Johannesburg Zoo bird keeper spends her holiday rearing a new generation of Southern Ground Hornbills.

For many people this past December, it was a time to relax, go on holiday and spend time with family. However for Johannesburg Zoo bird keeper, Elaine Bratt this past holiday season has been anything but a holiday. This is due to the arrival of three Southern Ground Hornbill chicks for hand-rearing. The new chicks are part of the Mabula Ground Hornbill Conservation project, of which the Johannesburg Zoo is a partner. The project aims to breed this vulnerable species of birds both in captivity for eventual release in the wild.

The chicks are harvested from various wild nests in Kruger National Park and surrounding private reserves in Mpumalanga and Limpopo and brought to the zoo a few days after hatching. For weeks in advance these nests are monitored by Scott Ronaldson as part of the EWT Lowveld Big Bird of Prey Programme and Kate Meares of the FitzPatrick Ground Hornbill Project in the APNR to make sure the timing of harvest allows for quick safe harvest of the chicks while they are still healthy.



The first chick to arrive was Khaya (Karan Khaya nest) who hatched on the 13th of December with a “hatch weight” of 69 grams. Then just over a week later the project received two more chicks, Makalali (weighing 68 grams) and Hull (only 66 grams) who hatched on the 26th and 27th of December. Ground Hornbills are notoriously difficult to hand rear and are fed between 6 to 7 times per day on a two hour schedule. For the first few weeks the chicks are helpless and are kept in an incubator to regulate their body temperature. To make sure they receive round the clock care Elaine, who is responsible for hand rearing, has moved into the zoo’s bird rearing facility called “the brooder room” in a room near where the chicks are kept.

The chicks grow rapidly and at a month old Khaya weighs 1,96kg and his feathers are starting to grow. Similarly at just over 3 weeks Makalali and Hull weigh 889 grams and 772 grams respectively. What is unique about this project is that although the chicks are hand reared by humans, they are also reared by a surrogate adult pair at the zoo. Socialising starts at approximately two weeks old when the chick is bigger and more independent. They are taken daily to visit the adult ground hornbill in a smaller enclosure adjacent to the adults. During their visit the adults’ whose parental instinct are strong, help to feed the chicks.

This socializing with the adult hornbills is vitally important for when the chicks grow up. By watching how the adults behave from flying, to foraging, to being fed, the chicks learn how to be hornbills and not humans. The success of the project is evident when you see the two sub-adults Adgar and Tshukudu, who were chicks hand reared in 2011, helping to feed the new chicks.

Luckily for Elaine, she won’t be living at the zoo forever and in the weeks to come the chicks will spend more time with the adults who will take on the part of feeding duties (in addition to two feeds a day by keepers).



About the Southern Ground Hornbill and the Mabula Ground Hornbill Conservation Project.

The Southern Ground Hornbill is considered “vulnerable” by the IUCN’s red data list but is likely ‘critically endangered’ within South Africa. The population is threatened by loss of habitat (with approximately 50% of the population occurring in the Kruger National Park), poisoning and snaring, predation of nests, and electrocution on transformer boxes which can cause injury or death.

The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project aims to harvest and hand-rear second hatched chicks, from wild nest sites where they would normally die of parental neglect leading to starvation and dehydration. These chicks are hand reared in a number of facilities around South Africa (including the Johannesburg Zoo). The chicks are then released back into areas where they have become locally extinct but where the habitat is still suitable and the original threats have been removed or mitigated for.



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