(NEXSTAR) – One of South Africa’s iconic birds – and a star of Disney’s 1994 animated masterpiece ‘The Lion King’ – is on the verge of extinction forever, according to recent research .
Red- and yellow-billed hornbills are rapidly disappearing due to climate change, Newsweek reports. The birds are recognizable by their long curved beaks of yellow or reddish color. They are usually seen in open savannah and scrub, and tend to be quite large (up to 24 inches), according to the Oregon Zoo.
While these sub-Saharan mainstays were nothing new to people around the world, many Westerners may have become familiar with the species through the character of Zazu, an animated hornbill who appeared in the aforementioned 90s musical hit. and its photorealistic 2019 remake. In both iterations, Zazu is a British-voiced butler (a type of chief staff member) who serves King Mufasa and irritates Prince Simba.
But researcher Dr Nicholas Pattinson, from the University of Cape Town, says drought and high temperatures are causing a “collapse in reproductive success”, which was observed from 2008 to 2019 in the Kalahari Desert.
Rising air temperatures caused nest success to drop from 58% to 17% – and the fledglings produced per breeding attempt fell from 1.1 to 0.4, Pattinson says in a study.
“Based on current warming trends, the upper air temperature threshold of 35.7°C, above which no successful breeding attempts have been recorded, will be exceeded throughout the breeding season of hornbill by approximately 2027 at our study site.”
Dr Nicholas Pattinson
Pattinson says the hornbill’s decline may also be exacerbated by the species’ unique breeding behaviors, which are initiated after rainfall. During breeding, females isolate themselves from predators in the nest (inside a tree, for example) and wait for males – but warmer temperatures mean fewer males arrive, the researchers explain. Nests are also more difficult for mothers and their vulnerable eggs to tolerate.
In addition to climatic factors, hornbills (also found in Asia and India) are threatened with extinction due to habitat destruction and hunting, explains the San Diego Zoo. Conservation efforts are underway by various groups. An interesting effort made by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is its feather exchange program, where feathers are safely molted from birds without killing them and donated to indigenous peoples for use in ceremonies and costumes.
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