Not vultures, and not scavengers, behold the Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri), a splendid bird up to 4 foot long, and 14lbs in weight.
Their wings can span six feet:
Our excellent guide, Charles Tareta from Kwihala Camp, found us a group of around six foraging near the Great Ruaha River; one suddenly disappeared into the bushes and emerged with a chameleon. He flew off, protecting his prize from his mates:
The chameleon was wriggly:
But he got it in place for swallowing:
Oddly, it failed to co-operate, wrapping its tail around the hornbill’s beak:
So he had no choice but to disgorge it and start again:
Finally, down it went, just a little remnant of tail spaghetti yet to disappear:
They are listed as vulnerable, as a result of habitat loss and their slow breeding cycle. They only breed every 3 years, the young are not independent for 1-2 years after fledging (the longest of any bird), and they not ready to breed themselves for 6 – 7 years. They live up to 70 years in captivity, 50-60 years in the wild.
Back to my title: like ravens and crows in the West, ground hornbills are culturally associated with death and destruction. In Tanzania, some believe that they host angry spirits, which leads to a taboo on killing them. On the bright side, in many cultures in the region they are believed to be a sign that rain is coming. On balance, then, these beliefs tend to protect the birds rather than threaten them.
It has a lovely booming call, listen here:
PS It is also one of the few birds, along with ostriches, to have eyelashes (actually modified feathers):
PPS There is one other species of ground hornbill, the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill. The females of this species have all blue skin patches; I photographed this one in Ethiopia last year.