The shoebill population is estimated to be between 5,000 and 8,000 individuals, most of which live in the swamps of South Sudan, Uganda, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. There is also a viable population in the Malagarasi wetlands of Tanzania.
BirdLife International has classified this bird as Vulnerable, with the main threats represented by habitat destruction, human disturbance and hunting. The bird is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
This species is considered one of the five most desirable birds in Africa by bird watchers. They are docile with humans and do not exhibit aggressive behavior. Some researchers have been able to observe a bird in its nest at close range.
The shoebill is normally quiet, but once in their nest they perform quite noisy displays. When performing this way, adult birds make sounds similar to a low mooing and high-pitched cries. Both chicks and adults make these sounds during the nesting season as a means of communication.
When youngsters ask for food, they scream with a sound eerily similar to a human sob, and bite the feet of adults. During one sighting, an adult bird in flight was heard emitting hoarse croaking, apparently as a sign of aggression towards a marabou that had come too close to the nest.
The shoebill lives primarily in the freshwater swamps of tropical central Africa, from southern Sudan and southern Sudan through parts of eastern Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, western Tanzania and northern Zambia. The species is most numerous in the West Nile sub-region and in Southern Sudan, in particular the Sudd, the main stronghold of the species.
There are also significant populations in the wetlands of Uganda and western Tanzania. More isolated sightings of shoebills have been reported in Kenya, the Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, southwestern Ethiopia and Malawi.
Wandering specimens have also been sighted in the Okavango Basin, Botswana and the upper Congo River. The distribution of this species seems to coincide largely with that of the African papyrus and diponoi. The animal is often found in areas of floodplains interspersed with papyrus and reeds.
The shoebill prefers extensive and dense freshwater swamps as a home. Almost all the wetlands in which this bird nests are rich in papyrus Cyperus papyrus, and reeds of Phragmites and Typha. Although their distribution appears to largely correspond to the distribution of papyrus in central Africa, the species appears to avoid swamps composed solely of papyrus, and is more attracted to areas with mixed vegetation.
More rarely, the species has been spotted looking for food in flooded rice fields and plantations. The shoebill is known for its slow movements and a tendency to remain stationary for long periods waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike its prey, which has led to descriptions of the species as statue-shaped.
These birds are quite sensitive to human disturbances and can abandon their nests if discovered by humans. However, during the hunt, if between the animal and the people there is a dense vegetation to guarantee some kind of protection for the bird, this wader maintains a rather docile behavior. The shoebill is attracted to poorly oxygenated waters, which force the fish to often surface to breathe.