Wild Dog Tracking in the Waterberg

Jul 18, 2011

MISSION  16 of  2011

Name of Mission: Wild Dog Tracking in the Waterberg   
Date of Mission: 18 July 2011  
Aircraft used: Aerospatiale Alouette II
Pilot: Eugene Couzyn
Beneficiary: Michelle Thorn, of the Endangered wildlife Trust (EWT)

Objective of the Flight

To provide aerial tracking of four collared Wild Dogs in the Waterberg, for the Endangered Wildlife Trust

Beneficiary’s report             By Michelle Thorn (EWT)

African Wild Dogs are one of the most endangered carnivore species in the world, and are the flagship species of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Carnivore Conservation Programme.  We receive frequent reports of free-ranging Wild Dogs in the Waterberg and are keen to gain a better understanding of their movement patterns and pack composition in the area.  To help us achieve this, we fitted some of the Waterberg Wild Dogs with VHF collars.  However, the species tends to range over very large areas and together with hilly Waterberg topography, this makes it difficult to track the signal from the collars at ground level.  We asked The Bateleurs to help us solve that problem by tracking the Wild Dogs from the air.

Bateleurs pilot, Eugene Couzyn, volunteered to fly the mission and very kindly fashioned some brackets that we used to attach our VHF antennae to his helicopter.  Eugene also arranged to have several barrels of fuel on standby at Welgevonden Private Game Reserve so that we could re-fuel when needed.  On that note, we would like to thank the staff and management at Welgevonden very much for their invaluable help and for the use of their airstrip.  We had hoped to be in the air early in the morning when denning Wild Dogs might still be sunning themselves after a cold night.  Unfortunately, the fuel strike interfered and because Eugene had to pick us up rather than meeting us at the airstrip, we started a little later than planned.

Michelle, Deon Welgevonden CEO, Sean Mc Cartney
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When we did begin our search, we first concentrated on the area near Mokolo Dam and Bulge Rivier.  Land owners have been reporting lots of sightings in that area and we picked up a signal from a collared Wild Dog in that area during our June mission.  Although we flew several transects from the dam to Ellisras, we had no luck this time.  We went on to search most of the Waterberg, including the 24 Rivers area where a land owner had recently seen one of the collared dogs, then on to Lapalala and surrounding areas, and most of the area between Welgevonden and Lapalala.  Despite a total of 7 hours in the air, we did not pick up any signals from collared Wild Dogs.

We hope we simply missed the dogs because they were roaming somewhere else that day, or were underground in a den when we flew over.  However, we are concerned that there might be a more sinister explanation.  Over the coming weeks, we will be working on the ground to generate as much information as possible about recent sightings of the collared Wild Dogs.  We hope that this will confirm that they are still alive and well, and help us narrow down search areas for future aerial tracking.

We would like to thank the Bateleurs, and especially Eugene, for their tremendous generosity in helping us to search for the collared Wild Dogs.  We wish you well in all your future missions.

Was the objective of the flight met?
We did not find the wild dogs we were looking for, so from that perspective, the flight was not successful.  However, we sent out a pre-flight warning to let people know that there would be a helicopter flying over their land.  In view of the recent spate of rhino poaching, we wanted to reassure people that we had a legitimate reason to be in their airspace.  The mission was then cancelled because of a poor weather forecast, and when we rescheduled, we sent out a second pre-flight warning.  The notices were circulated by Heidi Bruce of the Waterberg Conservancy, and we would like to thank her for her help.  That communication has provoked much interest in the purpose and results of the flight, increasing local interest in the wild dogs.  Although it was not an objective of the mission, increasing awareness of the wild dogs is certainly a positive by-product.

Pilot’s report                 By Eugene Couzyn

ZU ALO helicopter
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As a result of the seriously endangered status of wild dogs in South Africa, and the conflict between stock farmers and natural predators, the Endangered Wildlife Trust has embarked on a program,e to monitor the movements and status of four packs of wild dogs in the Waterberg, and to try to get the farmers on side in the preservation of this wonderful species. To this end, one dog from each of four known packs in the area have been fitted with radio collars, and EWT researchers, Deon Cilliers and Michelle Thorn, have requested the help of The Bateleurs to use aircraft to track these collared dogs.

I was privileged to be allowed to fly this, the second such mission. and after abandoning our first attempt because of an unfavourable weather forecast, I collected Deon and Michelle in my Alo on 18th July and we set sail for The Waterberg.

Sean McCartney and his staff at Welgevonden could not have been more helpful, and in addition to buying and collecting fuel for me, allowed us to use Welgevonden as a base and refuelling point.

W

Aerial on skid 2
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e flew a total of 7.3 hours, including the trip to and from Johannesburg, and our search pattern, as directed by Deon, covered about 5000 sq km.

I mounted the antennae onto the skids of the helicopter and Deon set them up so that at about 1500 ft AGL the equipment would pick up a band of about 15km wide on the ground. Our pattern ensured a lot of overlap to minimise the possibility of missing something. Deon has been working in the Waterberg for some 20 years, and knows it intimately. I was treated to a running commentary of whose farm we were traversing and each particular farmer’s experiences with predator stock losses. The commentary was by way of a briefing for Michelle, who will be largely responsible for the project into the future.

Unfortunately, we were unable to pick up any signals, whether because the dogs have moved away from the area or were all underground because it is ‚Äúdenning season‚ÄĚ or (and hopefully this is not the case) have been eradicated. I do not know how important the time of day is in the dogs‚Äô movements, but I would guess that this might be a critical factor.

Michelle Deon refuellng
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The timing of this flight was dictated by circumstance rather than choice, but if we repeat the exercise, I will propose that we fly early in the morning and later in the afternoon, rather than the late morning to middle afternoon slot we used for this mission. This might entail sleeping over in the area before and after the mission, but that should not be a problem.

I have included a couple of pics of the Team, including one of a fuel stop. The girls certainly pull their weight, and the only reason I was not pumping paraffin myself was that SOMEONE had to take the photograph.

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