When the ZAPWing pilots fly over the beautiful protected areas of Zululand in northern KwaZulu-Natal, they perform a critical role in the war against rhino poachers. By Scott Ramsay
The Robertson R44 helicopter lifted into the sky and thwacked-thwacked-thwacked over the iMfolozi wilderness below. An early winter chill had turned the hills and valleys into a blanket of amber velvet. The sun hung low in the afternoon sky like a drop of blood ready to fall to the earth below.
Below us we spotted a breeding herd of elephant drinking from the White Umfolozi River. Further along a white rhino calf suckled from its mother. A goliath heron took off from the shallows and we watched as it flew underneath our chopper, its broad purple wings beating slowly but powerfully.
Further south a pride of nine lions lazed on a sand bank. While the cubs hid behind their mothers, the big males glanced up at us as if we were a strange bird, then promptly flopped back down to snooze again.
On another bend in the river, a male leopard emerged from the riverine forest, surveying his kingdom. He ignored us imperiously, in a way that only leopards know how.
“I can’t believe someone pays me to do this,” said anti-poaching chopper pilot Wayne Cornhill, his voice crackling through the headphones. “Isn’t it incredible?”
I didn’t answer because I wasn’t really able to talk. This was wildlife viewing like I’d never experienced before. How does one describe the feeling of hovering over paradise? Right then it was difficult to believe much could be wrong with this wild place.
Then we spotted it. A dead white rhino. Lying alongside the river in thick reeds. Wayne’s smile disappeared. He banked the chopper round sharply and hovered low over the carcass to have another look. “Could be poachers,” Wayne said. “Watch out for them. Keep your eyes on the ground.”
But then we saw that the horns were still on the rhino and the carcass was bloated from gas inside the decomposing body, indicating it had been dead for a while. “This rhino probably died of old age. Poachers would have removed the horns.”
We landed next to the carcass. Wayne took GPS co-ordinates and texted them on to the section ranger, along with a short message. “The rangers will mobilise tonight to remove the horns for safekeeping.”
Soon after we took off again, Wayne showed me two more carcasses lying in the open veld. Nothing remained of the mother and her calf except their skeletons and some desiccated skin. “Poachers killed these a few weeks ago. The calf wouldn’t have had much of a horn, but they killed it anyway.”
The sight of the carcasses ripped me out of my reverie. There are problems in paradise. Rhino poaching in South Africa is at record levels, with more than 1#200 killed in 2014, about 700 of them in Kruger National Park, where the majority of Africa’s rhinos occur. The public and private protected areas of KwaZulu-Natal have the second-biggest population of rhinos in Africa. In this province, the birthplace of rhino conservation on the continent, poachers killed around 90 rhino in 2014.
Lawrence Munro is the head of KwaZulu-Natal’s Rhino Operations Unit, a joint government task force that co-ordinates anti-poaching efforts across the province. The 39-year-old former section ranger of the iMfolozi Wilderness Area was also responsible for setting up the Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing, the aerial division of the rhino unit. He is also a fixed-wing pilot for ZAPWing.
“Rhino poaching in KwaZulu-Natal is similar to the rest of South Africa,” Lawrence explained. “Every year it’s growing. But the percentage increase in poaching in KwaZulu-Natal over recent years is significantly lower than other provinces.”
Munro explained that there are several reasons for their relative success. “Rhino crime is now listed as a national priority, so the police and detectives give it the attention it deserves. And we have become more proactive in our approach. We don’t wait for poachers to get into protected areas. We actively look for them before they can get near our rhinos.”
The establishment of ZAPWing was a critical development. “Aircraft and choppers move a lot faster than people on the ground, obviously, so we can act more effectively over a much larger area.”
The ZAPWing team is made up of five pilots: Lawrence himself, Wayne Cornhill, Menno Buyze, Etienne Gerber and Dirk Swart. Together they fly two Robertson R44 helicopters, as well as two small fixed-wing aircraft, a Cheetah and a Bantam. The fixed-wing craft handle the surveillance and patrolling, because they can fly for longer at a tenth of the price of a helicopter. But the helicopters are used for reaction.
“Choppers are very versatile, because they can land almost anywhere, they can hover and also pick up and drop off rangers easily. So now we’re much more effective in reaching remote areas quickly.”
The five pilots from ZAPWing patrol 26 protected areas across more than 1,5 million hectares, from Ulundi north to the Mozambique border, and from the Indian Ocean west to Ithala Game Reserve on the escarpment. It’s a huge area and flying here comes with unique challenges.
“The weather here is extreme and it gets very hot,” Wayne explained. “Helicopters don’t like heat at all, especially when landing in confined areas with a full crew of rangers on board. You could run into some serious trouble very quickly. It takes a lot of thought and calculation while you’re flying.”
Along with the weather, there’s the constant threat of bird strikes. “Because we’re always flying over protected areas, there is huge density of bird life. I’m often looking at the ground for poachers, but I also have to keep a constant look out in front and above the chopper. Vultures dive when they feel threatened so that’s very dangerous.”
“The nature of our flying requires extensive low-level operations,” explained Etienne Gerber. “There are very small margins for error in emergency situations, especially when the wind is pumping and thunderstorms are crashing around you.”
“We think combatively, all the time,” explained Lawrence, who also works closely with the ground teams, “whether we’re on leave or whether we’re at work.” Sometimes the pilots are able to intercept poachers and keep track of them from the air while the ground teams catch up and arrest them. Fortunately, no shots have yet been fired at the choppers and planes. Nevertheless the pilots are regularly exposed to the war going on below them.
“The sight of so many dead rhinos will always remain with me. Even though we have to detach emotionally, every crime scene you attend does affect you in some way,” said Etienne.
Despite the dangers, the pilots love their work. Plus they regularly see spectacular wildlife. Wayne was once flying over Ithala Game Reserve and saw that a herd of elephants had crossed into neighbouring farmland. He immediately flew low towards them, again and again, using his chopper to persuade the elephants to cross the Pongola River, back into the game reserve.
“But the river was flooding,” Wayne said, “and the youngsters were too scared to cross. So the adults formed a line across the river, directing the youngsters from one adult to the other on the upstream side, to protect them from washing downstream. That was just amazing to see!”
Etienne once saw a white rhino give birth to its calf. “The calf was still attached by the umbilical cord to its mother,” he said. “For me, that’s incredibly special, because I see so many dead rhinos. I hope that little guy will one day die of old age and not at the hands of poachers.”
Even though the pilots get to see some of the most beautiful natural areas in the country from high in the sky, it’s the rangers on the ground who most inspire them. “It’s a pleasure and an honour to work alongside some of the most hardworking and dedicated people that I have ever met,” Etienne said.
“These rangers are men and women who spend every day on patrol, every week, every year. They’re stationed in remote posts, and are out in the field protecting our wild heritage. They are the frontline, the first line of defence, and it’s because of them that we do what we do.”
Favourite wild fly-overs
The wilderness of Tembe Elephant Park is special. Sitting by a crackling campfire with nothing but the stars above you and the sounds of the bush around you. It is one of our truly wild areas. Along with Ndumo, these reserves are under constant threat from a porous border with Mozambique, putting them in the frontline of the rhino war.
I love the whole of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park from edge to edge, but there is something very special about the wilderness area. My first and last light flights of the day will make your jaw drop to your lap. I feel so lucky and privileged to get to fly over such a beautiful and special part of the world.
The Ozabeni section and Eastern Shores of iSimangaliso Wetland Park are some of the most photogenic landscapes in the country. The grassland, forested sand dunes and Indian Ocean make this my favourite place to fly in the province.
ZAPWing is funded entirely by donations from individuals and corporations. Support ZAPWing by contacting Sheelagh Antrobus on [email protected] or 033-326-3035.