Conservation projects

At any one time, there are a number of biodiversity and conservation projects being conducted on forestry-owned land. These range from major landscape level studies to projects focusing on a single species or ecosystem.

On this page we will showcase some of the work being conducted, or about to be initiated, across the country.

For more information visit:

Case Study
Answering the call of the Thunder Bird

Answering the call of the Thunder Bird

    The Southern Ground-Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) is an African icon. Its long eyelashes, flash of white primary flight feathers against a backdrop of black and red gular pouch along with its characteristic tiptoe gait make it impossible to confuse with anything else.

    Known to be the avian world’s largest co-operative breeder, these ground-hornbills live in groups of two to 12, made up of mostly male helpers that help defend the territory and aid the breeding pair with raising their young . Surviving on insects, reptiles, amphibians and small to medium sized birds and mammals, Southern Ground-Hornbills need to defend such large territories in order to find sufficient prey and ensure that within that territory is a suitable nest hollow.

    The Southern Ground-Hornbill is ecologically important as a top-order predator which has earned it a place in the ‘African Big Six’ of the bird world. It is also culturally important, fondly deemed to be the ‘bringer of rain’. Yet the future of South Africa’s thunder bird has never looked more uncertain.

    This makes them sparsely distributed over their natural range – which in the 1900’s covered most of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, the northern Eastern Cape and even parts of Gauteng. Sadly, this area has shrunk greatly over the past century as habitat has been lost and groups exterminated with devastating effect to their populations.

    Today only three core concentrations remain:

    1. Kruger National Park and adjacent private reserves that make up the greater Kruger region.

    2. The Limpopo River Valley

    3. Conservation areas, rural and commercial farmland of northern and eastern KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, as far south as Alexandria.


    An uncertain future

    Current estimates suggest there are only 400 – 500 family groups, and therefore breeding females (there is only adult female per group), left in the whole of South Africa. This has seen the Southern Ground-Hornbill listed as regionally Endangered on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). More worrying is that the population still seems to be declining, as threats escalate, with numbers rapidly falling towards Critically Endangered levels.

    Population and habitat viability assessments do little to allay conservationists’ fears. The 2005 and 2017 population models suggest that the population beyond the borders of formal conservation areas and areas without strong cultural protection cannot recover without conservation intervention and will become extinct if nothing is done.


    Aside from further loss of habitat, the primary threats to ground-hornbills beyond the borders of sufficiently large formally protected areas include:

    • Lead toxicosis from spent-lead ammunition left available in the veld after a hunt,

    • Secondary poisoning from bait put out for so-called ‘pest’ species such as feral dogs, jackal and leopard,

    • Electrocution on transformer boxes where they may try to roost at night,

    • Wind-farm development,

    • Loss of nest trees due to elephant impact, extreme floods, fires and wind and felling, clearing or harvest of indigenous trees;

    • Opportunistic use in traditional medicine and rituals across their distribution range. In some countries they are regarded as the bearer of bad news, while others see it as a protector against evil spirits, witchcraft, lightning and drought.

    • Persecution for breaking windows, which is a common territorial response to their reflection as an enemy.



Reversing the decline

There are many agencies supporting the work of the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project to reverse the Thunder Bird’s fate. Through research, harvest, rearing, reintroduction, captive breeding, education and artificial nests, their work is aligned and co-ordinated through the national Southern Ground-Hornbill Working Group. This group comprises representatives of various national and provincial conservation agencies, land-owners, zoos and bird sanctuaries and academic institutes, many of whom also financially support the Mabula Ground Hornbill project.

The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project’s long-term goal is to ensure the birds are down-listed to Vulnerable in South Africa by 2050, ensuring there is a sustainably growing population throughout their full historical home range.

To do this, the working group needs to:

  • Raise the current population to over 2500 mature individuals, roughly 700 – 800 groups.

  • Extend their current home range outside protected areas, producing connectivity between these areas to prevent populations becoming isolated.

  • Enhance knowledge sharing, using Indigenous Knowledge Systems (the knowledge that is already held by people who coexist with this species everyday) and stakeholder engagement by promoting custodianship across all land-use types.

To measure success and inform adaptive management of the existing conservation plans, a national monitoring plan is required. This is no small task, as Southern Ground-Hornbills are almost impossible to census due to the vast areas they inhabit.

The Mabula Ground Hornbill Project can support populations with reintroductions, threat mitigation, education and artificial nest boxes by knowing how many family groups exist, monitoring their sustainability and identifying areas where action is needed.

In formally protected areas, there is an abundance of Southern Ground-Hornbill data being collected year-in and year-out. The challenge for conservationists is to survey areas beyond the commonly known range and formally protected areas. This requires the involvement of multiple landowners, including the South African forestry sector. Citizen science holds the key. Will you answer the call?

What’s citizen science?

Citizen science is the collection, and in some circumstances the analysis, of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.

SGH_forestry_Insekeni_Jarryd Streicher


Can forestry make a difference?

Southern Ground-Hornbills have simple habitat requirements:

  • A large, productive expanse of short grass in which to forage and chase down their prey but where they are safe.

  • Large trees for roosting and nesting, although they will use hollows in erosion gullies or cliff ledges if they have no alternatives.

In this respect, forestry-owned and -managed land could provide the perfect protection for the Thunder Bird with the conservation corridors within planted areas linking the core concentrations in protected areas outside the plantations. However, currently very little is known about how Southern Ground-Hornbills are using forestry habitats and how many groups forestry-owned land may harbour.

Giving the thunder bird the green light with the help of the forestry sector

A number of forestry companies have provided sighting records in the past, as well as allowing the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project teams access to their properties. This suggests that Southern Ground-Hornbills can inhabit forestry land, but more conclusive data is needed to understand how they are using forested landscapes, so we better support the birds’ conservation.

The pentad-as-proxy approach

Pentads are the units of scale used by the South African Bird Atlas Project 2 (SABAP2) to monitor all bird species and happens to be roughly the same area as the average Southern Ground-Hornbill territorial range. This is a perfect way to map and monitor groups, their persistence and breeding success in a sustainable way.

So how does it work?

The monitoring system works on a four-year cycle. Every Southern Ground-Hornbill group sighting is reported (with the location as accurate as possible). The team then digitally colour-codes the relevant pentad green for that year. If no group is seen in that pentad by the end of the second year it is coded orange. If the group is still not re-sighted in the third year it changes to red. If the group is re-sighted then that pentad reverts back to green. Areas where several adjacent pentads have turned red require urgent assessment and intervention to address the population declines.

The overall objective is to add more continuous, green pentad squares to the map, regardless of the land-use type. This will ensure movement between home ranges and facilitate the natural gene flow required to ensure the population remains viable.



At a time when every family group is fundamentally important, forestry landowners have the potential to both protect existing populations, and expand them, allowing growth and restoration of the Southern Ground-Hornbill to a level where they can survive in this human-dominated landscape

By getting a better picture of their populations within the forestry landscape, it will also be possible to identify potential reintroduction sites. Often these areas are not utilised by the birds due to the lack of suitable natural nesting sites; this can however be addressed with the installation of state-of-the-art artificial nests. These have the potential to re-open areas of historic habitat, bringing a bird back from the brink of extinction.


The Southern Ground-Hornbill is unlikely to persist outside of protected areas without our help. Through committed involvement in the national monitoring plan and the Custodian Programme, the forestry industry could make a lasting difference when it comes to the future of one of southern Africa’s most iconic birds.

To find out more contact Dr Lucy Kemp at the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project:

  • Email:

  • Telephone: +27 83 289 8610

  • Website:

  • Facebook: Mabula Ground Hornbill Project

  • Instagram: @ground.hornbill

  • Twitter: @ground_hornbill

These great birds are an incredible part of our heritage, that deep call in the early morning light is special to all South Africans and must simply not be lost from our landscapes.’
Dr Lucy Kemp, Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project

Case study published: June 2019

Photos courtesy of Mabula Ground Hornbill Project

click here to download the case study : Answering the call of the thunder bird

The mystery behind Mpumalanga's stone circles

The mystery of Mpumalanga’s stone-circle ruins

Cover shot Mpumalanga's stone circles

South Africa’s greatest man-made mystery?

You do not need to wander too far into the Sappi Helvetia plantation in Mpumalanga to stumble across one of South Africa’s greatest man-made mysteries – the stone circle ruins.

Neatly piled stone walls seem to appear from nowhere amidst Sappi’s plantation pines and, when seen from above, it becomes clear that these are more than simple stone walls. Circles within circles, interconnected walls and terraces can clearly be seen. Indeed, there are hundreds of stone-walled ruins scattered across the Lowveld – many on forestry-owned land, with thousands more found across Southern Africa.

Their origins remain a mystery, although there are some well supported theories as well as suggestions that are simply out of this world!

So what could these stone-walled ruins be?

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Homesteads and cattle kraals?

The simplest and most widely accepted explanation is that these are the ancient homesteads and cattle kraals of the Bakoni people.

The Bakoni – or Koni (a name given by Sotho speakers to those they considered to be Nguni speaking invaders) – arrived in northern Mpumalanga from a number of different areas in the early 17th century. They populated vast stretches of the Lowveld and escarpment, from Ohrigstad in the north to Carolina in the south, and from the Belfast, Lydenberg and Machadodorp highlands in the west to the Badplaas valley which boarders the Komati River in the east.

The geographic placing of these stone-walled structures near water and preferably on eastern, lower-valley slopes, supports the idea that these were the early homesteads of pioneers exploring the region by using the rivers as a way of navigating the new landscape.

An agricultural hub?

An aerial examination of the structures revealed an extensive network of presumably agricultural terraces that, when in production, could have delivered far more than local needs. This suggests that this was once an agricultural production hub, with excess produce being traded with travellers moving between the coast and Highveld along the river systems. The idea of the ruins belonging to an agricultural community is further supported by cattle control tracts seen in aerial photography that indicate significant cattle numbers and the scientific research that shows significant soil enrichment inside some of the enclosures suggesting cattle were housed there.

From the first really detailed reports of these stone-walled ruins in 1939 by van Hoepen, through the 1970s when Revil Mason from the University of Witwatersrand used aerial photography to get a bird’s eye view, to the most recent interest by the University of Pretoria, academic consensus has been that these ruins are those of 17th century homesteaders and their livestock.

A mapping tool referred to as Hillshade is used by Sappi to easily identify Bakoni heritage sites. A Hillshade is a grayscale 3D representation of the surface, with the sun’s relative position taken into account for shading the image. It removes the vegetative layer and reflects what is on the earth’s surface. The use of this tool is not limited to identify Bakoni ruins, but can be used as a tool to identify many types of heritage sites.

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Ancient temples and lost civilisations

The interpretation given by Dr Cyril Hromnik, an expert in Dravidian culture, suggests the stone-walled ruins are Afro-Indian Temples, similar to those found in Madagascar and the East-African seaboard.

Hromnik believes that these are the ruins of temples built before the time of Christ by Indian sea traders known as Komates, a name is still present in the Lowveld in the form of Komati Gorge, Komati River, Komatipoort.

According to those who have toured the earliest ruins with Hromnik, the explanation he provided for their existence is that they would have originally marked the vicinity of gold mines, although they later spread throughout the country providing a physical record of ancient trading routes (Sabie blog, accessed 2019). Besides bearing similar architectural features to the temples in Madagascar, there are a number of other features found in these stone-ruins that appear neither coincidental nor in keeping with homestead/cattle kraal hypotheses.  These include a perfect Zoroastrian Swastika, prayer rocks and the presence of many concentric walls without any apparent openings. While Hromnik’s interpretation has been rejected by main-stream archaeology, it gained a popular support during the 1990s even within the forestry community.

Hromnik’s theory may involve people from a far-off land, but there is another theory that is quite literally out of this world. Michael Tellinger is an equally engaging stone-circle expert, who dismisses the common homestead/kraal theory as many of these circles have no doors or windows and their walls often form concentric circles. Instead, he believes these ruins are part of a much wider network of close to 10 million circular structures across Southern Africa, originally built by an ancient civilisation.

Tellinger’s hypothesis is centred on the most famous of these stone circles: Adam’s Calendar between the towns of Waterval Bowen and Kaapsehoop, which marks the passing of time, days and key celestial events (MTPA, 2019). Adam’s calendar is believed by Tellinger to be over 75,000 years old, linked to the Pyramids of Egypt and Greater Zimbabwe and he believes it has the potential to unlock the secret of free energy, thanks to its ability to harness electromagnetic fields.

The other stone circles, or stone-walled ruins, like those at Helvetia are also remnants of this ancient civilisation, and while many of these structures have been used by African and European settlers subsequently, in his view their original purpose was certainly not for cattle.

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Forestry’s stance on the stone circles

While stories of Indian temples and ancient civilisations are enchanting, homesteads and cattle kraals are still probably the most obvious and academically supported theory as to the origin of Mpumalanga’s stone-walled ruins. We may never definitively know their true origin and as the decades go by, perhaps a new and even more captivating theory will come to light.

What we do know is that these ruins have an interesting story to tell and are part of this country’s human heritage. This is why Sappi and a number of other plantation owners who have these stone-walled structures on their land have identified them as heritage sites to be conserved and protected.

Their original purpose, and indeed their age – 75,000 years old or a mere 400, may remain debatable. But what is certain is that by being a designated a Sappi heritage site these stone-walled ruins will be protected and preserved for future generations to puzzle over.

What is a heritage site?

Sappi is guided by the National Heritage Resources Act (no25 of 1999) when interpreting what is meant by a Heritage Site. Simply put, Heritage Resources are those resources, both human and natural, created by activities from the past that remain to inform present and future societies of that past. Some examples of what may be considered to be a heritage site are buildings older than 60 years, relics from early mining activities and battle sites, grave sites, sites that are known to have historical or cultural significance, such as rock art and evidence of forestry activities from the early part of the 20th century.

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Final thought

There is no doubt that the stone-walled structures dotted around the Mpumalanga Escarpment are remnants of a past history that need further investigation. For many years, this period of our history was not the focus of academic research and we are grateful that some light is now being shed on the origins of these structures.

Whatever your interpretation is of these ruins, the important thing is that examples of value to history are identified and managed within the plantation landscape to ensure their conservation. Sappi have recognised the importance of heritage and retaining what can still be conserved. A heritage database has been compiled for each plantation, capturing what is known from past records and from what is unearthed during the normal lifecycle of planting and harvesting compartments.– Peta Hardy, Area Environmental Manager Mpumalanga, Sappi

Produced: July 2019
Photos courtesy of Sappi

click here to download the case study : The mystery of Mpumalanga’s stone-circle ruins