(NEXSTAR) – One of South Africa’s signature birds — and a star of Disney’s 1994 animated masterpiece “The Lion King” — is close to being gone forever, according to recent research. Red and yellow-billed hornbills are quickly disappearing due to climate change, Newsweek reports.
The birds are recognizable for their long curved bills in either yellow or reddish colors. They’re typically seen in open savanna and scrub and tend to be pretty large (up to 24 inches), according to the Oregon Zoo.
While these sub-Saharan mainstays weren’t new to folks around the world, many Westerners may have become familiar with the species thanks to the character of Zazu, an animated hornbill that appeared in the aforementioned 90s musical hit and its 2019 photorealistic remake. In both iterations, Zazu is a British-voiced majordomo (a type of head staff member) who serves King Mufasa and irritates the prince, Simba.
But researcher Dr. Nicholas Pattinson, of the University of Cape Town, says drought and high temperatures are causing a “collapse of breeding success,” which was seen from 2008 to 2019 in the Kalahari Desert. Rising air temperature resulted in a decrease in nest success from 58% to 17% — and fledglings produced per breeding attempt dropped from 1.1 to 0.4, Pattinson explains in a study.
“Based on current warming trends, the air temperature maximum threshold of 35.7°C, above which no successful breeding attempts were recorded, will be exceeded during the entire hornbill breeding season by approximately 2027 at our study site.”Dr. nicholas pattinson
Pattinson says hornbill decline may also be exacerbated by the species’ unique breeding behaviors, which are initiated after rainfall. During breeding, females seal themselves off from predators in the nest (inside a tree, for instance), and wait for males — but hotter temperatures mean fewer males are coming around, researchers explain. Nests are also harder to tolerate for mothers and their vulnerable eggs.
In addition to climate factors, hornbills (which are also found in Asia and India) face extinction due to habitat destruction and hunting, the San Diego Zoo explains. Conservation efforts are underway by a variety of groups. One 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 given to indigenous people for use in ceremonies and costumes.