Saving Rhinos from the Air

The Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing (ZAP- Wing)

ZAP-Wing is assisting rhino anti-poaching operations at a regional level, currently benefitting 26 State and private game reserves (+300,000ha of protected area) and contributing significantly to the conservation of over 3,000 White and Black Rhino.  It is pioneering a new way of using aviation as an important resource for conservation and wildlife crime needs.
Background

Northern KZN hosts the province’s biggest rhino populations, spread out across a vast region on state, private and community-owned game reserves – incorporating 24 formal reserves and a myriad of smaller game farms.  It is a tourist mecca for visitors from around the world and contributes significantly to the provincial GDP.  However, its proximity to Mozambique where the greatest poaching threats originate from, make it extremely vulnerable to poaching syndicates.

In 2011, as it became clear that South Africa – and northern KwaZulu-Natal in particular – was under a sustained attack from rhino poaching syndicates,  the Project Rhino KZN association engaged the support of a passionate group of pilots, the Bateleurs (www.bateleurs.co.za) to provide voluntary, aerial surveillance support.  A helicopter reaction fund was also established to assist private and community reserves in the event of an actual poaching incident.    At the same time, the provincial government conservation authority (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) began aerial surveillance of the province’s flagship game reserve (Hluhluwe-iMfolozi), which has the largest population of rhino in the province and was under serious attack, using a donated Bantam (microlight) and a helicopter on contract.

Within months, the benefits of these two separate intiatives showed dividends.  The Bateleurs presence over six participating game reserves coincided with a reduction in poaching incursions.  At the same time, the Hlhulwe-iMfolozi aerial surveillance efforts saw poaching attacks drop to almost zero. However, when funding ran out and aerial surveillance stopped, rhino poachers moved back in.

In 2012, WWF (Netherlands) and the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project purchased a Cheetah light sport aircraft for Project Rhino KZN and additional fundraising efforts (notably ACT’s national Skydive for Rhinos campaign) secured sufficient support for the employment of a dedicated pilot.  Daily aerial patrols commenced in October 2012 over six private/community game reserves – soon extending to 12 – and Project Rhino KZN’s Helicopter Reaction Fund was used extensively over December 2012, which is traditionally a high-poaching period.   At the same time, East Coast Radio and the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation raised enough funds to re-establish helicopter patrols over the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve.

As rhino poaching incursions intensified, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the private conservation community agreed to amalgamate their aerial surveillance operations in northern KZN.  In March  2013, the KZN Provincial Treasury agreed to fund the provision of two helicopters for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to further extend aerial operations to every game reserve in this high-risk region.

Today, Hluhluwe Airfield serves as Anti-Poaching Ops Centre: a fully equipped, dedicated airfield base for ZAP-Wing and related state & private anti-poaching activities. It is also used as the Zululand command centre for Operation Rhino 7 – the national SAPS anti-poaching programme. 3 turbine helicopters are currently funded by the KZN Provincial government and donations to Project Rhino KZN fund the operating costs of the BushCat aircraft & pilot.
As part of an integrated programme combatting wildlife crime, the Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing is a cost-effective world-first.

ZAP-Wing undertakes daily aerial patrols, assists rangers and APU teams in pursuit of poaching gangs, transports APU teams, SAPS and even K9 units into remote areas, investigates suspicious vehicles, notifies game reserves of unusual activities around their boundaries and helps to locate missing rhinos in difficult terrain. Its value also extends to other wildlife at risk of poaching, not just rhino. Benefit is also being seen from joint operations with law enforcement agencies.