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Breeding Biology of the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill in Northern Uganda

Anna Chalfoun

Anna Chalfoun, University of Wyoming

Publication Date: 2018
Department: Zoology and Physiology
Location: Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda
Team: Karamoja Wildlife Conservation Partnership,  Kidepo Valley National Park staff

Research Question
Specific research objectives:

  • Initiate a research and monitoring program in coordination with park and KWCP personnel focused on the abundance, breeding biology, and reproductive success of Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills in Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda.
  • Address critical gaps in basic life and natural history information for Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills that will assist in conservation assessments.

Many places on the African continent have outrageously amazing and unique biological diversity. The ungulate species of Africa are especially well-known and studied, but in many places, avian species have received virtually no systematic study. The Abyssinian ground- hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus) is a prime example of such a species. The bird has an approximately equatorial distribution in Africa, and is one of only two species of large hornbill that spends the majority of its time on the ground. Whereas its cousin to the south (Southern Ground-Hornbill, Bucorvus leadbeateri) at least has basic population and life history information upon which conservation practitioners may draw, not a single study on B. abyssinicus can be found within the primary literature. By comparison, a little closer to home, the Greater Sage-Grouse which is a similarly-sized, iconic bird that also spends a lot of time on the ground has been the focus of 329 journal articles to date! Southern Ground-Hornbills, moreover, are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) due to secondary poisoning, trade, and habitat change, all of which have led to very rapid population declines. Given that Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills are sister species and share many traits, including being long-lived (approximately 28 years) and slow-breeding, there is a good chance that Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills are facing similar, albeit undocumented threats. Moreover, many birders flock (no pun intended!) each year to places such as Kidepo Valley National Park in Uganda to catch a glimpse of this bizarre-looking bird, so the species also has societal and economic value. A critical need is therefore the generation of core information such as local abundance, and behaviors such as reproduction that significantly influence population growth and stability.

Methods Used
The initial trip to Uganda would be timed to match the onset of the breeding season of the birds (early January 2019). The goal would be to work with park personnel and local biologists to collaboratively establish field protocols for the location of nest sites, observations of breeding pairs, and assessment of reproductive success (number of young fledged). Due to their large size and association with open savannah habitats, breeding pairs should be observable from distances (using binoculars and/or spotting scope) that will not disrupt natural behaviors.

By fostering local engagement, the hope would be that the monitoring and research of breeding Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills could continue into the future to be able to generate local population trends and assess any threats imposed by human activities. Our research and monitoring efforts could then provide aspiring Ugandan biologists and Ugandan Wildlife Authority (the equivalent of our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) rangers and biologists with opportunities to participate in/learn about research with local relevance. Depending on the initial success of our collaboration, future phases could also involve an exchange between UW undergraduates and/or graduate students interested in obtaining international experience focused on natural resources, in a region of the world still rife with unique biological resources. My colleague, Meg Ewald at the KWCP also has contacts with faculty at Makerere University in Kampala which could facilitate educational opportunities and exchanges with Ugandan students as well. The project would also help support and draw attention to the development of the new research station proposed by the (KWCP).

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