in General Aviation / Features

Hunting hunters

Posted 10 May 2019 · Add Comment

From military helicopters through ‘aerial bats’ to unmanned air vehicles, Africa’s aerial anti-poaching operations are being stepped up. David Oliver reports.

Aerial anti-poaching surveillance is provided by the South African National Parks (SANParks) fleet of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft supported by South African Air Force (SAAF) helicopters, normally an Agusta A109 light utility helicopter, and a pair of aircraft made available by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation.
In 2013, a former British Army Air Corps Gazelle AH.1 helicopter was donated to SANParks by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation in association with the Paramount Group, South Africa’s largest private aerospace and defence group, to fight rhino poachers in the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest game reserve.
A second former Royal Navy HT.2 Gazelle was donated in 2015.
The Paramount Group Anti-Poaching and K9 Academy houses one of the largest K9 breeding and training facilities in Africa. Specialising in anti-poaching activities, it provides combat training courses for park rangers, and rapid response unit training for K9 teams, including rappelling from helicopters for fast deployment.
In 2016, some R38 million ($2.75m) of the massive R225 million ($16.3m) made available for anti- and counter-poaching operations in SANParks went to the acquisition of a new Airbus helicopter, an AS 350B3E. Specially fitted equipment allows the helicopter to be used at night and provide real-time intelligence to ranger and military patrols on the ground.
This latest addition to the Kruger air wing means the SANParks now has three helicopters, one fixed-wing Seabird Seeker aircraft and a pair of B22 Bantam microlights to assist in its anti-and counter-poaching operations.
In September 2016, the Ichikowitz Family Foundation donated another Gazelle helicopter, pilot training, specialist ranger training and equipment for anti-poaching officers, as well as the establishment of a canine training facility, to the Gabon National Parks Agency to set up an anti-poaching rapid response task force.
This helicopter was one of a number of ex-AAC Gazelle AH.1s acquired by the Paramount Group, which refurbished it and equipped it for its new role.
Flight training took place at Paramount’s flight academy in South Africa, with around half-a-dozen pilots being trained to date. Maintenance and technical support is also being carried out by Paramount Aerospace and the Paramount K9 Training School has supplied two dogs and handlers to Gabon, with another six dogs scheduled to be sent to the west African nation.
Professor Lee White, the British born director of Parcs Gabon, said that poaching has become more violent and that ivory smuggling networks are run by organised criminals that also trade in drugs and human trafficking.
He said Gabon has made strides in addressing poaching with 750 personnel involved, including 100 from the military. Due to the increasingly violent nature of poaching, Parcs Gabon has had to give military training to its rangers as poachers will fire on sight, often with automatic weapons.
Parcs Gabon has 150 vehicles, 35 boats and five aircraft and now a helicopter, which will be critical in supporting the war against poaching. Ivor Ichikowitz, founder of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation and executive chairman of Paramount Group, said there is a link between crime and poaching, with terror activities around the world being funded by poaching. He said poaching is no longer a conservation issue but a threat to democracies. “This helicopter is only the beginning of our commitment to Professor Lee and his remarkable organisation.”
One of the most effective aircraft used by many game reserves for anti-poaching operations is the Bat Hawk light aircraft, which is extremely quiet, can fly very slowly and take off and land in just 30 metres.
Since 2014, when the Bat Hawk received South African Civil Aviation Authority approval, the South African-based Micro Aviation SA company has built more than 145 units, with the majority of the sales being to wildlife conservation bodies in southern Africa, including SANParks and a number of parks in Mozambique and Tanzania as well as wildlife trusts.
Powered by a 100hp four-cylinder Rotex engine and equipped with large bush tyres, hydraulic disk brakes and a large 80 litre fuel tank capacity, the Bat Hawk has excellent all round visibility from the cockpit, short take-off and landing distances, ease of operation, as well as a relatively low initial price and low operating costs. The high-mounted Bat Hawk propeller reduces the risk of damage by grass, sticks, stones and sand when operating from unmade airstrips making it a true “bush plane”.
Micro Aviation has armed six Bat Hawk light aircraft sold to the Botswana Defence Force and four to the Botswana Police Service in 2017.
FN MINIMI 5.6mm Mk.3 light machine guns (LMGs) that the pilot can fire from a button in the cockpit are placed on either side of the pilot cabin on each of the aircraft. The Botswana Defence Force is responsible for patrolling the eastern and northern parts of the country that include Chobe and Ngami, while the police service is responsible for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and the wildlife and national parks department patrols the Kalahari Transfrontier and the Mabuasehube Game Reserve.
The Wildhood Foundation is a Swedish based non-profit organisation devoted to fighting poaching and trafficking of wild threatened species in Africa and Indonesia. The foundation was founded in 2016 as a reaction to the escalating poaching crises, with the objective to save the most threatened species from extinction in their natural habitats.
It uses the Bat Hawk for surveillance to prevent poaching by locating threatened animals in the reserves, which is crucial in order to deploy ground rangers as protection for these animals.
Wildhood saw the role of aircraft as a conservation tool changing as, in the past, helicopters were used to do animal monitoring. As the need for air support increases with the escalating poaching, so has the cost of flying and it was evident that new solutions had to be found. This is where the Bat Hawk light aircraft came to the fore.
Wildhood Foundation’s local partner in the sky, Flying for Rhino & Conservation (F4R), has great experience in anti-poaching operations. F4R has, over time, flown and tested numerous different aircraft and settled on the Bat Hawk.
F4R considers the aircraft perfect for the task as it has low fuel consumption, slow speed, a good field of visibility and can handle the more severe weather conditions in emergencies.
F4R is a group of dedicated people who offer their expertise as pilots and conservationists to support the anti-poaching work and ground rangers in the Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Over the past years they have faced challenges to keep the aircraft safely flying with good maintenance, as well as ongoing training for the pilots as the role of the aircraft and its pilots has developed.
The type of low-level flying required to perform the tasks of locating animals before the poachers do, as well as locating and following poachers from the air, is an extremely risky mission that requires a completely different mindset and approach.
In 2012, SANParks considered using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to target rhino poachers and the manufacturer, Denel, loaned one of its large fixed-wing Seeker II UAVs used by the South African National Defence Force, for a short series of trials.
The use of UAVs for anti-poaching surveillance has been subsequently trialled in a number of countries.
The Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) has taken delivery of several commercially available multi-rotor vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) mini UAVs and a larger fixed-wing UAV that will be deployed to search for wildlife poachers.
They were delivered by Saving the World Using Aerospace Technologies (SWUAT) Limited, in partnership with Worldwide Fund for Nature Zambia, which officially launched its UAV conservation project in March 2018.
The UAVs will be deployed across five national parks during an initial trial period. Apart from the primary surveillance role, the UAVs can be used for wildlife population/distribution and vegetation mapping.
Air Shepherd, a new initiative of the American Lindbergh Foundation, is using sophisticated UAV technology. Its long-endurance fixed-wing UAVs are deployed with advanced infrared surveillance systems and supercomputer-based predictive analytic technology developed at the University of Maryland.
The combination of algorithms and aviation predicts where poaching is likely to happen ¬– with a claimed accuracy level of 93% – and aims to apprehend poachers before they can kill. Tested on private reserves in southern Africa for two years, Air Shepherd UAV teams are deployed at wildlife reserves in Malawi and Zimbabwe, and at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which is a governmental organisation responsible for maintaining wildlife conservation areas and biodiversity in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province.

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