Locating an Injured Black Rhino

Locating an Injured Black Rhino

Mission: Locating an Injured Black Rhino
Date: 19 December 2008
Requesting organisation: Eko Wild (Dr Wilhelm Schack)
Location: Atherstone Game Reserve, Thabazimbi
Pilot: Ivan Marx and Heiner Meyer

The mission to locate an injured Black Rhino in the Atherstone Game Reserve was put together at short notice but with an immense amount of goodwill.  Dr Wilhelm Schack, the vet who needed to find and treat the injured animal, approached us late on a Friday afternoon.  Given the time constraint we asked pilot Ivan Marx to assist us in his Alouette, but the aircraft was out of commission at the time.  Ivan approached a friend of his, Heiner Meyer, with another Alouette, and by the close of day Heiner
was a full member of The Bateleurs, he and Ivan had spoken to Dr Schack, and all three were set to fly in search of the injured rhino the next day.  But this is where we ran out of luck … the story continues here, as told by Dr Schack.

“The objective of the flight was to find, dart and treat an injured Black Rhino, but despite the best efforts of the Bateleurs pilots and ourselves, we couldn’t find the injured animal.  Two factors prevented us from being successful:  first, the density of the bush, and secondly, the vastness of the reserve (24,000 hectares).

The Eko Wild Team from Thabazimbi really appreciates the assistance from The Bateleurs who gave substantial time, effort and money to help us find the injured animal.  The veterinarian and ground team of Eko Wild remain committed to render their services free of charge to worthy causes like the search and rescue operations for rare and endangered species, and to have been in partnership with The Bateleurs in this cause and project was a motivational experience.

In the meantime, the reserve personnel have pledged to carry on searching for the animal on foot, and we are eagerly awaiting news from Atherstone.  Of course we hope that the animal is still alive and has recovered from its injuries of its own accord. This possibility does exist, but one never knows.

I attach some photographs from this mission, and sincerely hope that we may again in future rely on the valued assistance of The Bateleurs.”

Grey Crowned Cranes

Grey Crowned Cranes

Mission: Locating Grey Crowned Crane nest sites
Date: 17 December 2008
Requesting organisation: South African Crane Working Group (SACWG) at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT)

Location: Chrissiesmeer, Mpumalanga

Pilot: Michael Beukman

Report by Michael Beukman
Report by Ursula Francke

Late last year we were contacted by Ursula Francke of the South African Crane Working Group (SACWG) at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).  Ursula needed assistance to search for cranes and their nests in two identified sites in Mpumalanga.  Michael Beukmann was our volunteer pilot for the flight which took place in and around Chrissiesmeer, in mid-December.  Here are the report and photographs from Ursula:

“The South African Crane Working Group (SACWG) of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) aims to ensure the survival of South Africa’s three crane species (the Wattled Crane Grus carunculatus, the Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, and the Grey-Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum), and their natural habitats.  This is achieved by improving our understanding of crane biology, identifying and mitigating human-induced threats, and encouraging the participation and co-operation of communities and institutions, to the benefit of cranes and people.

Towards this goal SACWG field workers are based in all key crane regions in South Africa, including Mpumalanga.  One of the important crane locations within Mpumalanga is Chrissiesmeer and the surrounding areas.  Both Blue Cranes and Grey Crowned Cranes breed here during the summer months.  Since cranes prefer as little disturbance as possible when they are breeding, almost all the nesting sites are far from public roads and areas frequented by people.  Grey Crowned Cranes often nest in wetlands characterised by tall reeds which makes sighting a nest or a breeding pair even more difficult.

However, Grey Crowned Cranes and their nests can easily be seen from the air.  They are large birds with conspicuous white markings on their wings, making aerial observation quite easy.  Exact data was not available for the optimal breeding time around Chrissiesmeer but it was agreed that December should be the peak breeding month for these cranes.

Regions to be covered
The flight focused on the lakes and pans surrounding Chrissiesmeer, passing the western side of Warburton and stretching to the western and south-western parts of Lothair.  We tried to cover as many wetlands and pans as possible where we expected to find Grey Crowned Cranes.  The route, as measured in ArcGIS 9.2, was just over 200 km in length.

Objectives of the flight
The primary objective of the flight was to locate as many Grey Crowned Crane nest sites as possible.   Secondly, we wanted to check whether we could find any Grey Crowned Crane summer flocks, also known as floater flocks.  Finally, there were also two historic Wattled Crane breeding sites on the planned flight route in the Lothair/Warburton area, for which we hoped to determine current habitat use.


grey_crowned_cranes2I met Michael Beukman at 07h00 on 17th December 2008 at the Ermelo airfield, and it took us three hours to complete the route in his microlight.

During the flight we located two Grey Crowned Crane pairs at previously unknown locations and one active Grey Crowned Crane nest site.  These sites were not in tall reed pans as we had expected, but rather in short sedge wetlands.  At the first two sites we saw both cranes foraging, and at the third site we saw only the incubating bird sitting on the nest.  The partner could not be seen in the vicinity.  As we flew over, the crane got up and we could clearly see two eggs in the nest.

A nest had been reported at the Tevredepan reed pan during the last breeding season but unfortunately we found no cranes there in December.  Another short sedge wetland (Slanghalsvlei) where a breeding pair is usually seen was also without any cranes on the day.

On inspection we found that both historic Wattled Crane nest sites had been abandoned.  At the first site the wetland in which they had bred was now dammed up with farm buildings and plantations, and at the second site plantations covered the wetland completely.

Only one active Grey Crowned Crane nest with two eggs was found, while another two Grey Crowned Crane pairs were seen at previously unknown locations.  No floater flocks were found in the area.  We don’t know if the low number of observed cranes was due to a late start to the breeding season, or because the route focussed on less important areas, or was simply bad luck on a particular day.  Continued field work around the Chrissiesmeer area will be able to shed some light on this.  The flight also indicated which habitat types should be searched during future nest searches in the area.

A special thank you goes to Michael Beukman who spent many hours in the air flying to Ermelo, doing the route around Chrissiesmeer, and then flying home, not all in ideal weather conditions but all with great skill.  Flying in a microlight for the first time gave me some insight into “flying like a bird”  –  it was a fantastic experience!”

iMfolozi Surveillance Mission

iMfolozi Surveillance Mission

Mission: iMfolozi Surveillance Mission
Date: 28 November 2008
Requesting organisation: iMfolozi Game Reserve
Location: iMfolozi Game Reserve, Kwazulu Natal
Pilot: Jose Lima (flying a Robbie 44 helicopter) and Paul Dutton (in his Piper Super Cub, Spirit of the Wilderness)

The Bateleurs responded to a call for assistance to fly the perimeter fence of the iMfolozi Game Reserve, to check out any poaching incursions whilst most, if not all, of its patrol staff were absent from their various out-posts attending a year-end function at the Mpilo camp.  Bateleurs members Jose Lima (flying a Robbie 44 helicopter) and Paul Dutton (in his Piper Super Cub, Spirit of the Wilderness) flew the mission.  While this was one of many Bateleurs flights for Paul, it was the inaugural Bateleurs flight for Jose.
“Having the helicopter with its ability to hover and land in tight places added great efficiency to the patrol as evidenced by Jose locating a stationary vehicle and people inside the reserve, immediately next to the game fence, in an area in which White Rhino are often encountered.  Jose noted what looked like a blood-stained tarpaulin enclosing the back of a truck, and the scene had all the appearance of a poaching incident.  We both returned to the airstrip from where Jose picked up ranger Sanmarie and three armed staff and flew back to investigate the vehicle.  It turned out that the truck and its occupants were temporary workers clearing the invasive alien Chromalinaena plant while the “blood” was in fact the result of red herbicide spillage!  Although we did not locate any poachers entering the Park on the day, it did indicate that having unattended casual staff free to move around the reserve evinced a serious lapse in the reserve’s security system.  

Our flights made us realise how small and vulnerable iMfolozi is, with only a token security fence to protect a treasure far more valuable than all the bullion in the USA’s Fort Knox!  Understandably,  KZN conservation, and the iMfolozi and Hlhluwe Reserves in particular, does not have sufficient financial resources to beef up its security system to staunch the poaching of the two species of Rhino.  Perhaps Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife could emulate the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, to which American multimillionaire Greg Carr has committed USD 30 million for rehabilitation.  It may well be possible for Ezemvelo to exploit the precarious situation of its Rhino to attract the support of an American philanthropist who may be looking for ways to spend accumulated wealth.  Human health gets its fair share of this source of wealth – why not the natural world too?

Ranger Sanmarie’s handling of the mission’s logistics, and her rapid response with her armed team to our report of a possible poaching incident was exemplary.”

Avian Collisions with Power Lines in Overberg

Avian Collisions with Power Lines in Overberg

Mission: Survey of Eskom power lines for Blue Crane and other avian collision casualties

Date: 3 March 2009
Requesting organisation: Wildlife & Energy Interaction Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT)
Location: Overberg, Western Cape
Pilot: Johan Ferreira

The Bateleurs was approached in late 2008 by Dr Andrew Jenkins, Research Co-ordinator of the Wildlife & Energy Interaction Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), asking for aerial assistance for a project supporting Blue Cranes, our national bird.  These beautiful birds have experienced a significant and rapid decline in numbers in recent decades.  Roughly half the remaining population of these beautiful birds can be found in the wheatlands of the Overberg, where, thanks to their limited manoeuverability and habit of flying in poor light conditions, they are particularly prone to collision with overhead power lines.   Johan Ferreira, one of our most supportive volunteer pilots in the Western Cape, offered to fly researcher Jessica Shaw to survey power lines in the wheat fields of the Western Cape.  This is the report we received from Jessica:

“The objective of the flight was to survey Eskom power lines for Blue Crane and other avian collision casualties. This will aid in the ground truthing of a previous study to identify high risk lines, which will hopefully facilitate the implementation of mitigation measures.

Having started survey work, I quickly realised how time consuming data collection on foot can be, especially in trying to contact landowners to gain access for my survey. I have also been very unlucky with the late wheat harvest this year, which has restricted access to wheat fields and visibility of carcasses in them. Therefore, the Bateleurs flight was a fantastic
opportunity to get a broad overview of the area, and to identify carcasses and collision hot-spots worthy of more intensive ground surveying for the rest of my study.

I met Johan Ferreira at 06h15 at Stellenbosch Airfield, and we were really lucky to have good flying weather.  After a quick discussion of the route, we were soon airborne. Descending
over Botrivier to begin the survey, we found a good speed and height to maximise the visibility of carcasses, with Johan helping me to search when he could. As we continued along the route we circled back for another look whenever we saw anything that could have been a collision victim, and marked the spot with a GPS for future reference. In this way, we came across a number of potential collision victims, although some turned out to be
large pieces of rubbish or rocks!  By the time we got to Bredasdorp, I wasn’t feeling so well from watching the powerlines zip past below us, and Johan kindly landed the plane so that I could recover a bit. We then flew on towards Slangrivier before heading back via Riviersonderend and Greyton, landing back at Stellenbosch at around 10.45am.

Overall, we managed to cover a large section of both distribution and transmission lines in the Overberg, far more than I could ever hope to cover on foot.  This type of survey work had not been attempted before and whilst we didn’t observe many powerline
casualties, this was probably because older carcasses are very difficult to identify from the air.  However, we saw plenty of live Blue Cranes as we flew overhead, and the flight
has been extremely valuable in highlighting areas for future ground work for me.

Whilst it was disappointing not to be able to identify more Blue Crane carcasses from the air, the flight was very successful in gaining an overview of the Overberg area.  This will inform my selection of ground field sites going forward, in terms of ease of access in the more pasture-dominated areas, and from the potential carcass sightings made.”

Vulture Nest Survey, Roedtan

Vulture Nest Survey, Roedtan

Mission: Vulture Nest Survey, Roedtan
Date: 19 September 2008

Requesting organisation: Dept Economic Development & Environment, Limpopo Provincial Government
Location: Nylstroom to the South East of  Roedtan
Pilot: Hill van Schalkwyk

It was one of our newest and most enthusiastic pilots, Hill van Schalkwyk,  who volunteered to fly for the survey of white backed vultures requested by Joseph Heymans of the Department of Economic Development & Environment, of the Limpopo Provincial Government.  This is the report written by Hill:

“We did not exactly know what to expect from the survey as neither Mr Joseph Heymans nor myself had ever done a survey of this nature. Although it was obviously done before we had to plan it to the best of our individual experiences. The aircraft we used is a C182 , although Mr Heymans initially suggested a microlight for the survey. We logged some of the ground sightings into a GPS and set off from Nylstroom to the South East of  Roedtan.”


The Springbok Flats

“This area is not called the Springbok Flats for nothing.  The vegetation varies from developed commercial land to game and cattle farming, with a few guest lodges. The vegetation is mostly low growing with a few taller tress such as Maroela and Black Monkey Thorn. The weather was fine and we could get down to around 500 feet above the tree tops, maintaining a fairly slow speed with a 10% flaps setting.

For the first 15 minutes we both searched the area left and right of the aircraft with no success!  I was almost at the point of suggesting that we abandon the survey when Joseph almost leapt out of the aircraft!  He had spotted a nest with a female bird on the rim and a chick in the nest!

“Turn around, turn around please!” he shouted from the back. He was now moving from the left to right window at an amazing speed! But the C182 is not a wheelbarrow to turn on a penny, so I asked him to keep his eye on the nest while I turned back.

We were both very excited and happy to have spotted an active nest. As we passed over the nest again we could clearly identify the female and the chick and for the first time we had an idea of what to look for! Our eyes were now set for what was to come – we knew what to look for at last!  We then tried to photograph the nest and plot it on GPS. Joseph had to handle a camera and a GPS and take notes all while keeping his eyes on the nest.

We then flew over more areas where nests had been spotted from the ground, but I must say the proverbial “seeking a needle in a haystack” achieved new meaning for me.  We spotted more active nests as well as one that was “non-active”.  I have to report that I spotted one myself and was more than proud of this achievement!  But it became clear that Joseph’s eyes were much better adapted for spotting a 1m wide nest at 120km/hour, from 500 feet away!”


The Vulture Nest Survey Team

Joseph Heymans (left) and Bateleurs pilot, Hill van Schalkwyk.

“After approximately 100 minutes of flying and having covered a large area we had to turn back to Nylstroom. The temperature was increasing and the fuel levels were getting low. Of one thing I am very sure, Joseph does not suffer from air-sickness!! The tight turns left and right were a sure test of this finding.

Joseph will report on exactly how many nests we spotted, new and previously spotted, and on the value of the survey. I enjoyed it very much and loved the experience – what a privilege!!

The following are my remarks and suggestions for future surveys of this nature:

1. I suggest that in future we use two spotters plus the pilot, one to handle the GPS and the other to do the photography. One left and one right.
2. The C182 is an excellent platform for surveys of this kind.
3. We will have to plot an area beforehand and fly pre-designated swathes over the area in at least 500m strips.
4. Surveys should only be flown in the very early mornings and late afternoons. At this time of year the temperature starts to increase early.
5. Have a discussion with Mr Joe Holmes as suggested by Joan.

Thanks once more for the opportunity.”

Comparative Count of Dugongs

Comparative Count of Dugongs

Mission: Comparative Count of Dugongs
Date: 4 September 2008
Requesting organisation:
Paul Dutton
Location: Mozambique’s Bazaruto National Park
Chris Rattray and Etienne Oosthuizen

Surveying Bazaruto National Park’s Elusive Mermaids by Paul Dutton
Chris Rattray in ZSCTW, flying in seach of Dugong

The Dugong Survey Team:  from the left Dr Almeida Guissamulo, Paul Dutton, Etienne Oosthuizen and Chris Rattray

The Bateleurs supported a count of Mozambique’s Dugongs in February this year, when the exercise yielded alarming reports of decreasing numbers of these gentle sea creatures.  In September a comparative count was conducted, and this is the short report  prepared by Paul Dutton, a Bateleurs pilot and ecologist.  The flying for this mission was performed by volunteer pilots Chris Rattray and Etienne Oosthuizen.

Surveying Bazaruto National Park’s Elusive Mermaids  :  3-7 September 2008, by Paul Dutton

“This was my sixth aerial survey, since 1990, of Dugong that occur in the sheltered marine grass environment of the Mozambique’s Bazaruto National Park.  I had just graduated with an MSc degree in coastal management and as luck would have it I found Dr John Hanks sitting at the Africa Desk of WWF (International) in Glande, Switzerland and he offered me a contract to formulate a Master Plan for the Bazaruto Archipelago. This opened up an opportunity for me to test the veracity of my MSc dissertation “Traditional Fisheries and Conservation Ethics” whilst gathering a plethora of data required for formulating the Master Plan. However, it was not long after I had pitched my tent on the northern shore of the main island of Bazaruto that my attention was drawn to the presence of the mythical Sirenia or Dugongs that grazed the sea grass meadows throughout the archipelago. To promote the conservation of an ecosystem one needs a flagship species – like the tiger that symbolizes India’s jungle, or the white rhino that assured iMfolozi Game Reserve’s future. The Dugong, because of its rarity and important ecological niche as a bulk grazer of marine grass, fitted into this role.



Chris Rattray in ZSCTW, flying in seach of Dugong

Dr Almeida Guissamulo, a young graduate of the Mondlane University in Mozambique, and cetacean specialist Dr Vic Cockcroft, accompanied the first aerial survey in 1990 when Dugong were of mixed sexual and age aggregations and were widespread throughout the Archipelago.  An estimate of between 150 and 180 animals was based upon a 25% survey sample.

Since then population estimates have  followed a roller coaster ride of discrepancies in terms of numbers and distribution. It became apparent that small sample numbers were being extrapolated in relation to our original study when in fact the introduction of gill nets for shark harvesting had caused  numerous “accidental” drownings in previously occupied habitats.

Counting a small number of widely distributed animals that can submerge for up to 8 minutes played a major part in the variance in numbers. For example, the survey carried out in February this year accounted for less than 20 animals – all but one occurring close to the islands of Benguerra, Magaruque and miniscule Bangue. Perfect weather on one of the days of the September survey, with the sea clean and mirror calm, resulted in an additional 45 being found close to Santa Carolina.  This elevates the population estimate to at least 56 animals, including 6 sub adults and 5 juveniles in 33 localities.

On this occasion flight transects 2 km apart and covering 130 km starting from the Save River Estuary and moving southwards through the national park were flown over a period of 5 days.  This produced as near as possible a total figure rather than a statistically generated estimate.  A total distance of  3781 km over a period 30 hours was flown by the two aircraft, providing an indication of the intensity of the current survey.

A total of at least 420 Humpback and Bottlenose Dolphins,and 6 Humpback whales were encountered on the survey transects.

We were fortunate to have Dr Almeida Guissamulo design and guide this recent survey which I believe is a definitive estimate of the current status of the Dugong.  It will enable initiation of the  long term management of the Dugong whose current distribution still places them in the precarious situation of being the proverbial “eggs in just two disparate baskets”.

Our beloved squadron leader Nora Kreher and board members of The Bateleurs – Flying for the Environment in Africa once again showed their commitment to caring for our beleaguered natural environment by funding and fielding two of its proficient member pilots, Chris Rattray and Etienne Oosthuizen, who flew their C182 and Kitfox7 aircraft with utmost precision over Bazaruto National Park’s azure clear water. Sunday Times photographer Darryl Hammond worked hard to capture images of Dugong underwater on known feeding grounds. On one occasion Darryl and I had two Dugongs within a few meters of our dive boat but when we slipped overboard in our scuba gear all we saw was  blue water – and no sign of the mythical Mermaid! 

The Dugong Trust contributed to the team’s lodgings at the Bazaruto Lodge where managing director Louis Erasmus accommodated the team at a generously reduced rate. Other tourist entrepreneurs namely Gonfishen and the Islands of  Benguerra, Indigo Bay and Santa Carolina all helped in various ways to make this survey a pleasant and successful mission. I took a back seat on this, probably my last air survey of Dugong after 18 years.”