Like an old man inspecting his lawn for crickets, the bird’s every step seemed deliberate, even calculated; his body was tilted forward, his eyes fixed on the ground. The bird – about the size of a toddler – stopped, scratched the earth with its strong claws, stabbed a locust with its sturdy black beak, then rushed over to join two birds that stood were feeding nearby. The grasshopper was still squeezed into its sturdy beak; this male had a young to feed.
“I hear them every day now,” said Ndlovu, a nervous man with strong arms, pointing his chin at the birds nesting near his home. “They called a lot, it’s going to rain soon.”
Here in the Matobo Hills of southwest Zimbabwe (recognized as a traditional cultural landscape by Unesco), most families are subsistence farmers and rain is a fundamental part of survival. Here, these large black birds, the southern land hornbills (Bucorvus leadbeateri), are considered the callers of the rain. Amahundundu, the Ndebele and Kalanga of the Matobos call them, naming the birds for their low, thunderous cry that can be heard up to 5 km away. They are so important to these communities that when a land hornbill dies, the elders come together and give the bird the same traditional burial as a human.
Kill one ihundundu (“i” refers to the bird in the singular, “ama” in the plural), they believe, and you will go mad. You will anger the gods, the rain will not fall, and you could be banned from the community for life.
Southern ground hornbills, which live in family groups, can be found in the open savannah and grasslands, from South Africa to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But as the species’ natural range has shrunk due to development, agriculture and overgrazing, its population has plummeted – so much so that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature now ranks these predators at the top. summit as vulnerable in sub-Saharan Africa and endangered in southern Africa and Namibia.