The Kruger National Park’s anti-poaching capabilities are set to receive a boost with the delivery of a new light aircraft, which will mostly be used for anti-poaching missions.
The Foxbat A22LS was ordered last year and is being sponsored by the MyPlanet Rhino Fund initiative. It has been built and is ready for delivery, with the Kruger National Park expecting it any day now.
The Rhino Fund was created through a partnership between MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and conservationist Braam Malherbe. Over R1 million was raised by the fund in 2017 for the donation of the aircraft.
The two-seat Foxbat is built by Aeroprakt and distributed by Aeroprakt South Africa, with more than 50 flying in South Africa. The Foxbat is designed for rough field operations with oversize main gear tyres, and with its low stall speed (52 km/h) is ideally suited to surveying, photography, anti-poaching patrols and wildlife monitoring. It also offers excellent all-round visibility. It can carry a payload of 200 kg and cruises at 160 km/h while using 17 litres of mogas an hour, giving a range of 800 km.
As it has an aluminium fuselage, the Foxbat is more robust than the Bat Hawk light sport aircraft being flown by South African National Parks (SANParks) at the moment, with SANParks looking at converting to the type, although it is more expensive to acquire, costing double that of the R500 000 Bat Hawk.
SANParks has a growing number of aircraft in its fleet. The Kruger National Park started out with two helicopters and now has four Squirrel single-engine helicopters (two of which were acquired through money donated by the Howard Buffet Foundation), three Bat Hawk light sport aircraft, a Cessna 206 and a Cessna 182. One of the Bat Hawks recently had a new Rotax engine installed, replacing the out of production Camit engine. This was sponsored by the Honorary Rangers association
SANParks has not ruled out the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but after trials with smaller aircraft some years back, has realised that large and consequently expensive UAVs would be required. They need to be able to fly in most weather conditions, have a good sensor payload and long endurance – these were all shortcomings with the small civil UAVs that were evaluated and found to be inadequate.
The majority of SANParks air wing flights are in support of anti-poaching activities but other taskings include casualty evacuation, rescuing snared animals, game counting, slinging equipment and animals and tracking escaped animals.
Andrew Desmet, a Kruger section ranger and pilot, flies the Bat Hawk almost every day, typically for two to three hours, although some anti-poaching missions can last for five hours. He said it is the cheapest aircraft flown by SANParks, as it costs around R500 000 to buy and uses around 12 litres an hour of ordinary petrol (mogas). By comparison, the Squirrels are the most expensive to operate, consuming several thousand rands’ worth of fuel an hour, for total operating costs of R12-15 000 an hour.
According to Desmet, the Bat Hawk is ideal for surveillance as it flies low and slow (often 200 feet above the ground), with excellent visibility. The Bat Hawk is favoured by parks for wildlife conservation for these reasons.
Desmet said most flying is anti-poaching related, and it is unlikely this will be reduced anytime soon. Other tasks including animal spotting and counting. Even though aircraft may not spot poachers from the air, they often prevent them from breaking cover and moving, allowing rangers on the ground to catch up. Desmet said it’s also a morale boost for those on the ground. He emphasised that assets like aircraft and dogs are tools, and that the most important asset is the ranger on the ground.
Desmet said anti-poaching operations are “like a war”, with daily incursions and constant pressure. “There are multiple daily incursions in the northern part of the park. Every day people are coming in armed and rangers get shot at many times. The poachers are willing to risk their lives and take ours – it’s a war.”
Unfortunately poaching is also carried out by those who are supposed to be looking after the animals. “It’s a constant battle with the enemy within. The money is so great people are enticed to follow that route.” As a result, when Desmet sees a rhino herd he is very careful who he shares that information with.
According to Grant Knight, SANParks chief pilot in the Kruger National Park, around 95% of flying is in support of anti-poaching operations. This includes flying at night with night vision goggles. Helicopters are the preferred aircraft as they can drop rangers and tracker dogs as well as police and forensic teams. Aircraft are also used to spot poachers and deter them through their presence alone.
Due to the risks involved in chasing armed poachers, SANParks pilots are issued with sidearms. Aircraft are more regularly getting shot at, Knight said.
While acknowledging that there is no single golden bullet to fight poachers, Knight said “the more tools we have in our toolbox, the better off we are.” Statistics show that rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park is on the decrease. “The passion of everyone is turning the tide,” Knight said. “We are definitely turning the tide and will keep turning it.”