The flying Foxbat
(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, Autumn 2009. Author: Anthony King, former Executive Director of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum)
Much of my work for the Laikipia Wildlife Forum requires face-to-face discussions with land owners and community groups about their needs, priorities and how they can pool their expertise and resources to create the future they want.
The LWF’s Community Conservation Programme has five themes, which respond directly to the key resources that support the lives of the people of Laikipia and, of course, its important wildlife population. These themes are the management of the rangelands (grass for grazing); the management of the 32 rivers (90% of people depend on river water for their needs); the management of forests (from which all the rivers come and many other important resources); the reduction in human-wildlife conflict (for example, elephants destroy thousands of hectares of crops a year); and lastly the development of enterprises that will benefit both people and the environment (we call this conservation enterprise).
It is through the collaboration and efforts of the people of Laikipia, including the pastoralists, small-scale farmers, large-scale ranchers and tourism operators, that Laikipia has become one of Kenya’s greatest conservation successes and a sanctuary for more than half of Kenya’s black rhino. However, for me to get around the 10,000 sq km area we work in, to meet landowners and communities, was up – until a year ago – a slow business. Like much of Kenya, the roads and tracks are rough and in the rainy season many are almost impassable. It could be a three-to-four hour drive across rocks or through mud for a one-hour discussion and then the same to return back to the office, and repeated several times a week. This meant that much of the necessary administration and office work would pile up to very unappealing levels and I would get stuck in the office, and then I would find myself getting out of touch with people across Laikipia.
It occurred to us that a solution would be to fly around, which would save an enormous amount of time and enable me to get around the district and do my paper-work. Our offices are based at Nanyuki airfield. We did our sums and worked out that a modern two-seat aircraft would be very affordable and cost effective, and with support from the Netherlands Government we bought a small aircraft called a Foxbat.
Credit: Save the Rhino International
We have had the Foxbat for a year now and it has been a revelation. It enables me to get around Laikipia and much further afield with ease, and has also become an important tool for others in Laikipia. The Foxbat has fabulous visibility and very good slow flying capability, which makes it a great way to view things from above. I have been able to take the District Commissioner over the Laikipia to see the state of our rivers, which are all drying up, and for him to see and understand the land use causes. The Foxbat has been used to radio track wild dog and lion. Last year we were able to put the Foxbat into the pool of conventional aircraft for a wildlife population census, when the Kenya Wildlife Service observer said it was the best game-counting plane he had been in. We also used it to help Mugie rhino sanctuary to spot and count their black rhino, at a time when the threat of poaching is high.