Fixed wing flying at SGP

Fixed wing anti-poaching

Sabie Game Park

In addition to helicopter operations when needed at SGP, there is a Bantam light aircraft permanently based at the reserve.

Being much cheaper to operate, the Bantam works almost every day with the helicopter called in at times when the Bantam is not available or the mission calls for hover or heavier lifting capabilities.

A typical working day for the Bantam

I am up before dawn and enjoy a cup of tea as first light appears. Roll open the hangar doors and get cracking with the pre-flight inspection. Having done a good after-flight the evening before, there is not a lot to do except check the oil, fuel purity test and a good walk around inspection.

Importantly, the windscreen is clean, there is not much more annoying when surveying than a speck on the windscreen, every time your eye passes it, it looks like a fast approaching vulture searching for thermals!

Strap in, start-up as soon as possible to get the oil up to temperature. While waiting for that, I turn on the air-band radio and begin listening out for any traffic operating in the area. This is a very rare occurrence! I also tune into our anti-poaching frequency on another radio. Yesterday’s tracks and waypoints are cleared off the GPS.

Stopping short of the runway, it is time for a power check, back to idle and do the pre-takeoff vital checks.

We are ready to go, I release the brakes and turn onto the runway while sounding my siren. This is fitted to the plane for use in herding animals when airborne but I also test it now and use it to scare animals off the runway, it is not unusual to have buffalo, reedbuck or even elephant on the runway itself or on the verge in the grass.

All clear, a last look at the windsock and apply full power. Keeping it straight with a bit of rudder, I check that we have the required power showing on the rev counter and we lift off.

Lowering the nose in ground effect quickly gets some “money in the bank” and I have over 50 knots on the air speed indicator, I then climb away.

I am at 300 feet above the ground in short order and that is where I will probably stay for the bulk of the flight remaining.

I shoot off a call to our APU operations room to let them know that I am aloft and immediately begin searching for rhino.

Working closely with the IAPF rangers, we know where the animals are likely to be found, I fly grid patterns about 600m apart and it is not long before I have the first sighting, I record this point on the GPS without orbiting the animals and make a written note of the sex and number of individuals. I then consult a classified map and report a coded grid reference location of the animals to Operations. Operations then relay this position to rangers on the ground and they will begin to deploy a team to find and monitor the animals through the day.

All of this is necessary in order to minimise the risk of unwanted persons knowing where the rhino are located.

Two hours into the flight, I have located 15 rhino, need to take a leak, nearing the end of the morning’s survey and a call comes in over the APU radio.

They have located an exit on the second fence patrol of the morning and it is very fresh!

I start making my way to the area 30km away from me and wait in anticipation of a call for air support.

Radio traffic reveals that the K9 unit has also been mobilized and they are hot on the spoor.

The call I have been waiting for comes when the spoor splits up, there are 3 sets of tracks, quickly heading to populated areas where they hope to blend in and catch their “pick-up” to be whisked away out of our reach.

My mind is racing, have they got lucky and made a kill? I did not find anything so maybe they have come through our reserve from Kruger National Park?

I reach the area, make contact with the ranger in charge on the ground and we strategise. Our IAPF tracking teams have split up to follow the scattering poachers, I leave the dog unit on a set of tracks and concentrate on rangers that only have spoor to go on. I cast ahead like an airborne gun dog, hoping to force the poacher to ground and let our trackers catch up. Occasionally I go back to where the trackers are and punch in a new waypoint when I locate them, soon I have a chain of waypoints on the GPS which gives me a very good idea of the direction the spoor is taking.

Intuition and past experience tells me to work hard over a thicket on the line the spoor is taking. Lots of steep turns at just about treetop level, my eyes are straining to look through the foliage for a telltale flash of clothing and he flushes!

He is unarmed, tired and on the run, I call it in, the rangers abandon spoor and sprint from 2 km away, I have my wingtip pointed at the suspect in a tight low level orbit. Suddenly I hear the familiar cracking sound of AK47 rounds coming my way!

The rangers and police have the runner in sight and are firing warning shots, time for me to climb away. I do one more orbit higher up and see the tracking team meet up with the suspect. I have been on this hot pursuit for over an hour, there is only about 15 litres of fuel showing in the tank and I am reminded that I need to pee! Time to route direct for base.

Safely back in the hangar, I listen to the chatter on the radio as I refuel and do the after flight inspection.

Excellent result! The one hiding in the thicket had some rounds in his pocket and after some persuasion has shown the trackers and police where he stashed the rifle, a beat-up old .458, the stock held together with bits of wire. The rifle is equipped with a suppressor and has the serial number ground off.

In the meantime, the trackers who had the K9 unit with them have caught another one with an axe and backpack.

One member of the gang has escaped, interrogation reveals that they hunted Sabie with the half moonlight but were unsuccessful.

All in all another very good day’s anti-poaching on Sabie Game Park.




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