2008 Missions

Counting the Tuli Elephants


Mission: Counting the Tuli Elephants
Date: 1 August 2008
Requesting organisation: Mashatu Game Reserve
Location: Mashatu Game Reserve, Central Limpopo River Valley
Pilot: Avroy Shlain

Participating in the total aerial count of the elephants within the Central Limpopo River Valley is becoming something of a regular annual event for The Bateleurs and one of our Director-pilots, Avroy Shlain.  Presented below is the report of the 2008 count, prepared by Jeanetta Selier, Resident Biologist at Mashatu Game Reserve.

Counting the Tuli Elephants, by Jeanetta Selier

“Elephants are perceived to be a keystone species that determine the structure and composition of their habitats. This contention has in turn led to claims that elephants at high numbers pose a threat to biodiversity in the conservation areas in which they occur.  However, little is known on how elephant populations are limited and how co-existence between elephants and trees was achieved in the past. In order to understand elephant and tree dynamics, a reliable understanding of what environmental and social factors influence elephant movements and the occupancy of different habitats is needed.

The Central Limpopo River Valley is a diverse area covering three different countries namely Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe and forms part of the proposed Shashe-Limpopo Trans Frontier Conservation Area. The area has an amazing history with elephants nearly disappearing from the system in the 1900’s, as a result of excessive hunting and the ivory trade, and only returning to the area in large numbers after the establishment of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve in the late 1960’s. Early estimates of the population in the 1970’s indicated 1200 elephants in the region.

Changes observed in the structure and composition of the habitat in the area as a result of the increased number of elephants let to the initiation of the Central Limpopo River Valley elephant research project in 1999.  This is an ongoing research program.

A total aerial count of the Tuli elephants was conducted on the 2nd and 3rd of August 2008. Due to the political situation in Zimbabwe during the time, only the Tuli Circle was counted and not the section along the Limpopo River within Zimbabwe. This is a pity as a group of approximately 150 –200 elephants roam through this area and form an integral part of the Tuli elephant population.

Over the two-day period the distribution and numbers of elephants in the Central Limpopo Valley were determined by dividing the region into three counting blocks based on the possibility of crossover of elephants between blocks during the survey. Flying at a speed of around 90 knots and at an altitude of 500 feet, 1 km wide adjacent belt transects were searched for elephants. Whenever an individual or group was encountered a GPS location was taken and the numbers counted.

A total of 1352 elephants were counted in the entire study area. This number is comparable to previous counts conducted within the study area since 2000 and within the margins of error for counting such a large number of elephants from the air. As with the previous counts, the highest number of elephants was observed within the Botswana section of the study area and mainly concentrated westwards along the Tuli Block from the Motloutse River towards Baines Drift (700 elephants) and within the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (524 elephants). A total of 95 elephants were counted within the boundaries of Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa. Yet again, no elephants were observed within the entire Tuli Circle (Zimbabwe) during the count. A total of five counts have been conducted so far since 2000 and during only two of these counts were any elephants observed in the approximately 45000ha area in Zimbabwe (63 in 2000 and 3 in 2007). No elephants were counted around Letsibogo Dam in the Bobirwa sub district within Botswana.

Data from the five aerial counts indicates that the population within the Central Limpopo Valley, at least for the winter months, appears to be stable. However, elephants move extensively throughout the study area depending on the resource availability at different times of the year. The distribution of the elephant population is mainly determined by the presence of humans and human activity, fences and large river systems. At least four distinct core areas can be identified for the mid to late winter period within the study areas, suggesting the possibility of different clans or bond groups.

Data obtained from these counts combined with ongoing fieldwork will assist in a clearer understanding of the distribution and movements of the elephants and the social and environmental factors that might influence it and so get one step closer to solving the contentious issue of elephant management in Southern Africa.

There were many people and organisations that assisted in ensuring the success of this survey. Naledi hosted the survey teams;  staff in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Botswana, SANParks in South Africa and the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority assisted in obtaining the necessary permits;  Pete le Roux of Mashatu Game Reserve arranged the aviation fuel, while Dennis Summers and his team were always ready to assist with the refuelling of the planes. Thulani and the firemen at Limpopo Valley Airfield ensured safe flying and takeoff and landings.  The Bateleurs, Wings4Wildlife, SANParks and the Northern Tuli Game Farmers Association provided aeroplanes, pilots and avgas. The navigators and counters donated their time and expertise. All of them helped together to realise a better understanding of the elephant numbers and distribution within the study area. A special word of thanks to Raymond Steyn, Alan Parnass and Bateleurs pilot Avroy Shlain for their superb flying.”

tuli_elephants2_01082008Some of the Tuli survey subjects

Wild Coast Monitoring

Mission: Survey of Illegal Cottage Developments on the Wild Coast
Date: 24 July 2008
Requesting organisation: Department Economic Affairs, Environment & Tourism (DEAET), Eastern Cape
Location: Wild Coast
Pilot: Barry de Groot and Peter de Villiers

Our latest flight to survey illegal cottage developments on the Wild Coast was undertaken by Bateleur pilot, Barry de Groot and his colleague, Peter de Villiers.  This is the report from Barry:

“Our brief was to collect Ruaan Botha of Cape Conservation plus a member of the South African Police Service, at the Mthatha airport. There was to have been a third observer from the legal fraternity but he was in court on the day.

The flight to Mthatha was smooth in the early morning air, and flight time was 1 hour 20 minutes.  After refuelling and meeting  the passengers we were airborne out of Mthatha, routing down the Mthatha river valley and intercepting the coastline at the river mouth, at which point we headed south coastwise to Kei river mouth. No sooner had I trimmed ZU – AFP to a comfortable cruise speed at 500 foot above the beach when Ruan was asking to divert and circle over an illegal dwelling under construction among the sand dunes. Photographs and GPS co-ordinates were taken before continuing on our way. This diversion to take photographs and co-ordinates was repeated several times along the route.

Once we reached the Great Kei river mouth we swung the trusty Cessna 172 through 180 degrees and headed north east back up the coastline passing the Mthatha river mouth and continuing on past the magnificent Waterfall Bluff and on to Mkambati where we once again turned through 180 degrees and headed back to Mthatha routing via Port St Johns. The entire inspection of approximately 480 kilometers of coastline taking at least 20 photographs of infringements at various sites took exactly 3 ½ hours.

After further upliftment of fuel in Mthatha at R16.03 per litre, saying goodbye to Ruan and Ishmail, we had a most enjoyable one hour and twenty minutes flight back home, content in the knowledge that we had just completed another successful Bateleurs mission.”

Following this flight The Bateleurs received a thank you message from Ruaan Botha:

“I would just like to thank you, Barry, for your assistance with the flight, and tell you that the data we recorded is helping me very much.  I would also like you to tell the co-ordinator of The Bateleurs that I really think what you guys are doing for this department cannot be measured in money or words.  Without your assistance with these flights, we as a department would not be where we are currently in relation to coastal management along the Wild Coast.

I want to applaud you and all your colleagues for the wonderful work that you guys are doing.”

Formation Flight in Support of Xolobeni Sands


Mission: Formation Flight in Support of Xolobeni Sands
Date: 20 July 2008
Requesting organisation: Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC)
Location: Xolobei Sands area on the Wild Coast
Pilots: Barry de Groot, Kim Robertson, Paul Dutton, Bill Yeo and William O’Driscoll

Scratching with the chickens or soaring with the eagles, by John Clarke
Participants in the Beach Walk/March


It was Bateleurs pilot Barry de Groot who offered to co-ordinate our Formation Flight over the Xolobei Sands area on the Wild Coast, in solidarity with the community and the NGO Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC) who were protesting against the proposed mining of the area.  The flight comprised three Bateleurs aircraft with four Bateleurs pilots – Barry de Groot, Kim Robertson, Paul Dutton and Bill Yeo, plus a guest pilot who has since become a member – William O’Driscoll.  Here is Barry’s story of the flight.

“My reward for having to remove myself from a warm cosy bed at 05h00 on a Sunday morning was to witness a magnificent sunrise in front of my hangar, bathing my pristine aeroplane in a warm orange glow once the hangar doors were opened.

Our mission was to have four light aeroplanes fly in formation to show solidarity with walkers who were walking from the Wild Coast casino along the beach to the area known as the Red Sands. The purpose of the walk was to protest the proposed mining of these sand dunes of their mineral content by an Australian mining company.

The four aircraft are all based at different airfields so it was arranged that we would all rendevouz at Margate Airfield at 08h30.  The four pilots – Paul Dutton with another Bateleurs pilot, Bill Yeo, as his passenger, Kim Robertson, William O’Driscoll (a guest pilot on the day) and I all touched down at Margate within ten minutes of each other. We were very fortunate to have William, an experienced formation flier, with us on the day and he immediately set about briefing us on the finer points of formation flying, with emphasis on the safety aspect. So confident were we after the briefing that we even did a formation takeoff and set course for the Wild Coast casino.

Ten minutes after takeoff and about five kilometers south of the Casino we met up with the walkers along the beach, all 1000 plus of them. The enthusiasm for this noble cause was very gratifying to see from the air, and we were told that the numbers would swell even further as locals living in the area joined the ranks along the route.  We did several passes over the walkers in a diamond formation, with Paul in the lead in his bright yellow Piper Cub, and then returned to Margate to a very welcome hearty English breakfast.

At 11h30 we again took to the sky in formation, but this time Kim in his immaculate Cessna 182 took the lead role, with Paul bringing up the rear. The brief was to join with the walkers who by now would have reached the area to be mined, and then do several low passes over the group gathered at the estuary of the Mnyameni river. It was a wonderful sight to see such a large gathering of people on the beach with their banners.

After several passes we broke formation and each aeroplane flew back to its respective base, with the exception of ZU-AFP.  As a passenger in my plane on this second run I had John Clarke who is doing a story on the alleged poisoning of a gentleman who had been very vociferous in opposing the mining of the dunes. John wanted to fly over the homestead of the late Mr Scorpion which is situated about 15 kilometers inland from the coast, and take some video footage of his home along with the new grave in the front garden where he was buried by his family.

The return flight home to Pietermaritzburg via Margate for fuel was uneventful, but in the glorious sunshine flying south up the coast as far as Scottborough brought home to me once again how privileged I am to be able to fly a small aeroplane in Africa.”

formation_flight2_20072008Scratching with the chickens or soaring with the eagles, by John Clarke [John Clarke is a Social Worker with Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC)]

“Was it a ‘march’ or a ‘walk’?  We were trying to decide how to bill the unusual protest event that SWC’s supporters from the Ramsgate Conservancy on the KZN South Coast wanted to see:  a 7 km solidarity walk with AmaDiba Wild Coast residents, starting from the Wild Coast Sun Casino resort to the Mnyameni Estuary, which lies bang in the middle of the pristine coastal area targeted for heavy minerals mining by Australian mining company MRC Ltd.

On the one hand, we reasoned that since many of the South Coast residents would be older, retired and not quite up to toyi-toying, and that since it wasn’t going to be a formulaic ‘handing over of a memorandum to a government official’ type of event that the pro-mining faction had contrived to do in Pretoria six months earlier, it wasn’t strictly a ‘march’ of angry protesters.  But on the other hand we knew that Wild Coast residents, led by the Amadiba Crisis Committee set up to represent widespread local opposition to the mining, would be wanting to ‘march’ – even if Mr Jacinto Rocha, the Deputy DG of DME whom we had invited to officially receive our petition didn’t turn up.

“OK, let’s simply use both words, and tell supporters that they would ‘march’ with the left leg, and ‘walk’ with the right leg.”

The other issue was to make sure the media covered the event, so that the message got across to government, even if Mr Rocha didn’t arrive personally carry it back to the Minister.  “We can ask The Bateleurs to fly cameras overhead, and maybe 50/50 will cov er it”.   “ Great idea” everyone agreed.

In response to the flight request, Nora Kreher of The Bateleurs called me.  “Thanks John, I got your request.  But we have decided that The Bateleurs want to do something special.  Mining the Wild Coast can’t be allowed to happen.  We want to do a formation flight.  I’ll let you know how many pilots I can muster.”

Social workers are used to dealing with scarcity.  But contending with unexpected abundance poses another sort of challenge.

When the day arrived, instead of the normal constraint of trying to allocate limited seats for a whole ‘click’ of news photographers into a small plane, I had the opposite problem of filling three four seater Cessna’s on a beautiful Sunday Spring tide day, when all that the participants wanted to do was to walk along the beach with the crowd.  I managed to persuade ETV’s Durban bureau chief Dave Coles and his crew to join the squadron.  50/50’s Don Guy ‘reluctantly’ agreed to be embedded in the ‘air force’ instead of filming a worm’s eye view of the 7 km ’infantry’ march.  His assistants, Siphiwe and Sam the ‘klankman’ had to endure the river crossings, the salt spray off the rocks, and the festivity of amaMpondo beauties chanting “iMining iMpumelo. iMining iMpumelo”  (Mining won’t succeed. Mining won’t succeed) with vuvezelas blasting a clarion call to do-no-harm.

Abundance again manifested itself while I was still on the ground directing eager South Coast residents through the gates of the Wild Coast Sun to the parking lot.  After about half an hour of hastening vehicles through to avoid a traffic jam at the entrance, (the walk had to get going to take advantage of low spring tide so they could cross the estuaries) the chap on duty below came running breathlessly to tell us to divert cars to another parking lot because “the bottom parking lot is already full. Send cars to the upper parking lot.”

Some 500 South Coast residents had turned out in an astonishing display of solidarity with the Wild Coast residents to make sure the message got across.  After helping ETV get some quick footage of the masses commencing their Beach Walk/March, it was off to board the planes to witness the spectacle from the air.”

formation_flight3_20072008Participants in the Beach Walk/March

“Unsurprisingly, Bateleurs veteran Paul Dutton turned up with his two-seater Spirit of the Wilderness for good measure as well. There was no way he was going to miss this event.  I was pleased to have Barry de Groot as my pilot – again.  He had flown me and a media team over the area early last year in a howling gale, so I knew he wasn’t going to prang in the near perfect conditions, (the presence of other planes in close proximity notwithstanding), and that I could concentrate on getting the still shots, while Don Guy filmed the movie. 

Barry didn’t disappoint.  A very low level pass over the beach provided the chance to see even the facial expressions of the marchers below, showing me that they were ecstatic to have this civilian ‘airforce’ to bolster their morale and confidence. 

The effort by the pro-mining faction to counter the impact of the event by staging a political jamboree a month later, backfired badly.   Yes, they did manage to get Government there – no less a person than the Minister of Minerals and Energy Buyelwa Sonjica herself – but the obviously contrived and manipulated attempt to emboss the Xolobeni mining proposal with credibility left journalists even more sceptical.  As Fred Kockott, veteran Sunday Tribune journalist reported “It was the strangest of meetings, and a blatant demonstration of the buying power of government, the mining industry and politicians”.

And of course, they didn’t have The Bateleurs doing a formation flypast to welcome the Minister, and signal aerial support for the mining.

The Minister then made a crucial tactical mistake by claiming that the anti-mining lobby was simply the work of “rich whites”, led by Richard Spoor, who were dividing the community so that they could stop the mining and continue to enjoy pristine Wilderness areas, and arresting “progress in our community”.

The Amadiba Crisis Committee and their supporters, emboldened by the same banners and placards that had been made for the Beach Walk/March a month earlier, had turned up in significant numbers.  They were incensed at the Minister’s outrageous comments and insisted that she return for another consultation.  But they insisted it would be with directly affected local residents only, and without all the political razzmatazz.   To her credit, humbled by the courage and conviction of the ACC, she returned a month later to hear firsthand why people on the ground objected so strongly to the mining plans.

After hearing one complaint after the other, there was little the minister could say other than to apologise and plead for forgiveness at the manifest failure in the consultation process.
The following week the terse announcement came from DME.  “The Xolobeni Mining right will not be executed as planned on 31 October, pending the outcome of the appeal lodged by the Legal Resources Centre on behalf of the Amadiba Crisis Committee”.

Most of those who participated in the fantastic Beach Walk/March two months earlier believe It was that event which signalled a decisive shift in the overall alignment of forces for, against and indifferent to the Wild Coast dune mining. 

The profound significance of The Bateleurs contribution to the Amadiba communities growing confidence only hit me a day after the historic formation flight.  I happened to drop in to visit my sister who lives in Durban.  Before I could tell her about my fantastic flight with The Bateleurs, she got in first to tell me about an inspirational quote that she had heard in a Sunday sermon, which happened to be around the same time as I was boarding Barry’s Cessna.  “Why keep scratching in the ground with the chickens, when you can soar to new heights with the eagles”.

Surely it is only a matter of time before the Aussie mining company abandons their ambition to peck away at the Wild Coast coastal dunes and starts ‘repacking for Perth’.  With The Bateleurs ever on hand to soar overhead in tight formation to support local residents in their protests, MRC will have no chance of mining the Wild Coast.”

Working for Wetlands- Kamiesberg, Northern Cape


Mission: Finding areas of Erosion in the Wetlands of Kamiesberg
Date: 19 July 2008
Requesting organisation: Working for Wetlands
Location: Kamiesberg, Northern Cape
Pilot: Harold Bloch

Report by Harold Bloch
Report on the Kamiesberg by Winston Coe

The Kamiesberg flight was the sixth and final mission in 2008 for Working for Wetlands.  The mission was flown by Bateleurs pilot Harold Bloch of Cape Town, and this is the short report he sent us after the flight:

Report by Harold Bloch

“We had a great flight on Saturday 19th July, startng at 06h30 on a cold and misty morning. The team was made up of Nancy Job, a Wetland Specialist, Winston Coe, the Provincial Co-ordinator for Working for Wetlands, Graham Smith who is a fellow Bateleurs pilot, and myself.

We took off and flew to Garies/Kammieskroon/Leliefontein in Namaqualand, where we started our low level survey.

Nancy was particularly eager to find areas of erosions in the wetlands. Often this starts next to roads where the necessary drainage had been under-engineered.  Farmers grow their crops [mainly sheep fodder] in the wetland areas and in so doing have drained the wetlands. However, the area is in pristine condition and it was very exciting to see the area after the rains with springs issuing from every granite outcrop. The amount of water was truly amazing. Nancy was delighted and felt she had enough material to get started.  The repairs will be done by the community with the consent of the farmer. The Dept of Public Works supervises the repairs using local community workers and in so doing provides jobs for local people.

The flight to Kammieskroon was over thick low level fog.  But miraculously it cleared in the survey area and stayed that way while we worked. The return flight was again over thick fog.  A coastal survey had been requested but this was impossible due to the fog.

Something else of interest was the destructive operations of potato farmers along the west coast.  They use centre pivots and farm a plantation for 3-4 years, after which the ground becomes infected by a potato blight which they treat by letting the ground lie fallow for 10 years. They then create another centre pivot plantation next to the first one, and this pattern continues so that an area may have 5 -10 fallow centre pivot plantations and only one being actively farmed.  Apparently this plays havoc with the aquifers in the area. The huge amount of destruction to the fynbos was really sad to see in this marginal area.”

kamiesberg2_19072008Report on the Kamiesberg by Winston Coe

“The Kamiesberg Local Municipality is custodian of the Kamiesberg centre of endemism – a distinctive and unique bioregion located in the high-lying region of the uplands, an area just north of the town of Garies. This area constitutes a key priority for conservation by virtue of its remarkable biodiversity and high levels of endemism – plants and invertebrates are found here that occur nowhere else in the world.

The flight to Garies left from Stellenbosch airfield at 07h00 in favourable weather, although low clouds covered the landscape.  We were treated soon after take-off to the full moon setting on one side and the sun rising on the other.  A small amount of snow remained on the Winterhoek mountains.  We traveled in the direction of Piketberg, over the Riebeeck Kasteel mountains and north along the Olifants River, which had recently been in flood, and the Knersvlakte plains, before reaching Garies at the base of the Kamiesberg Uplands. From there on our flight remained within the upper reaches of the two montane catchments (F30A and F50A).

The flight was extremely valuable in providing an overview of the wetlands of the Kamiesberg Uplands and definitely helped confirm the location of the handful of largest remaining intact wetland systems.  Unfortunately it also very starkly brought to light the extent of wetland loss.  Previously it was thought that there had been a loss of 30% of the wetland area.  It now appears that the loss of the original extent of granite renosterveld valley bottom wetlands in the Kamiesberg Uplands is more likely to be around 70% or more.  Two areas of intact wetland abutted by cultivation were identified for further investigation.  A third site was photographed, where a known headcut occurs, and it is expected that ground surveys will locate sites for intervention.

The considerable experience of our Bateleurs pilot and navigator ensured an extremely efficient flight and that we were well-placed to thoroughly investigate the area.  Further, both were experienced at placing the aircraft for the perfect photo, and we are lucky to have Harold’s photographs as proof of this.  Our flight lasted approximately four hours.  We returned just after 11h00, grateful to have been in the hands of two very capable pilots and for the opportunity which The Bateleurs continues to offer to the Working for Wetlands programme.”

Midmar Dam and Housing Development


Mission: 50/50 Story on Low Cost Housing Development at Midmar Dam
Date: 8 July 2008
Requesting organisation: Nguni Productions for 50/50
Location: Midmar Dam, Kwazulu Natal
Pilot: Barry de Groot

Report by Barry de Groot
Report by Ryan Logie

In early July we were approached by an independent television company working with 50/50 on a story concerning a low cost housing development at Midmar Dam in KwaZulu-Natal.  Barry de Groot volunteered to do this flight and here is his account of the mission, followed by a short report from Ryan Logie, the cameraman on the flight.

Report by Barry de Groot

“Today saw another successful Bateleurs mission flown. Ryan Logie, the cameraman, was my only passenger and he took almost 1.5 hours of video footage. He filmed the proposed area where they want to build the low cost housing development 250 metres from the edge of Midmar Dam. We then filmed the existing township which is about 4 km down the road. We did a close up of the sewerage works which is not in working order and is apparently allowing raw sewerage to flow into small streams and end up in the dam. These particular areas were covered in more detail when they visited the site on foot last week, but the aerial footage will give a much better overview of the extent of the problem.

We then flew over to the Howick Falls.  This waterfall rates as one of my most scenic areas and a place I always fly my visitors over for a bird’s eye view of this famous waterfall. Unfortunately there is a large informal settlement only metres away from the top of the falls, and this area we filmed quite extensively too. According to Ryan it is the people living in these shacks that the authorities wish to relocate to the proposed site alongside Midmar Dam. From there we flew over the Albert Falls dam,  I guess to show the contrast between the two dams, and then we returned to Pietermaritzburg.

All this was filmed on a superb winter’s day in KwaZulu-Natal.  The sun was shining bright with a very light breeze blowing. How blessed am I to have the privilege of flight.”

midmar2_08072008Report from Cameraman Ryan Logie

“In July this year, 50/50 on SABC 2 flew with Bateleur pilot, Barry de Groot, to capture aerial footage for their insert, Hollywood on the Edge.

The story looked at the environmental implications of a proposed low cost housing development in Howick. The development would be constructed just metres away from Midmar Dam, the waterbasket for KwaZulu-Natal.

In the face of outcry from local communities and even concern from authorities such as the Provincial Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, construction was set to begin – regardless of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) scoping reports stating that the project would not be environmentally viable and could possibly pose a threat to the water quality of a source that serves an estimated 4 million people.

Being a television programme, the producers tell their stories using imagery and often need to get a bird’s eye view of situation to visualise the problem for viewers.

Thanks to The Bateleurs the producers were able to show effectively the close proximity of the proposed development to Midmar Dam – a mere 500 meters from the banks. One of the major concerns was the that the houses would border a set of smaller dams that feed into Midmar.  With Barry’s excellent flying we were able to fly lower and capture visuals of this area. In addition we were also able to get shots of a local settlement (similar to the proposed development) also very close to Midmar Dam. Prior to our flight the producers were able to establish that there were sewage related problems in the area, but we did not realise the impact until we were up in the sky.

We’d like to thank The Bateleurs and Barry de Groot for assisting us and helping us to tell the story better.”