for National Geographic News
Researchers hoping to increase the breeding rate of southern Africa's increasingly rare ground hornbill have taken to feeding abandoned chicks with puppets disguised as the birds' parents.
The faux foster mother may seem real to the ground hornbill chick. But inside the puppet head is a human hand trying to save the chick and its species from sliding to extinction.
Ground hornbills lay up to three eggs at a time, but they feed only one chick. Conservationists collect remaining hatchlings that are otherwise left to starve and hand-feed them.
The volunteers use tweezers for a beak and don a sock for a glove that is painted to look like a ground hornbill's head.
The human foster parents also wear cloaks over their heads to gaurantee chicks do not associate feeding with humans. This is to ensure the chicks do not remain dependent on people to feed them when they are released back into the wild.
The technique of hand-rearing ground hornbill hatchlings is part of a wide-ranging project in South Africa to grow the numbers of the turkey-size species. Together with its slightly different looking African cousin north of the equator, the bird is the largest of the hornbill species.
There are estimated to be only about 1,500 of the southern ground hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) left in South Africa, although there may be a fair number more in the wider southern African region, said Kerryn Morrison, manager of the Ground Hornbill Working Group.
The group was launched last year by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a southern African nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of endangered species and habitat.
Hornbills More Threatened Than Thought
The bird species has been classified as vulnerable in the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. But a population and habitat viability assessment workshop held near Kruger National Park in February this year found that the southern ground hornbill was a lot more threatened than previously thought.
Experts concluded that South Africa could lose its ground hornbills in the near future unless radical action was taken.
Morrison said the Ground Hornbill Working Group was working with the Red Data assessors of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) on whether to change the bird's status to "endangered."
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