Saving the Rain-maker Bird

Birds themselves are so interesting and intelligent, and they give many cues without being verbal, so they such great things. 

~Bibhu Mohapatra~

The Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) (hereafter referred to as SGH) is a bird of high cultural importance in many southern African communities. It is called the rain bird and a strong belief that the species is responsible calling/making rain still exists across southern African communities. People in these communities believe in omens they associate with this species and these omens have a bearing on their survival or doom. It is a mystery  (at least to me) how all these different people in different countries, cultures and languages all arrived to the same consensus with regards to this belief. However, as strange as it may be, the bird is of cultural importance, a Thunder-Bird rightfully revered and protected in most of southern Africa.

The Southern Ground-Hornbill – photo by Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo

About the SGH

The SGH is a largest bird in the horn-bill family and one of two ground horn-bills in Africa. They are long lived (living for up to 70 yrs) and mature much later than most birds (at about 10 yrs old). They stand up to a meter tall and are a black bird with white ‘gloves’ (wing tips). They live in family groups of up to 12 members. These families are much like our own, two breeding parents and their children. The older children are helpers to the alpha pair and help feed and protect the female and the chick, this is called co-operative breeding. Only one chick is produced for every breeding cycle, although two eggs are always laid. The second egg is probably for increased breeding success and only the fittest chick survives to fledgling age. These characteristics of their life history make them SGH K-selected. SGHs are generalists in what they eat, they are not too fussy and will eat most all creepy crawlies and scavenge. Like their name suggests, they spend most of their lives on the ground foraging than on the wing like most birds.

The Problem

Unfortunately, the SGH is a species in peril. It is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN redlist,  however most experts do not belief that this listing is a real reflection of the true status of the population due to a lack of verified information in most of its range. In South Africa, the species has been studied for decades and the indications are for a population in decline, consequently the species is endangered in South Africa. There hasn’t been intensive and focused studies in the other southern African countries or population monitoring, as such the real status of the species remains ambiguous.

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The major threats to SGHs are sadly anthropogenic (like most threats to nature). They mainly include loss of habitat, poisoning, persecution and problems with man-made structures. Being a bird of cultural importance, the SGH also faces the consequences of being a mythical bird. Although it has afforded the species strong protection an reverence in some parts of its range (KwaZulu Natal and Matobo in Zimbabwe), this also creates fear for the bird and opportunities for abuse in order to ‘harness’ the spiritual powers of the bird. The bird is strongly associated with rain, this is a big deal! Rain is Africa is productivity, food security and virtually life itself, with this understanding of the importance of rain, imagine the spiritual value a rain making bird can have. African cosmology (take note: not superstition) attributes the mythical abilities of an animal to all its body parts, meaning acquiring any part of the animal will give you the ability to harness the powers for yourself. This has resulted in people trading the bird’s body parts for muthi, just like vultures, and this is has potential to wipe out whole family groups since poison is usually the bait of choice in these instances.

What is the way forward then?

In the last week I was privileged to be a part of a workshop held in Pretoria, South Africa. For the past two years I had been volunteering with an NGO called CNCZ that is monitoring SGH groups in Matobo district. We were invited to be a part of the workshop for the South African Biodiversity Management Plan for the species (BMPs). In attendance were various stakeholders in the conservation sector and from government organisations, all were gathered together for three days to create a draft of the BMPs document to be used in South Africa for the next 5 yrs.

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Some of the BMPs participants – selfies by Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo

Being in the room with all the experts I met was just amazing, (I know, I sound a bit groupie) it was like meeting my super heroes in conservation and getting to work with them for a few days. There was good representation from the EWT Birds of Prey Programme, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), the ‎South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SAHGCA), researchers from universities and The Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project (MGHP) who hosted us with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) at the National Zoological Gardens. The workshop was very successful, all those attending were passionate about conservation and like minded. We were divided into groups and led by the very brilliant Coral Birss to focus on a single threat to SGHs identified in those groups. We had all been randomly placed in those group (at least I think), but the placing couldn’t have been more perfect. We all got along very well and of course my group was the very best (hahaha) and tackled the threats, brought up ideas to solving them, evaluation and research gaps needing to be filled in order for the particular threat to be mitigated.

 All in all, the experience was great and motivating for me as a young conservation scientist. It was an eye opener and I learnt a lot from the many experts who attended. The BMP document will be perfected and published in the government gazette and accepted as a working plan to reverse the decline of the SGH in South Africa. I’d like to see this for the rest of the countries in the SGHs range especially Zimbabwe, the inclusion and cooperation of stakeholders and the passion to all pull in a beneficial direction for the species.


The Southern Ground Hornbill is not the prettiest or most charismatic of birds, it is also not a popular bird too. In the next article I will share my experience volunteering in Matopo for the Zimbabwean SGH project. The Matopo story is very special Cathedral of human history, wildlife and  culture, a very beautiful example of how man ought to live with wildlife. Let me know what you’d like to know about these birds in the next article. 

4 thoughts on “Saving the Rain-maker Bird

  1. Good read, thank you for the article Merlyn. What’s amazing is that a non-birder (so I believe) shared it with me. Keep up the conservation efforts, it’s surely making waves out there. I have been inspired!


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