A sacred bird, a Beautiful Culture

Culture opens the sense of beauty 

~Ralph Waldo Emerson~ 

If you did not grow up hearing legends and fairy-tales I’m sorry but your childhood must have not been fun. I grew up on so many legends, I swear they were the most memorable part of my kindergarten syllabus, its a pity they were not testable. Unlike western culture where all stories used to ignite a child’s imagination center around kings, queens, princes and princesses, African culture folklore mainly centered on wildlife. If you’re an African, think for a second of a story from your childhood that did not include an animal, I bet that’s a challenge. Not that I have been told or anything, however, I have come to appreciate and conclude that folklore was the African fiction, the Marvel productions of grandmothers (gogos) and grandfathers (khulus) and it shows how closely they lived with wildlife and the kind of attitude they wanted their descendants to have towards animals. Sadly, most of us out-grew this tradition and cannot think of a single story to tell our own children. But, oral history is powerful when preserved and has the power of freezing relationships in time to reflect what was hundreds of years before our time.

The legend of the Southern Ground-Hornbill

The value of a culture is its effect on character. It avails nothing unless it ennobles an strengthens that. Its use is for life its aim is not beauty but goodness.

~W. Somerset Maugham~

The Southern Ground-Hornbill (SGH) is believed in most of Southern Africa from oral traditional history to be a harbinger of rain (bringing rain). This is also true for its cousin the Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus) that is found in Africa above the equator. Clearly these strong beliefs about these birds could not be baseless superstition or myth. They were recorded as early as 50 AD, by the Roman author, Pliny, as birds of mythology, comparing them to Pegasus, the flying horse. They are special creatures and posses some human like behavior, probably why they are revered. Ground-hornbills are one of the very very few birds that have eyelashes, in fact, their eyelash game is on another level (they have the longest lashes on a bird), you’d think they had extensions on. Interestingly, birds do not have hair, so their eyelashes are in actual fact modified feathers! Furthermore, Ground-hornbills have a family structure that is monogamous and very similar to humans and fathers play an integral role in grooming chicks and training them to defend themselves, the clan and to forage.

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In the Matopos, Zimbabwe (sometimes called the Matobo), the SGH enjoys extreme traditional protection that has resulted in the birds defying some scientific expectations in behavior for the species. In this area, causing harm on the birds can even get you banished and news of your transgression travels faster than any gossip. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is celebrated globally as a site of cultural importance because of its history in cultural protection cave painting sites that tell the stories of numerous societies that conquered the Matopos from centuries ago. It is also an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) under the rankings of BirdLife International. If you trek down to Africa, you sure should see the Matopos, it is a granite strewn landscape with the high and special biodiversity and amazing scenery. Matopo has one of the highest densities of Leopards in Zimbabwe and is home to the Black Eagles that are part of the longest going eagle monitoring project in the world.

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The people of Matopo live harmoniously with the SGH, it is revered and is as important as a human being. The Communal settlements are generally the only places you will find SGHs, this is weird, because there is a National Park which is a protected area adjacent to the communal areas. Most wildlife wouldn’t want to be living literally in people’s homesteads, especially Ground-hornbills, but it isn’t the case here. SGHs feel safer around people. The traditional leadership is concerned with everything that happens to them as they can be an omen for good or doom of the community. This is why initially, CNCZ, the organisation I volunteer with in Matopo in monitoring these birds, had a struggle in getting anyone to share information about the birds. Even children who see the birds daily would flat out deny knowing or having seen them until the support of the traditional leadership was sought and our intentions explained. The birds call together at dawn from the rocks in a chorus of repeated low grunting by inflating their balloon like sac. The landscape of Matopo must make this dawn chorus the more amazing, this chorus is believed to be the one that call the rain. During war times, these birds and many other natural indicators were very important for the freedom fighters, as they depended on these indigenous knowledge cues to predict weather phenomena or danger (omen). They are generally bringers of fertility, longevity, life and also bad luck, killing them or bringing them any harm is taboo.

CNCZ has developed a very good relationship with the Matopo communities, our work cannot be detached from their lives. We therefore also do community outreach in the form of handing out donated clothing items, school stationery, education materials and toys for kids given to us by our supporters through Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project . We created conservation clubs in most of the schools we visit, and make an effort to visit them and give an environmental education presentation every time we are in their villages. The villagers have received us very well, they stop us along the way to direct us to where they saw the birds to help us search and most of the nests known to us were shown to us by the locals and kids in the schools. They are also custodians of the hornbills, the families living closest to the nests have taken custodianship of these nests, reporting to us everything they see happening in the nest up to even the food they see the birds flying into the nest with, and exact times when fledglings take their first flight. This has been a great help as the project is solely funded by Evans’ personal efforts and monitoring is difficult and far between most times.

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Threats to the SGH

SGH have to contend with baboons in the Matopos which along with other animals pose a predatory risk, probably why they prefer the proximity to people. Here a senior member faces off a baboon while the rest of the group moves away with the chick – Image by Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo

Whilst the SGH enjoys the protection of the communities in Matopo and seems to be doing well, this is not he case in other areas that it is found. While in South Africa over a week ago for a Biodiversity Management Planning workshop, in four groups with different experts and stakeholders, major threats to the SGH in South Africa were identified, analysed and possible solutions for them drafted into the plan. These threats mostly fell under the bigger umbrellas of:

  1. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation

SGHs are loosing their territories every year to agriculture, human population expansion, land degradation, nesting tree loss and urbanization. This is a major threat because this species generally needs a lot of rangeland to use as territory and specific height trees to nest and roost.

     2. Disease

Diseases such as New Castle disease and avian flu also affect wild birds. At times human intervention with chicken farms and moving biological specimens across boarders spreads these diseases.

     3. Poisoning 

The use of poisons has become a major problem in Africa today. SGHs are also not spared of this as they are scavengers and will eat anything they find of the ground to edify their diet of invertebrates and reptiles. It is even a bigger problem because these birds forage as a family, and a poisoned carcass can wipe out different generations and a whole family in one go. Another major poison killing SGHs and other birds of prey is lead which they ingest through eating meat from carcasses shot with lead bullets. This is a worldwide problem and conservationists everywhere are having a struggle convincing rather traditional hunters to change to using copper ammunition as lead is extremely toxic to most birds of prey. You have to see a beautiful, magnificent, large eagle or vulture that has been poisoned just to see the severity of our actions as people, lead paralyzes their legs (definitely in vultures though spp. responses differ) and reduces them to an undignified weakness and confusion. A lot needs to be done as far as poisons go in Africa especially Southern Africa.

     4. Electrocution and collisions with infrastructure

Most big birds have challenges with the infrastructure we put up. Power-lines, transmission boxes, farm reservoirs and fences among others.  Some infrastructure is unsafe for birds and some power-lines are death traps as they can stretch their wings and connect the circuit to being toasted to nothing. Loss of suitable roosting sites also forces birds to see human built infrastructure as alternatives.

      5. Persecution 

Persecution of these birds is also a big problem in parts of Africa. As birds of mythological interest, they invoke fear and interest to themselves and therefore become targets for persecution. SHGs in particular is persecuted for breaking low windows. The birds are very territorial and will not recognize their own reflection but attack it like it is a rival bird thereby breaking the windows of the communities or people they live close to. In most rural set ups this is a grave transgression and they chase them off continuously in way that drive them out of their home-range but in private game farms, they may be met with a rifle. Their body parts are also traded for muti although not to as high a scale as vultures (but that could be a fxn of their scarcity or so).

Culture does not make people. People make culture

~Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie~

A lot needs to be done by ordinary people to help conservationists. You can make a difference just like the Matopo locals contributing to the preservation of one of this bird’s strongholds in Africa by teaching their children to respect them and protect them. You can also make a difference by concentrating a little on the birds you see in your daily lives or on your trips to rural areas or vacations, sharing such information is vital and helps researchers a great deal.

Thank you for reading, if you have any questions feel free to ask, subscribe and share.

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