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 +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. Its value extends to all wildlife, not just rhino.
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 groups, the Project Rhino 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 initiatives showed dividends. The Bateleurs’ presence over six participating game reserves coincided with a reduction in poaching incursions. At the same time, the Hluhluwe-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 and additional fundraising efforts (notably African Conservation Trust’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. As rhino poaching incursions intensified, 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 (2013).
Almost a decade later, the Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing has contributed to numerous arrests, tracking of suspects and disruptions of poaching gangs. It has even assisted the SAPS in the apprehension of suspects involved in theft and hi-jacking. The dedicated ZAP-Wing Pilot conducts daily surveillance and routine inspection flights over northern KZN’s protected areas, assisting in poaching incidents from time to time, by being an elevated eye in the sky. He assists game reserves by checking fencelines, helping to locate missing wildlife and assisting with occasional game counts. Rhino poaching site location is another key activity.
ZAP-Wing aerial patrols provide invaluable support to all rangers and anti-poaching teams in the region. This provides a leverage capacity to enable ground based reserve rangers and staff to maximise their efforts, and target patrols with a coordinated approach. A key benefit is the close cooperation with law enforcement agencies, APUs (including the Project Rhino K9-Unit) and the game reserves themselves. Comprehensive training programmes are conducted frequently to help to ensure that all parties are fully prepared in the event of a poaching incident – a potential life-or-death situation.
Benefit extends to all wildlife in the region, as these protected areas support a wide range of species; including elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, buffalo, all plains species and even pangolin.