HomeMabula Ground Hornbill Project
Print This Post Print This Post

Mabula Ground Hornbill Project

Categories: Animals, Conservation

Ground hornbills are large, primarily terrestrial birds that can be found in the grasslands, sparse woodlands, savannas, and forest edges in Africa. There are two species of ground hornbills: Abyssinian and southern. Abyssinian ground hornbills, like the pair that live at the Sacramento Zoo, are found north of the equator in sub-Saharan Africa. Southern ground hornbills are found throughout southern Africa.

southern and Abyssinian hornbills
Southern Ground Hornbill (left) and Abyssinian Ground Hornbill (right)

Abyssinian ground hornbills, standing just under three feet tall, are slightly smaller than southern ground hornbills, which grow to just over three feet in height. Besides their size and geography, the easiest way to differentiate Abyssinian and southern ground hornbills is the color of their heads and throats. Male Abyssinian ground hornbills have a red throat with a yellowish patch on their bill and a blue patch around their eyes. Female Abyssinian ground hornbills are slightly smaller than males and have a blue throat instead of red. In contrast, both male and female southern ground hornbills sport bright red skin on their throats and around their eyes.

Both species are mostly ground-dwelling. While they can fly to defend their territory or catch prey, they prefer to run when threatened. Ground hornbills are vocal birds, using a series of deep booming notes for extended periods of time. Males and females have even been heard singing together in duets.

Ground hornbills are omnivorous. Their eyes are specifically adapted to see the front of their beak, allowing them to accurately hunt their prey. Ground hornbills primarily eat small mammals, lizards, amphibians, insects, spiders, carrion, fruit, and seeds. Here at the zoo, our Abyssinian ground hornbills eat a bird of prey prepared diet, mice, Zupreem biscuits, minced vegetables, mealworms, and crickets.

Though Abyssinian ground hornbill populations are not threatened, southern ground hornbill populations are vulnerable due to humans encroaching on their territory. They face altered and destroyed habitat, secondary poisoning, and direct persecution. More than half of the wild southern ground hornbill population live outside of protected areas, alongside humans. These close living conditions have led to confrontations between the birds and humans.

Ground hornbills are territorial birds, prone to attack other birds deemed as a threat. Human communities are full of reflective objects, such as windows and car mirrors. When southern ground hornbills see their reflection in these objects, they see another southern ground hornbill in their territory. They will attack and break reflective objects, leading to damaged property that often results in fatal retribution.

Human communities are full of cultured lawns, yards, and parks. Ground hornbills are drawn to broad, open areas for hunting. Unfortunately, many of these areas are located along busy roadways, leading to vehicular collisions.

Organizations like the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project (one of the Sacramento Zoo’s longtime conservation partners) are integral in southern ground hornbill conservation. Established in 1966, the project’s mission is “to reverse the decline of the Southern Ground-Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) population in its historical range in South Africa, and support conservation efforts in the rest of its range.” To this end, the project partners with local communities to monitor and research current populations as well as engage in educational and awareness opportunities. “If people are the problem, then people must be the solution.”



According to the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, “The most effective way to re-build the remaining wild population is to perform reintroductions of new groups into areas where the species historically occurred but is now locally extinct.” Southern ground hornbills will typically lay second eggs in their clutches. These second-hatched chicks would normally die of dehydration in their nests. The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project rescues these chicks, hand-raises them, and then reintroduces the birds into their historical territory.




Long-term monitoring of ground hornbill populations allows researchers to assess trends in the population, changes to behavior, the impact of intervention and conservation efforts, and to identify new and evolving threats to the birds.

Every year, an annual nest monitoring day is conducted across KwaZulu-Natal and in the Limpopo River Valley. This initiative assesses the productivity and safety of known nesting locations. While ground hornbills spend most of their time on the ground, they build in their nests in trees. At times, these nests are inaccessible to monitoring teams. In 2020, the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project began using drones to check these inaccessible nests with great success.

The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project sponsors a citizen science database, encouraging the local community to submit their ground hornbill sightings to a national monitoring database. Involving the community in this research not only provides additional data for the project but fosters a sense of ownership and pride in their role in ground hornbill conservation.


Ongoing Research

The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project recognizes the importance of continual research, broadening our understanding of ground hornbills so that we can better care for and conserve the species. Researchers from the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project conduct a broad range of research from investigating materials for nesting boxes and reintroduction models to cognitive behaviors and genetic modeling.

The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project researchers recognize the importance of sharing data. They regularly share their research through a variety of platforms, such as conferences and university publications. The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project also supports external research into southern ground hornbills by students and other researchers. Wildlife conservation is most effective when everyone works together as a united community.



The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project runs education programs aimed at educating rural communities about hornbill conservation. They create age-specific materials translated across multiple local languages to reach as broad an audience as possible.


Presentations and Curriculum

In 2020, the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project went to 25 different schools to teach classes about ground hornbills, their ecosystem, and wildlife conservation. Presentations were also made at the Bulawayo Museum of Natural History to over 120 people and the staff of Safari Plains and Adventures with Elephants. Presentations conducted at the Shierlik Community helped secure an additional area to release a group of ground hornbills.


Bird of the Year 2020

Southern ground hornbills were named the Bird of the Year for 2020 by BirdLife South Africa and the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust. The campaign helped generate a greater awareness about the birds and the threats they face. As a result, the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project was able to network with a variety of reporters to broaden their reach and support.


Both southern and Abyssinian ground hornbills are flagship species on the African savanna. They are an indicator to the health of their environment. Ground hornbill territory is so expansive that positive conservation work helps not only the birds, but also other species that share their ecosystem, including threatened species such as cheetahs and wild dogs. All species within an environment interact with each other. Conservation of one species makes a stronger, healthier environment for all. Organizations like the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project play an important role in southern ground hornbill conservation and protecting the greater African savanna.


Take Conservation Action