Rhino 911 helicopter initiative’s unexpected dramatic rescue


In an effort help save Africa’s last rhinos, a new non-government initiative got off to a dramatic start at the Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition on the day the Rhino 911 helicopter, a Bell 407GT, landed at Waterkloof Air Force Base.

A call came in to the non-profit organisation and its supporters, Bell Helicopter, Battle Born Munitions (BBM) Inc. USA , in cooperation with Heli Africa Wildlife, that a rhino had been wounded in a reserve near the Botswana border.

Patrick Moulay of Bell Helicopter, speaking at a reception at AAD’s Premier Lounge, showed video taken on 14 September. “They didn’t actually know where the rhino was, so we actually used our FLIR [forward looking infrared] and high-resolution camera mounted in the nose of the aircraft to actually spot the rhino. So once we spotted the rhino, the veterinarian doctor was on board, and he loaded his tranquiliser dart, and he’s a pretty good shot, shooting from a moving platform. He needed to see if the dart was in there and that’s direct feed from our high resolution camera and you can see we’re almost a kilometre away but you can see the dart that’s embedded in the rhino.”

Moulay explained that the rhino had received one hit near the shoulder, but that the bullet was very deeply embedded near the bone. The animal would likely have died of infection had the team and the veterinarian done the operation.

Rhino 911 was founded by Fred Hees, a South African who said: “As a South African, I wanted to make a difference and help save the rhino species from extinction. Currently, a major challenge facing counter-poaching helicopter pilots is that they are not equipped with night vision and sensing systems, so they cannot operate at night and track poachers before or during the act. Our Bell 407GT and other Bell helicopters will change this equation entirely; we are able to fly day or night, isolate, track and pinpoint intruders to support anti-poaching efforts.”

At the Rhino 911 launch on 15 September, Nico Jacobs said with 20,000 rhinos left in Africa and losing some three a day to poaching, rhinos would be extinct in the wild within 10-20 years.

While most people are aware of the size of the illegal drugs trade and human trafficking, most are unaware that illegal animal trafficking (including rhino horn) is the third largest illegal smuggling trade on earth.

Chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association of South Africa, PROA, Pelham Jones, painted a very bleak picture of the situation on private game reserves. He pointed to the fact that since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, ban on the rhino horn trade in 1977, some 100 000 animals have been killed.

According to the Save the Rhino website, there are a total of five rhino sub-species left on earth: the White and Black rhinos of Africa, the Greater One-Horned Rhino of India (some 3 500 individuals) the Sumatran and Javan rhinos, with less than 100 individual animals each.
“When it comes to Black Rhino, internationally, that is, on the continent of Africa, some 5 200 rhino, of which South Africa is the home of some 1 800. White rhino populations are some 20 000, of which South Africa holds some 18 000,” Jones said. “South Africa is the bastion of the rhino in Africa.”

Talking of the poachers: “Incursions are up by 30 per cent” but the private and national reserves were fighting back. He said he private game parks had not received any assistance from government and he had turned to the Police Special Task Force, who had also not assisted the private reserves.

Jones said he would appeal to the CITES meeting in Johannesburg at the end of this month to legalise rhino horn trade, thus making “living rhinos more valuable than dead ones” and said the government had mooted a five-year-plan which included all players, along with the private reserves, to prevent the loss of this African wildlife icon.

It is to be hoped that the story of the rhino saved in the nick of time will become the norm and not the exception and that the SANDF and other security forces will be effectively utilised to protect rhinos in South Africa.

Rhino 911’s goal is to stop the poachers long before they reach their targets. Unlike any other active anti-poaching effort, Rhino911 benefits from tactical air assets and support groups flying the specially equipped Bell 407 helicopter. Operators will find and intercept poachers of rhinos and other endangered species from extended ranges with night vision and FLIR/WESCAM thermal imaging and other sensors.

At AAD Bell Helicopter, in collaboration with its authorized Independent Representative National Airways Corporation, announced the delivery of the fourth corporate Bell 407GXP into South Africa.