Who knew that wild dogs could make a cockpit smell so terrible? Or that three large male lions loaded into a Cessna would cause the plane tail to collapse? Or that a Bat Hawk could fly with a bullet hole in its wing, without the pilot noticing? But this is every-day stuff for the men and women pilots of conservation. Flying helicopters and planes to chase poachers or transport animals is rarely as dashing as it sounds.
“I love flying and I love the bush and wildlife, so this is a really special way for me to combine all of that,” says pilot Ryan Beeton.
Ryan has just returned from a mission to move wild dogs to the Northern Cape to start a new pack, and another moving lions to two locations to introduce new genetic potential. “And this didn’t come without complications,” he says with a big smile.
He tells me about the vet, Rowan Leeming, who had to deal with wild dogs that were active and difficult to dart, as well as a couple of wild lions that were trying to attack the darted dogs through the boma fence. Pilots Ryan Beeton and Steve Beck had other issues like unseasonal rain in the Kalahari that made the runway slippery, storms around Hluhluwe in KwaZulu-Natal, and low cloud.
Apart from adverse weather, three particularly heavy lions caused the tail of the Cessna to drag on the ground. “We propped up the tail on a barrel while we loaded the animals and then had to use the entire runway before the plane took off,” says Ryan. He explains how they took out all the seats and lined the plane with plastic to protect it. “These animals can be messy and smelly.”
Not all Bateleur missions are as complex as this one. It can be a simple reconnaissance flight over mining sites to evaluate rehabilitation or to check for illegal dumping. Researchers often use the Bateleur services, and sometimes there is a rescue mission of an injured animal, like moving a sick pangolin in the Hoedspruit area.
Yes, it’s a risky business but, as Ryan says, “We do it because we love flying and we love wildlife. Simple as that.”
This was extracted from an article written by Sue Adams for Country Life, named “Conservation planes: Flying to save our wilderness”.