensive period, which is about 50 days … The four have just come out of their intensive period, and don’t need to be fed every two hours anymore.”

They are also at the stage where they can have daily visits with the adult hornbill couple. The work is not over yet, though, and the birds still need to be carefully observed. “They are quite wild and are actually killing pigeons in the enclosure.”

It is hoped that once the birds are fully grown, they can be released back into the wild. “They can stay for up to a year, until they are mature, but the Mabula project decides their future so we are not sure yet if they will be released.”

Gordon says the zoo is trying to raise funds to help with the feeding and upkeep of the birds. It is asking patrons to help support the chicks, and interested people can contact the zoo on 011 646 2000 or email

For more information on the plight of the dwindling southern ground hornbill population, visit the Mabula website.

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