The Southern ground hornbill is one of two species of ground hornbill, which are both found solely within Africa; it is the largest species of hornbill worldwide. The Southern ground hornbill is characterized by black coloration and vivid red patches of bare skin on the face and throat (yellow in juvenile birds), which are generally believed to keep dust out of the birds' eyes while they forage during the dry season. The white tips of the wings (primary feathers) seen in flight are another diagnostic characteristic. The beak is black and straight and presents a casque, more developed in males. Females are smaller and have violet-blue skin on their throats. Juveniles to six years old lack the prominent red pouch but have a duller patch of grey in its place.
Southern ground hornbills are found from northern Namibia and Angola to northern South Africa and southern Zimbabwe to Burundi and Kenya. They require a savanna habitat with large trees for nesting and dense but short grass for foraging.
Southern ground hornbills don't migrate. They live in groups of 5 to 10 individuals including adults and juveniles. These groups occupy and defend large territories against neighboring groups and often chase each other in aerial pursuits. Southern ground hornbills are active during the day and at night roost in trees. They forage on the ground, walking slowly searching for food. To hunt some difficult prey such as snakes, hornbills gather in groups. They are very vocal and communicate with each other with booming calls in the chorus which can usually be heard at distances of up to 3 kilometers (1.86 mi). The calls allow each group to maintain its territories, which must be as large as 100 square kilometers (40 sq mi) even in the best habitat.
Southern ground hornbills are carnivores and feed on reptiles, frogs, snails, insects and small mammals such as hares and squirrels. They will occasionally consume some fruit and seeds.
Southern ground hornbills are monogamous and form long-lasting pair bonds. Each breeding pair is always assisted by at least two other birds, a behavior known as cooperative breeding. The mating season usually lasts between September and December. Southern ground hornbills nest in deep hollows in very old trees, or in cliffs. Their nest is lined with dry leaves and grasses. The female lays 1 to 3 white eggs but only one chick is raised. The eggs are incubated 40-45 days by a female and during this time she is fed by group members. The period of parental dependence following an 85-day fledging period is between 1 and 2 years depending on climatic conditions before the young are independent of parents and helpers, which is the longest of any bird. This means that Ground hornbills can normally breed successfully only every third year. These birds are believed to reach reproductive maturity at 6 to 7 years, but very few breed at this age.
Southern ground hornbills are classed as vulnerable to extinction globally. Such classification is heavily tied to their slow reproductive rates and other, numerous environmental factors. Habitat loss, changes due to agriculture, deforestation, electrocution from power lines, accidental poisoning, and persecution are the major factors that affect their populations. Persecution and hunting of the Southern ground hornbill by humans have continued to be a complex issue. Recent studies have found that these birds have been hunted more than previously believed, including in protected areas. Furthermore, Southern ground hornbills face persecution due to behaviors like destroying windows in response to seeing their reflection. Annoyed homeowners in urban areas in South Africa have been known to kill birds that destroy property. Southern ground hornbills are especially threatened by the loss of trees and general habitat loss, as they require vast amounts of space for their territories. The removal of large trees for agriculture or wood harvesting, disturbances near nesting grounds, agricultural changes, all deeply affect the ability of Southern ground hornbills to flourish properly. These birds are also used in traditional cultural practices and traditional medicines, which often rely upon harvesting specific parts of the bird.
According to the Wildscreen Arkive resource, there are around 1,500 Southern ground hornbills in South Africa, with about half of them living in protected national parks. Currently, this species is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are decreasing.