Wild Dog Tracking in the Waterberg

Jun 13, 2011

MISSION  09 of  2011

Name of Mission: Wild Dog Tracking in the Waterberg
Date of Mission: 13th June 2011
Aircraft used: Cessna 170       
Pilot: Karl Jensen     
Beneficiary: Deon Cilliers and Michelle Thorn – Endangered Wildlife Trust

Objective of the Flight

To locate four free-ranging  packs of wild dogs with some  collared individuals

Pilot’s story of the mission               By Karl Jensen

When I saw the request for the July 2011 EWT wild dog mission in the Northwest/Limpopo Province, I responded eagerly. The mission was to attempt to locate four free-ranging packs of wild dogs including some collared individuals. Many landowners have been hostile to the existence of these highly endangered animals and research into the dog movements was necessary.

Deon Cilliers from the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) gave me the requirements for antenna to be attached to an aircraft. We were unable to locate the required brackets so I fabricated a pair myself and mounted them on the struts of my Cessna 170. With the assistance of Bateleurs pilot Jeremy Woods and a friend, we fixed the antennae and cables, routing them via the undercarriage inspection holes into the cabin.  We were to fly at about 9,000’ in freezing conditions and we could not allow the cold air into the aircraft.

Our first attempt at the mission was planned for 8 June, but the forecast for an active cold wet air mass with rain and high winds forced us to postpone until 13 June. It was just as well, as the weather was true to the prediction. On the Monday Deon and I departed the Fly Inn airfield near Bapsfontein and flew to Pilanesberg to collect predator researcher Dr Michelle Thorn. We departed Pilanesberg before air traffic control was even operational and flew 95 km to the Marakele reserve and crossed the majestic Waterberg at 8,000’ to commence our search within the area from Marakele to Ellisras Tafelberg to Marken and south to Vaalwater.

As we passed overhead the Hans Strydom Dam on the Mokolo River, we picked up a strong signal from the Wild Dog known as ‘Pink Lady 2’ in the 4,600 hectare Mokolo Nature Reserve. We continued the search with 40-60 km legs, 15-18 km apart, moving eastward as far as Marken. The sensitivity of the search equipment allowed for overlap to ensure that we did not miss signals. After four hours in the air we refuelled at Dev and Brenda Howett’s Bush Willow Lodge, stopping later for a coffee break with Anton Walker and Jessica Thorn. After an hour on the ground, we departed and flew via Marken to Ellisras radar station and then to the Mokolo reservoir where we had picked up the signals earlier. It was breeding season and the researchers suggested that, it being the middle of the day, the dogs were probably in their dens and no sound was heard. We landed back at Pilanesberg at 13h30, dropped Michelle off and flew back to the aircraft base at Fly Inn Estate where I dismantled the antennae and stored the equipment for later use. Should any Bateleurs operation require the Cessna wing strut brackets for a similar project, please contact me through Bateleurs.

The EWT researchers regarded the mission as a success although we only located one wild dog pack. EWT have been trying to set up this mission for more than six months and the comment I heard was that if the searches could be carried out more often, they would be able to track the animals far more effectively.

I really enjoyed the mission as both my wife and I are passionate about nature conservation, and animals especially. Using our aircraft and the skills I’ve acquired in 49 years of flying, for this purpose, gives me a great sense of satisfaction and meaning.

Total flying time was 6 hours 40 minutes, with five landings.

Beneficiary’s story of the mission      By Michelle Thorn

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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 pack composition and movement patterns in the area.  To help us achieve this, some of the Waterberg Wild Dogs have been fitted with VHF collars.  However, the species tends to range over very large areas which, together with the hilly Waterberg topography, 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 Karl Jensen volunteered to fly the mission and very kindly fashioned some brackets that we used to attach our VHF antennae to the wing struts of his Cessna aircraft. We took off on a bright and clear Monday morning and headed over to Marakele National Park, where our search began.  We flew north-south transects over the entire Waterberg area for the next five hours.  After about an hour, we heard a tell-tale ping in our earphones, indicating that we had found one of the collared dogs.  We then circled the dam where we picked up the collar signal, trying to pin-point the origin.  Wild Dogs give birth at this time of year so there is a good chance that we might have found a denning site.  We can now contact the management team at the reserve where the signal was found and ask them to keep an eye out for the Wild Dogs.  If we can find them on the ground, we will be able to document which individuals belong to that pack, and collect information about any new pups.

We would like to thank The Bateleurs, and especially Karl, for their generosity in helping us to find the collared Wild Dogs.  We wish you well in all your future missions and hope that they are as successful as ours was.

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