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ANTI - POACHING: A day in the life of Bruce McDonald

Rhino wars and the role of Bathawks in conservation in Africa.
Bruce McDonald
 
My hangar doors are opened before sunrise every day and I often smile to myself as I greet my aircraft affectionately by names as I walk into the hangar. These mechanical souls always seem eager to meet the day, ready for another adventure and another full day of flying. If you fly enough, you’ll possibly understand what I mean. A pre-flight becomes an almost emotional experience as one whispers quietly to the aircraft as one does a walk around, discussing the busy and sometimes unpredictable programme for the rest of the day. We’ve shared many adventures together, and endured some harrowing experiences and seen some amazing scenes from the air. It’s the reason we thank them for their loyalty after a particularly bad experience or apologise profusely after a bad landing. How can something as perfect and beautiful not have a soul?  Here’s to my trustworthy Bathawks, the aircraft that I have got to love and respect and fly on a daily basis. I thank them for this precious gift called “Flight”.
 
A current overview of the rhino poaching endemic in South Africa.
Over 5000 known rhino have been slaughtered inhumanely and illegally in South Africa in the last 8 years. There are predicted to be some 18900 white and 2040 black rhino’s remaining in South Africa which is home to almost 74% of Africa’s remaining rhino population.
Rhino poaching is now at a crisis point in Southern Africa. Reports indicate the 1215 rhino were killed in 2014. There was a slight decrease in 2015 with 1175 rhino being slaughtered. The Department of Environmental Affairs reports that as at the 8th of May 2016 the number of rhino’s poached stood at 363. Of these 232 had been poached inside the Kruger National Park.
 
Very few people realise the challenges facing those on the front lines within the Greater Kruger National Park Conservation area. There are thousands of kilometres to patrol with little or no idea of where poachers will hit next. The Kruger National Park and the surrounding Private Nature Reserves covers an area of almost 25000 square km.
 
The well organised crime units that run poaching gangs are ruthless, often involved in other hard-core syndicated crime units. Rhino horn is just another commodity to them, but with less risk. These poaching gangs and crime bosses have established networks within the National and Private Parks involving corrupt staff and officials who disclose sensitive information of rhino and ranger locations. Where money and greed are involved, corruption becomes a huge problem and at the end of the day corruption may well be the greatest threat to rhino survival in South Africa.
 
Unfortunately, due to the increasing value of rhino horn, poaching gangs are on the increase. The demand for rhino horn has made this an attractive source of income to many, with new poaching gangs becoming involved on a regular basis. To many youths living in the neighbouring poaching communities, this kind of activity becomes an adventure with huge financial rewards. There is even evidence of poaching gangs hiring fire-arms from other poaching gangs, splitting to form new gangs and even some gangs selling-off rhino horn to the highest bidder. Rhino horn has become big business. Poachers in Neighbouring Mozambique are seen as heroes to the communities.
 
In 2015 there were 1618 positively identified poaching activities within the Greater Kruger Park with over 1500 poaching incursions being recorded. This equated to three poaching incursions per day. Currently (May 2016) the records indicate that the Kruger Park experiences nine incursions per day. There are three to four physical contacts with armed poachers on a weekly basis and there can be twelve or more groups of poachers operating within the Kruger Park on any given day. Up to four rhino are killed per day by poachers in South Africa! This is totally unacceptable and if this trend continues, we could lose up to 90% of our total rhino population within the next decade.
 
The weakest point in operations remains the lack of criminal intelligence. Rangers are under-resourced, over-stretched and completely outnumbered. Recent statistics indicate that there may be as many as 6000 poachers actively involved in illegal rhino poaching activities. Many of these poachers live in the neighbouring communities bordering the National Parks.
 
While reports over the last few months claim that rhino poaching is marginally down from 2015, conservationists warn that it’s too early to tell and say that the Government may be withholding figures to create an impression that poaching is not a major concern in South Africa.
 
Unfortunately and predictably, elephant poaching has now become a reality in the Kruger National Park. Last year the Kruger lost a total of 22 elephant to poachers. During the first quarter of 2016 the Park had already lost 16 elephant. Prediction models indicate that the Kruger Park may lose up to as many as 60 elephant by the end of 2016. It is estimated that there are in excess of 13 000 elephants in the Kruger National Park.  Until recently South Africa had evaded the ivory poaching threat which has decimated elephant populations throughout other parts of Africa where elephant poaching has escalated out of control. Most elephant poaching has taken place in the northern areas of the Park, whilst rhino poaching was concentrated to the central and southern areas where most rhino concentrations occur.
 
While most of the Kruger National Park’s anti-poaching resources have been channelled  into rhino protection, elephant poaching has become a real threat and the Park is now forced to fight both rhino and elephant poachers at the same time with the same resources. Challenging times lie ahead for this flagship Reserve.
 
The Southern African Wildlife College Bathawk anti-poaching Project.
Since its inception and given the needs of the conservation industry, the Southern African Wildlife College has conducted field ranger and anti-poaching training across the African SADC region. The Southern African Wildlife College and its anti-poaching division, African Field Ranger Training Services (AFRTS) are recognised as the most experienced and leading field-ranger training outfits in Africa. AFRTS has been hugely instrumental in supporting the SA Wildlife College with their Wildlife Guardian Programme to help curb the rhino poaching crisis in Southern Africa.
 
During 2013 a new Bathawk LSA was acquired by the SA Wildlife College through generous funding of a foreign donor and so the Bathawk Project was born.
 
The SA Wildlife College had now expanded its anti-poaching capabilities to aerial support and training. This new third dimension was to be the start of a successful and effective anti-poaching air-wing unit that would grow into a formidable tool in areas of deployment.
During 2014 the SA Wildlife College formed an alliance partnership with the SANparks airwing and now shares a healthy working relationship with them, covering sections of the Central Kruger Park and surrounding Private Nature Reserves, which to date have been hard-hit by poachers.
 
The College has since acquired a second Bathawk which has been added to the fleet with the possibility of acquiring another aircraft at a later stage. These aircraft fly an average of between 60 to 100 hours per month depending on operations.
Our core focus areas include the central parts of the Kruger Park as well as the Associated Private Nature Reserves which border on the western side of the park. This area is vast and covers an area of close to 400 000 hectares. Our day starts before dawn and aircraft are prepared for the day. The Bathawks are refuelled and pre-flighted way before sunrise and tasked for their daily operational missions. Missions will be determined firstly by any intelligence gathered overnight, (for example if rifle shots were reported in an area or poacher-tracks observed crossing into the Park) The missions will then be tasked to the ops centre at Skukuza who will then be aware of our operations and planning for the flights for the day.
 
Should there be no incursions, routine patrol flights will be conducted in pre-determined high-risk areas which are patrolled on a weekly basis.
 
The Bathawks are deployed in a number of key roles. Firstly in a Pro-Active role which we term Patrol flights. For these flights, our areas of operation are divided into management blocks. High-risk areas are identified and given priority.  Normal operations would be to fly certain blocks on an adhoc basis.  A 500m grid width system is flown at a height of between 200 and 500 foot AGL, depending on the topography and terrain of the area. Information is gathered and entered into specially developed software on an on-board computer system which is downloaded and used for ranger deployment and management decisions by section rangers and park managers. All data collected is treated highly confidentially and sent to the SANparks Scientific Services Division. This data is processed and fed into the KNP database for research and management purposes.
 
The second role for Bathawks are termed Reaction flights. There will always be one aircraft on standby to respond to a poaching incursion or poacher-contact, to offer aerial support and suppression. The Bathawks have proved to be extremely effective in this role, being able to fly slowly as well as being highly manoeuvrable. Poaching operations are often disrupted in these kinds of operations. The suppression role is also highly effective as poachers on the ground will often go-to-ground with an aircraft in the sky as to avoid obvious detection. This buys ground forces valuable time to close-in and apprehend suspects. This method is especially useful when tracker dogs are being used to follow suspects.
 
The suppression method has also proved to be effective working alongside the SANparks helicopters in joint operations. The helicopters will normally be at the fore-front of operations assisting ground forces with reaction units on board, especially when a contact is inevitable or suspects are known to be close. The Bathawks will patrol on the perimeters of the operation providing suppression cover.
 
And thirdly we do Disruption operations. When suspects are known to be in a certain area but their exact position is unknown, an aircraft in the sky will often deter them and turn them around to avoid detection. Some poaching groups would rather abort a poaching mission and try to get out of the park, rather than be detected. This often saves a rhino’s life.
 
The Southern African Wildlife College now presents professional ground-to air courses for field rangers operating in the Greater Kruger area. All field rangers who qualify through the College undergo the course. The need to teach basic RT communication to field rangers on the ground required by pilots in the air became a real necessity. Poor or zero ground to air communication proved fruitless and would more often than not result in a failure of operations. A basic course was designed which could be adapted to various levels of experience, from basic rangers to senior course leaders and management. After a ground-based theoretical course on aircraft communication, the rangers are exposed to real-time training methods using the Bathawks. Various real-time scenarios are practiced with an aircraft in the sky. These courses have proved to be invaluable and have really stepped-up the field-rangers capability and success rates. Safer, more effective operations follow.
 
A new JPZ (Joint Protection Zone) is currently being implemented at the Wildlife College. This operation will be based centrally at the Wildlife College and will serve the Central Kruger region including the Private Nature Reserves surrounding the Park. Our Bathawk operation will form part of this initiative. A new hangar and offices will be erected at the existing SAWC airstrip. A state of the art Operations centre will be constructed and manned on a permanent basis. Future plans are to have a permanent helicopter based at the centre, as well as one of our Bathawks and possibly another fixed-wing aircraft. This will ensure much quicker reaction time to any of the central Kruger areas. This initiative, combined with the K9 unit and ranger training at the College are a winning recipe for future success in curbing the scourge of poaching.
 
Training
Airborne African Adventures Flight School (ATO 0220) has been doing flight training in Bantams and Bathawks since 2004. It’s a one man business and trains select students involved in conservation, anti-poaching and wildlife management, Emphasis on conservation flying is instilled from the very first flight training lesson. Advanced bush flying training is offered which includes extreme short-field techniques, safe, low-level flying, ground to air communication with rangers and anti-poaching units, grid flying and census techniques and low-level emergencies. Bruce McDonald is an experienced “A” grade instructor with thousands of bush-flying hours behind his belt.  Over 70 pilots have qualified to fly with AAA, many of them flying Bathawks throughout Africa for conservation organisations and anti-poaching units.   bathawk@sawc.org.za 
 
I am often asked “Why a Bathawk?”
These aircraft have certainly proved themselves in the conservation and anti-poaching industry over recent years and I think the timing was absolutely perfect with the onslaught of poaching throughout Africa. (Both with rhino and elephant) The aircraft was built for the job. Conservationists and rangers needed a no-frills aircraft that was affordable, easy to maintain and easy and forgiving to fly.
 
The Bathawk’s predecessor, the Bantam B22 J was where it all began, and although a great little aircraft, it was underpowered and needed to be modified in certain aspects. The Bathawk provided this with a bigger 6 cylinder engine, improved landing gear and brake-system, larger fuel tank, improved avionics and improved handling with a change in the wing dihedral.
 
The new Bathawks are all fitted with the 6 cylinder reliable Camit engines which have proved to be a big improvement on the previously fitted Jabiru engines which had proved to be problematic on the Bathawks. 
 
The visibility from inside the cockpit is unsurpassed and not dissimilar to that of a helicopter. Single handed cockpit operations are carried out with ease, whereas many other similar aircraft require a two-man crew.
 
Affordability is a big plus factor here. The initial purchase price of the Bathawk is less than any other similar LSA aircraft on the market. It has made it possible for most Parks and Reserves to include this valuable conservation tool in their toolbox.
 
The short-field performance of the Bathawk never ceases to amaze me and very few other light aircraft can compare in this department.  In the right hands, this aircraft can get airborne within 50 metres with two crew and full tanks and still clear obstacles at the end of the runway. We often land on an area which is half the length of a football field! A 30 meter take-off is possible with one crew. Landing distance is similar, depending on wind conditions. The rugged undercarriage and bush tyres will tolerate the roughest of fields, and because the prop is high-up and out of the way will never be damaged by stones or obstacles.
 
Manoeuvrability is phenomenal! 90 degree steep turns are possible, and very useful when one has suspects on the ground, doing follow-up operations. It’s possible to loop and roll the aircraft, but don’t try this! It’s not rated for such manoeuvres!
 
Fitted with long-range tanks, the Bathawk is able to stay airborne for almost 5 hours, this is especially useful in its patrol and surveillance role. It also gives the option of getting to an operational area and then still having the endurance to complete the job. One can run the aircraft on normal 95 Unleaded MOGAS which makes for much cheaper operating costs.
 
The aircraft is a pleasure to fly with very forgiving stalling characteristics. The aircraft will stall at around 32 kts. This is hardly a stall but rather more of a gentle mush. This makes it the perfect and safe bush aircraft.
 
To sum it up, the Bathawk is the perfect bush plane. Built in Africa for African conditions.
 
Bruce & Gerry McDonald - The Rhino has been darted for relocation
 
 
 
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