Mabula Ground Hornbill Project.

"Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird"? David Attenborough


This is the Hornbill that everyone knows and loves, thanks to The Lion King. ‘Zazu’ or more correctly known as a Yellow-billed Hornbill. It seems that it has become the poster child for the entire Hornbill family.  The lesser-known cousin is the subject of this posting and the current BirdLife South Africa Bird of the Year, the Southern Ground Hornbill…


When guests arrive in the reception area it is hard for them not to notice the life-size bronze sculpture of a Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) that has pride of place near the entrance. Mabula Game Lodge is very proud to be associated with the incredible work that Project Manager, Dr Lucy Kemp, and her team are doing with the award-winning Mabula Ground Hornbill Project that has been operating from premises in the Mabula Private Game Reserve since 1999. Guests are encouraged to visit the project to see first-hand the work that is being done and at the same time to contribute in a material way to keep the project financially viable.


Nowhere is the adage “shoot first and ask questions afterwards” more applicable! If these birds see their reflection in a window, they will attack the glass with vigour, believing they are fighting off an intruder. This behaviour can lead to some scary interactions and LOTS of shattered glass. My suggestion, install thicker safety glass, should you live in an area known to be inhabited by these hornbills.


At up to 130cm tall and weighing in at an impressive 2,5-6kg, this is the largest of all the hornbill species.

With an impressive call, this iconic bird will often appear out of the grass when least expected. And, given its size and striking black and bright red colours, is often momentarily mistaken for a small mammal rather than a bird.

Although they are currently seen as ‘vulnerable’ throughout Africa, in South Africa they are seen as ‘endangered’ as their numbers are on the decline outside protected areas like Mabula. The Hornbill is culturally important and hence is not killed for its meat but are sometimes killed for their plumage. Known as the thunder or rain bird they are relied upon to announce the arrival of the rain in the areas in which they reside.


The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, funded by the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, is proud to announce that the Birdlife South Africa ‘Bird of the Year’ for 2020 is the Southern Ground-Hornbill. Given the fact that COVID-19 has taken away some of the exposure that a ‘Bird-of-the-year’ would normally enjoy, the team involved with the project are grateful that the species has been recognized in this manner.

The Bird of the Year initiative is to raise awareness and understanding of this endangered species and by doing so will enable the efforts to conserve and increase the current populations to persevere and thrive.


The project current functions on several levels where chicks that might have died in the wild are reared, then mentored by experienced wild adult male birds in “bush-schools’ after which they are finally released into areas that they used to frequent naturally. One of the reasons for their decline is the loss of habitat due to human development, and in certain areas, over-grazing and the loss of large trees for nesting.


At Mabula small groups can be found proudly strutting around the savannah areas and along the gravel roads, looking like elderly folk out for a stroll. Easy to spot while visitors out on a game drive and their presence always leads to interesting discussions. ( Tourists from the USA often mistake them for wild turkeys).


Diamonds are a girl’s best friend? In the world of the Ground Hornbill, it seems that a small rock will suffice…


I watched this pair pass this back and forth a few times before one of them lost interest, dropped it and walked off with the rest of the group. The stone was left lying in the road, a forlorn sign of unrequited love?


While the male preens, you can see the female looking at the rock, now discarded in the road. Neither bird picked it up again.

Seen as a valuable flagship species for the savannah biome, they are as important as white rhino, cheetah, wild dog, and certain vulture species. Could that be why they are often seen preening themselves? Getting ready to photographed/ interviewed by the media…


Help us to ensure that these culturally important birds continue to roam the African savannas and grasslands for generations to come. We want to make certain that there are more than just tracks left to remind us of this species.




When I was at Mabula, this particular female, Mudzadzene, was impaled through the throat by a porcupine quill. Luckily for her, workers found her and she was returned to the project.


She was rushed to Onderstepoort where vets worked to save her life and she was returned to Mabula to recover…


But her trials and tribulations were not over! It seems that subsequently to the quill incident she was attacked by the resident pair of African Hawk Eagles, leaving her with severe bruising on her head and feather loss. Eagle 1 Hornbill 0! I spoke to Dr Lucy Kemp after finding out about this attack, “It makes my heart is sore, she has been such a champion. We have placed her back into captivity to help to convalesce in peace”. We all wish Mudzadzene a speedy and complete recovery.



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