Steve’s Wildlife Management Aviation – The Tembe Ellies

Sep 28, 2020

Having spent two days of hard but exciting work, in a very successful 29 rhinos de-horning operation at Phinda Game Reserve, Zululand, the time came, to put the combined aviation and ground ‘Forces’ to work, in an elephant searching operation. Phinda and the Munyawana Conservancy have had their bull elephants enclosed within the reserve for enough years, that in-breeding is a real concern and genetic diversification becomes an important requirement.

Using the same concept which we had just used, of searching for the animals with the low cost and effective fixed-wing Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) and with the same helicopter carrying the Veterinarian for the darting, we were tasked to search and collar, two specifically selected bulls for transfer. The stage was thus set for another exciting challenge.

Talk about dampening the spirits; departure day dawned and we had a very unseasonal rain shower which delayed the departure, but as you see in Pic 2, the rain abated and it was all smiles. Heading 40min north to Tembe Elephant Park and there were some spectacular wetlands to be seen, along with vast tracts of unspoiled country.

The Tembe runway was not for the inexperienced, lumpy as heck, where you keep flying even after touchdown and also at Slow taxi speed, a vigilant eye has to be kept for holes and cut thorn shrubs. The cut grass of two days prior had not been raked and as if for ‘good measure’, I had to choose my line on finals, avoiding hitting one of the meter-high piles of grass cuttings.

Upon parking, a single strand of electrified wire is pulled across the “apron” to keep the ellies from doing any aircraft damage and I was reminded of that old line, “Africa is not for Sissies!”

Tembe Elephant Park had earmarked two bulls for this trade with Phinda and there was a good reason for this aviation element of our mission. Mature bull ellies don’t simply get loaded on the back of a bakkie and taken away – they require a workforce, heavy lift equipment, a low bed tractor-trailer and heavy transport trucks. Now you can’t have that battalion hanging around for several days, or even weeks, whilst a search is conducted for the particular elephants and thus the need to pre-capture, evaluate health for suitability of later transportation and most importantly, to collar the animals, with telemetry equipment. These collars will later facilitate an ‘immediate’ relocation once the forces and equipment is ready on site.

On arrival, I did a quick turnaround, loading up Leonard, elephant monitor for the reserve and we went on an acclimatisation flight. I wanted to see the bush and the jungle foliage, which was to be our challenge, whilst also learning the park boundaries. Leonard wanted to similarly appraise the aircraft, as a search platform. We kicked off with some great wildlife sightings, including would you believe, one of ‘our’ two ellies. It was a huge frustration that the others of the team were only arriving the next day. We could have been done and dusted right there during the ‘warm-up’ flight.

On the morning of the mission, much necessary fussing and prep were occurring, with the Vets deliberating over dart dosages and the tools required for the World’s biggest collars, were all being checked over. I had loaded the box of two collars on the vehicle myself and even if I was an elephant, I would not wish to have that load around my neck – however, it really is nothing to them.

The rain of the previous day had moved north, arriving on the morning of our deployment and upsetting the action. Whilst we dejectedly watched the passing showers, some of the crew took refuge under the only shelter, being the wing of the wee Cheetah. We eventually opted to take the drive, back to base for a very welcome cuppa. Of course, most of the talk around the Base was all about how the ellies seek shelter from the rain in the sand forests – delightful! – just what we did not need.

Finally, when the weather allowed, Leonard and I flew transects of a freestyle grid pattern, searching for our candidates and as we moved further, there was unspoken anxiety, with us questioning just how far an elephant can or will move overnight. We’d seen them in this same zone the previous afternoon and now there was nothing – were they hiding from the rain, in the thick canopy of the sand forests, or had we simply missed them? I was eventually searching too hard if that makes any sense – you know that place where, in the desperation, you start seeing ghost ellies where there aren’t any.

And then Hallelujah, Leonard spotted one of our candidates, Gundi by name. Heli pilot Orton was called in with the Vets on board and with the ground crews in hot pursuit. Once everyone was on station, it was seemingly an anti-climax, as everything happened like clockwork. This sequence of pics tells the story, culminating in Gundi walking away sporting a new collar and amazingly calm about it all.

Whilst the first customer was being appraised, probed, measured and collared, we went off in search of Ndoda Mfishane, our next candidate and to our absolute disbelief, we had him, within a few kilometres and maybe only ten minutes since leaving the scene of the action above. When I made the radio call, somewhat flippantly suggesting that the team hurry things up, as we are now minding the next ellie, Simon responded with a somewhat incredulous “are you serious?” Leonard and I made a fist bash – Job Done.

Having delivered the Vets back to base, Orton followed me to the airfield, helping to cover and tie down the ‘Super Spotter Cheetah’ and I then jumped in with him, for a much quicker ride back to the base than if a vehicle had been sent for us. Now that’s a proper Uber for you – and my credit card hasn’t even been debited yet! The 3rd pic here will show the vastness of this endless canopy of jungle and I am still kinda marvelling at how we could possibly have found these ellies in all of that.

The next morning a flew Leonard’s understudy Mikael and using telemetry we found the two ellies of the previous day within 20min. It was easy and it was also a box ticked, whereby ‘we’ had collared and then tested the system, for later quick location of these fellas and it all worked.

Upon landing from this short sortie, the very observant Leo spotted a cupful of oil being discharged by the engine on shut down. You can imagine my alarm, where in 1350hrs, with this same aircraft, I have never experienced that. Removing the engine cowl to have a good look, I did an oil level check and instead of having to the pull the engine through about 15 compressions to return the oil to its reservoir, now within 3 pulls the reservoir wanted to overflow – so I then knew that something is very wrong.

Another night away was inevitable, as some repair was obviously needed and a small consolation was that on return from the airfield to base, we drove into the biggest ellie that I have ever seen. The 3rd/right-hand pic here is courtesy of Leonard.

Enough praise cannot be given to Ernest Robertse, proprietor of the lodge, where he had no hesitation in providing me a cosy room (safari tent) for the night. The lodge is fantastic and a proper African experience. The tents are cleverly set far enough apart that there’s no sight of one’s neighbours, with sand tracks leading to the tents and the canvas allowing all the sounds of the African bush into the room, giving the feeling of sleeping outdoors. The presentation, the beds, linen, finishing’s – everything was just perfect and I found myself fantasising about being a full-time, in-house pilot and residing here long term. Dream on Steve!

Ernest’s helmeted guinea fowl – his chickens – my shower – the ‘room’.

I had put out a WhatsApp broadcast that I was grounded, very far from base and reassuringly the Brotherhood of The Bateleurs swung into action. These amazing fellow aviators came to the party in fantastic style, with one providing the Shell Aerosport oil and a filter, good mate Mark Warren had a pump and then a 3rd good fellow Jas van Wyk did the coordinating and collecting, delivering it all to a fellow pilot Donavan Bailey who flew the stuff from Durban to me in the bush. It was very special to have these fellow Bats members rally together, in helping a grounded Bateleur pilot – and this was not the first time that the ever-ready Donavan has done this. You’ve just gotta love camaraderie like this!

Despite cautionary notes about the runway, Don arrived in his Piper ‘Boere Boeing’ and simply waxed the landing, then digging in to help with the work.

Here’s a juxtaposition for you: after a long 8 days, in what felt like the shortest week in memory, I was headed home.

In a 3hr flight alone, I had time to reflect and if I had one dominating thought, it was as follows: We sure have Covid problems, the Command Council seemed to be out to crush us, the economy is ailing and and and, but despite all of this, I have faith, that amongst the conservationists and the Bateleur pilots of our country, there are the finest people you could ever find. Undeniably we have seen the degradation of National and Provincial conservation and it’s amenities, but here’s the good news; those individuals with ‘the calling’ and the Will to conserve, are still all out there – they might be out of the limelight and under the radar, but they’re working diligently and passionately for Conservation.

You are allowed to ask, where I got a beer from during lockdown, but I don’t have to answer – let’s just say that it went down with a thump!

This pictorial is being released now/three months after the event and this delay was specifically in order that this elephant transfer was not compromised by anyone of several elements which could have turned this ‘pre-capture’ story into a hollow victory. I won’t drag you through all of those details, however, the last one of which would be as follows: Imagine all of this effort; a successful recapture, the rigours of a heavy lift road transfer, the release  – and then these ellies deciding that their ‘homing instinct’ is going to have them destroy a fence and drive them back home to Tembe. However the good news and the delightfully happy ending to the story, is that the transfer has occurred, the ellies are very settled and with no indications of any desire to ‘migrate’.

These pics courtesy of Phinda staff……………………

Cheers and my thanks to the conservationists of Zululand and to my brothers in The Bateleurs.

Steve

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