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Friend of Farmers of the Savanna and Forest – Alan Kemp


Alan Kemp. Photo credit: Pilai Poonswad.

Dr. Alan Kemp was head curator of the Transvaal Museum (now Ditsong Museum of Natural History) Bird Department (TMBD), Pretoria, Gauteng Province.  He succeeded the author of South Africa’s first bird field guide, Oom Proz Prozesky, as curator, working from the original office of pioneering zoologist Dr. Austin Roberts.  Alan is renowned for his groundbreaking research on the southern ground hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri), and his passion for hornbills shines through his innumerable publications, of which the monographic The Hornbills Bucerotifomes in Oxford University Press' Birds Families of the World series, the chapter in hornbills in the vast Handbook of Birds of the World series and, most recently and attractively, as co-author to Dr. Pilai Poonswad  and  Morten Strange, the photographic guide illustrating and describing the biology of all Hornbills of the World. Alan’s daughter Lucy eventually followed her father’s footsteps and is an up-and-coming hornbill researcher and author of a paper in this Issue. For serving the ‘farmers of the savanna and forest’ and his many accomplishments, ACT is proud to name Alan Kemp as conservationist of the month – Editor Pai

Pai – When, where and how did you get interested in hornbills?

Alan – After graduating from Rhodes University with my Honours Degree in Zoology & Entomology, I started work as a research associate to Prof. Tom Cade, documenting raptors breeding in the Kruger National Park. A year later, sharing the work load with an American graduate, Tom suggested I focus on winter-breeding vultures, leaving time to look around for a graduate project. My ornithology bible at the time was The New Dictionary of Birds, the entry under Hornbill ended with "… no group would better reward further investigation …” three small species in the genus Tockus lived right around my camp, and the rest is history. I met my wife Meg at Rhodes, we married a year later and we have always worked together on our projects.

Pai – Tell us about your association with Austin Roberts?

Alan – Roberts died at age 65 in a car accident and three days after the first anniversary of his death I was born! But I was weaned on his 1940 handbook Birds of South Africa and the legacy that I curated, initially from his same old museum office, was Roberts' large collection of southern African birds and the extensive avian literature he accumulated for the Transvaal Museum.

Pai – Could you please tell us about the Leadbeater named for the Southern ground hornbill?

Alan – Google tells me that John Leadbeater (1857-1888) was the first taxidermist at the National Museum in Australia, and his boss was so impressed with his work he named two birds after him, one being the Australian Leadbeater's Cockatoo. I am not sure if the other one is a hornbill or some other bird where his name also forms part of the common name?

Pai – Considering there is no dearth of megafauna in Southern Africa, how do you manage to keep the ground hornbills in conservation focus?

Alan – Ground hornbills are as iconic of the African savannas as other such low-density endemic mega-avifauna as the Secretarybird, Kori Bustard and Martial Eagle, and such mammals as the cheetah and African wild dog, all of them (and others like rhinos) endangered. So, by making each of them flagship species for conservation, one generates a synergy of effort and funding that benefits them all, and many other smaller less-iconic savanna species.

Pai – What are the pros and cons of hornbill conservation in Africa?

Alan – The pros are that Africa is a single huge continental landmass, where human population densities are clustered as patches within large tracts of uninhabited habitat that still support viable populations of most species (compared to the many islands of Asia and their higher population densities per unit area). As elsewhere in the tropics, forests and the species they support are most reduced, especially in West Africa, but the pressures on savannas are growing. Hornbills are noisy and conspicuous wherever they occur and, with their unique sealed-nest breeding biology, often attract attention, become revered and enjoy customary protection. Generally, commercial rather than communal enterprises are most detrimental, until local human population densities and consumption rise past the threshold to where habitats become degraded, especially of the trees in whose natural cavities the hornbills nest.

Pai – Just as vulture brains are smoked and the fumes inhaled by aspiring lottery seekers, are there some equally bizarre rituals performed with hornbill body parts in Africa?

Alan – Our understanding of African indigenous knowledge and rituals concerning hornbills is limited. Hornbills are one of the bird families commonly encountered in traditional markets, with various different regional and targeted uses described -- parts are used to bring rain, facilitate hunting success, ensure fidelity, ward off lightening, eat sometimes, and encourage undertakings – but details are few. In West Africa, the head and neck of the northern ground hornbill species is used as a decoy on the head of crouching hunters, and in Malawi and Mozambique hornbill feathers are sometimes incorporated into headdresses for dances.

Pai – How do you engage the local communities to conserve these magnificent birds?

Alan – I personally have always done my field work in national parks or remote areas, with little engagement with local communities. My daughter is doing much more of the latter for SGHs that are endangered in South Africa, finding good numbers in communally grazed areas that used to be the so-called 'homelands' under apartheid, where cultural protection remains strong and only biological awareness and guidance needs to be fostered. Similar hornbill-people relationships exist in Zimbabwe's ex-tribal trust areas.

Pai – What was your typical working day at TMBD?

Alan – Anything from skinning stinking poisoned vultures to idyllic field camps in remote areas, from writing popular articles to working years on a book, from the usual monthly/annual reports or grant proposals to curating and cataloguing specimens.

Pai – How many bird specimens are on display at TMBD and what percentage have you collected yourself thus far?

Alan – The bird collections at the TMBD used to be about 40,000 study skins, 8,000 egg clutches, 2,000 skeletons and fewer embryos/carcasses/tissues, if I remember rightly. My main contribution may have been to add a large sound library and image collection. Have no idea how much or many I collected myself, much fewer than Austin Roberts, but 'preserved' in a greater variety of forms. Maybe our accumulation of our own and other's notes and data will prove of most historical importance.

Pai – What is the most enjoyable part of being head curator? What is the most challenging?

Alan – For me, field work was always the most enjoyable, and trying to present my studies at scientific conferences and in research journals the most challenging. All the rest was the necessary slog in between!

Pai – What do you consider your finest birding moment?

Alan – For nostaligia, finding my first ground hornbill nest. For satisfaction, finding the first authentic nest of the white-rumped falconet in Thailand (raptors -- and owls for my wife -- remain as much our main interest as hornbills). For wonderment, reading post-retirement the details of the full genetic phylogenies constructed for every living species of hornbill and falcon.

Pai – Tell us about your association with Pilai Poonswad.

Alan – We corresponded for years before we met, she informing me about Asian hornbills, and me helping her draft grant proposals and papers in English. Once apartheid fell, I visited her repeatedly in Thailand for the conferences she organized and to assist with fieldwork and/or drafting of the research results. After retirement, we organized nature tours for each other in our respective countries, and Meg and I visited for up to a year at a time on various research collaborations, living for months either in Bangkok or somewhere in a remote forest, especially at Hala-Bala.

Pai – Who are the conservationists you admire most in Africa and why?

Alan – Tom Cade, for his passion for falcons and pragmatism about how to study, save and hunt with them; Gordon Maclean for his clear thinking about bird biology; Leslie Brown for his pioneering studies of African raptors; Ian Newton for his study and grasp of raptor population biology; field ranger Petiros Mundhlovu for teaching me bush craft; Carl Jones for showing me how to train birds to live with humans and humans to live with birds.

Pai – What is your favorite wildlife destination and what is your idea of a good one?

Alan – The Matobos Hills in Zimbabwe, for the best in granite boulders, complex habitats, hilltop lookouts and plenty of raptors and hornbills.

Pai – What do you see as your significant contribution in hornbill conservation and what are your future plans?

Alan – I started by studying animals so that I could get them to do such things as breed in captivity or survive back in the wild. Now, I am more interested in watching, thinking about, analyzing and understanding how human animals interact with and impact on all other animals and their habitats, than in actively doing something about it. It seems to me that why we worry about other organisms is a selfish sense of what we stand to lose, based on our individual value and belief systems, rather than any useful biological or ecological principle. Given the Earth's history, our impacts are nothing new and will result in new evolution and extinction – whether we will still be part of what remains is irrelevant, except to us. I am sad for what wilderness I missed, grateful for all that I experienced, and sorry to having contributed to leaving less than I found.

Pai – Are you passionate about bird photography?  If so, tell us about the equipment you use.

Alan –The year before I graduated, with a camera on loan, I shot a leopard leaping from one branch to another and won a competition. First prize was a one-week stay in Kruger Park, just as I heard that I was going to work there for three years! Soon after I arrived in Kruger, I took my best portrait, of a Martial Eagle with a monitor lizard, using my first camera, a top-viewing reflex with a 300 mm lens, my 21st birthday present, and later used it on the cover for a checklist of Kruger birds. After that, I never took such good images ever again.


Alan Kemp is the former head curator at the Ditsong Museum of Natural History in South Africa.