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By Karen Seginak

Especially the world's largest, the southern ground hornbill, a long-lived, apex predator with an inherently low reproductive rate.  These magnificent, unusual birds may live up to 60 years in the wild.  They are obligate cooperative breeders, where only the dominant male and female in the group mate.  Only one young is produced every 3 years, raised with the aid of non-breeding, immature, usually related, helpers.  Although sexual maturity can be reached at about 4 years of age, most birds require a 6 year apprenticeship as helpers before they can attempt breeding on their own, at about 10 years of age.  Provided they can establish dominance in a territory of their own, of course.  

Territories are vast, usually 100 to 250 sq km in size, depending upon the habitat quality.  They inhabit savannas and woodlands, but require dense, short grass for foraging and large, old trees with deep hollows for their nesting cavities.  Human encroachment that converts their preferred ecotypes to agriculture, and overgrazes lands with domestic livestock, is the major threat to their survival. Additionally, illegal logging can remove trees suitable for them to nest in.  The primary conservation action needed is to identify and protect their key strongholds and to prevent further habitat degradation in these essential areas.  Although currently listed as vulnerable in Tanzania, in more southerly parts of its range, it is classified as endangered, with rapid decreases in available habitat primarily contributing to its declines.  

Remote, expansive, wilderness hunting blocks, like the ones encompassing 7234 sq kms, where Michael Angelides of McCallum Safaris operates in southwestern Tanzania, provide intact, healthy ecosystems that are safe havens for these extraordinary birds.  And indeed they are noticeably prevalent there.  May that forever remain so, as they are one of the world's most truly unique bird species.  

Anti-hunting and animal rights activists who push for banning legal hunting and/or trophy imports must understand that if their campaigns are successful, these hunting blocks in marginal areas not suitable for photo tourism will likely be converted to agriculture and livestock grazing areas.  Although they may think their efforts would save animals, instead, so many, such as these southern ground hornbills, would inevitably be lost.  Please reject their rhetoric and disconnect from reality, and don't let that happen.  The maintenance of biodiversity is an important, beautiful and ecologically sound goal that everyone should embrace.  And hunting blocks can contribute to it greatly.

The author is a wildlife biologist with three decades of experience conducting field studies for a variety of environmental consulting firms, NGOs, universities, and both state and federal governments, as well as a published and award-winning nature writer and photographer. 

Hornbill conservation

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