Eyes in the skies

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, autumn 2011. Author: Dirk Swart, Section Ranger (Manzibomvu), Hluhluwe Game Reserve)

Lawrence Munro left; the Bantam microlight centre; and Dirk Swart on the rightCredit: Tonie Carnie

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park has recently acquired a microlight plane in order to fight the current upsurge in poaching. The Bantam Light Aircraft was used for the first time operationally two days after arriving at Hluhluwe in May. On this occasion, it was flown to the airstrip at Masinda, where a member of the Executive had the opportunity to accompany pilot Section Ranger, Lawrence Munro. After the flight, he had only positive things to say about the plane and its potential.

The Bantam is capable of flying very low, near hills and along the fenceline. On the first day, we observed community members hunting with dogs outside and adjacent to the Reserve. The microlight made it incredibly easy to maintain surveillance and keep an eye on their activities. These few early flights in the south also sounded a warning to potential poachers that they would now have to keep an eye on the sky. On another occasion, I was requested to patrol the southern hotspots during staff meetings and on the ‘staff shopping day’, which acted as a deterrent to any would-be poacher who wished to use traditional downtime days for poaching.

During the first week of July, the Bantam was called out for surveillance action as a pride of lions had broken out and killed a bull in the neighbouring community. After reaching the area in question, a small pride of about four lions were detected and reported to field rangers on the ground. It appeared these lions were back in the Reserve, along the iMfolozi River but close to the vicinity of incident. The ground teams of field rangers then observed these lions and concluded that it was highly likely that these were the culprits. Further action by foot and lion call up would be taken to ensure that this was the case.

The Bantam had its 50-hour service around mid-July and the opportunity was taken to sort out a few teething problems. The plane had then completed its run-in period and no longer required AvGas and could instead use the standard unleaded MoGas or petrol that standard modern cars use, which is far easier to obtain.

A particularly significant call-out was in response to gunshots heard at Ophathe Game Reserve, about 30km outside the western boundary of iMfolozi Game Reserve. I flew to Ophathe to help check the area for rhino carcasses, intruders etc. We quickly planned strategic fuel dumps at the Masinda Airstrip in iMfolozi and Ulundi and I rushed to the plane. After collecting more fuel and the Officer-in-charge of Ophathe, I proceeded to fly directly to the Reserve where for an hour and a half we circled and covered every inch of the area. During the surveillance, we observed a few white rhino in a healthy condition but, thankfully, found no carcasses.

Once the Officer-in-charge was satisfied that we had covered everything possible from the air, we landed at Ulundi airport, where we met up with the Conservation Manager of iMfolozi and other SAPF members. All were impressed with the little plane and a vote of thanks was given for the effort of reacting and assisting in an uncertain operation that may have cost thousands of rand if a helicopter had been used.

The uses of the plane are becoming more evident as time passes. Rhino poaching in the Park has slowed down and I believe this is, in part, to the activities of the plane.