2009 Missions

Crocodile Count at Lake Sibaya


Seasonal Count of Nile Crocodiles
Date: 28 June and 26 July 2009

Requesting organisation: Xander Combrink of the School of Biological & Conservation Sciences at UKZN

Lake Sibaya, KwaZulu Natal
Pilot: Donovan Barton-Hobbs and Daryl Kimber

Early in 2009 the Bateleurs was approached by Xander Combrink of the School of Biological & Conservation Sciences at UKZN, to assist with a series of aerial surveys for researchers conducting seasonal counts of Nile Crocodiles.

The  first of these counts took place on two different days.  The first day of the survey was flown at Lake Sibaya (see photo above) in June, by Bateleurs pilots Donovan Barton-Hobbs and Daryl Kimber, but weather conditions were unfavourable and it was decided to repeat the survey in July.  The second day of this survey was flown, again, by Donovan Barton-Hobbs. Here are some extracts from the detailed report compiled by researchers Xander Combrink and Dr Ricky Taylor, the full report is available on request.


Report by Xander Combrink

“We conducted an aerial count for crocodiles at Lake Sibaya on 28 June 2009, using two pilots and two airplanes.  Six individuals were counted and this result seemed to indicate a significant decrease in the population, compared to the 22 crocodiles counted in June 2007.  However, there was a moderate to strong wind (40km/h) on the day and windy conditions often result in crocodiles seeking shelter amongst vegetation/reeds, so it was decided to repeat the survey under more favourable weather conditions.
Accordingly, we repeated the survey on 26 July 2009, departing from 121/Dukuduku and surveying the lake in a clockwise direction.  Seven crocodiles were counted, one more than during the previous count a month earlier (28 June 2009). This result is surprising – counting conditions were perfect, so almost 90% of the counted crocodiles were basking, compared to 20% during the windy June survey.  The distribution of the observed crocodiles in Lake Sibaya seems to coincide with areas of relative little human disturbance/development (settlements).  Surprisingly, no crocodiles were counted along the eastern shoreline which used to be a favoured area for adult crocodiles.


An alarming decrease in numbers

During the first aerial survey in 1985, 67 crocodiles were counted.  This figure increased to 107 individuals in 1990 but the period 1990 – 1993 saw a sharp decrease in numbers to 53 crocodiles.  Since 1993 the observed population has decreased steadily to the seven individuals counted during July 2009.  The decrease in the number of crocodiles at Lake Sibaya is linked to the increasing human population around the lake, with a consequential increase in demand for more natural resources (e.g. water, food, building material), more livestock and fishing activities with subsequent disturbance to nesting and basking crocodiles, increased agricultural activities, gillnet mortalities of young crocodiles, baited snare traps, the destruction of crocodile nesting sites and removal of eggs, killing of crocodiles due to perceived/real threat to humans and livestock and the demand for crocodile fat, blood and other organs in the traditional medicine market.


Agriculture and tourism

It seems that agricultural activities have expanded around the lake since the previous aerial survey. Much of this focussed at the inlets of the numerous dendritic arms of the lake.  The subsequent replacement of aquatic vegetation with crops will impact negatively on the abundance and diversity of animals found in these habitats. Also, as a result of the decreasing lake level, numerous vehicle tracks and a few vehicles were seen along the eastern shoreline of the lake. Five touring canoes (see photo above) were seen in the Mabibi area, which suggests the possibility of a canoe tour operator active in the area.
In light of the aforementioned pressures on the remaining crocodiles in the lake, it is unlikely that the population will recover without a long term strategy that takes into account ecological/conservation, and social as well as economic considerations.
Many thanks to The Bateleurs and especially pilots Donovan Barton-Hobbs and Daryl Kimber, who made it possible to do the two flights for this survey.”

Mopane Trees in the Kruger National Park


Mission: Identify research sites, and search for dead fish and crocodiles
Date: 18 July 2009
Requesting person/organisation: Tony Swemmer of the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON)
Location: Kruger National Park
Pilot: Jeremy Woods

In July 2009 we were asked by Tony Swemmer of the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) if we could provide a flight to identify research sites along the southern boundary of the Kruger National Park, and also to search for dead fish and crocodiles in the Olifants River.  Jeremy Woods volunteered to fly this mission for The Bateleurs and SAEON and here is his version of events on the day, followed by a report from Tony Swemmer.

Mopane Trees and Dead Crocodiles
by pilot Jeremy Woods

“Finding AVGAS at a reasonable price in the Limpopo Province is not as easy as you might think.  This I discovered while doing my planning for the mission for SAEON.  The mission was to comprise two separate flights, from Phalaborwa or alternatively Hoedspruit, over the Kruger National Park. None of these places had AVGAS on the field over weekends, and special deliveries from one of the local suppliers would have cost as much as R21.00 a litre – more than double the cost at Rand Airport.  Eventually I located fuel at Tzaneen – 20 minutes flying time to the west, away from the park, and they had fuel at a price cheaper than at Rand!

Our planned departure from Rand to Phalaborwa on Saturday morning didn’t start quite as early as we had hoped.  During our run-up just prior to departure we discovered the right magneto was out.  My son William  was flying with me and he found and fixed the fault – a loose wire to the condenser.  So we took off on the 233nms trip to Phalaborwa and one hour and thirty-three minutes later we were greeting all our passengers in the arrival hall of Phalaborwa Airport.  Tony Swemmer was accompanied by four other observers:  Alan Knapp, Jesse Nippet and Gene Kelly (no, seriously!) from Colorado State University, plus Rodney Landela, the Section Ranger from Kruger Park over whose section we would be flying.

The SAEON mission team, from the left: 
Pilot Jeremy Woods, William Woods, Tony Swemmer (SAEON), Gene Kelly, Alan Knapp, Rodney Landela (KNP), and Jesse Nippet. 
Gene, Alan and Jesse are from Colorado State University.

The first flight was probably a bit rough from a passenger point of view. We flew the entire length of the Olifants River from just inside Kruger all the way to the Mozambique border, and then also a large part of the Timbavati River within the Park. The objective for this flight was to try and spot any dead crocodiles as a result of the ‘hard fat syndrome’ (that’s my name for it) which was highlighted on the 50/50 TV programme a short while ago. This flight would have been uncomfortable for someone who doesn’t fly often.  We were travelling at a height of about 100’ AGL and following the river closely at speeds between 100 knots (185kph) and 130 knots (240 kph). This meant that we were constantly turning sharply and pulling additional G’s in order to keep the river bed visual at all times, as it meanders backwards and forwards through the flat country. When we approached the Mozambique border the river then ‘descends’ into a gorge with high cliffs on either side, and this required rapid height changes as well, causing even more discomfort for our passengers.

The second flight was a little more sedate. The objective for this mission was to survey areas where the Mopane Veld changed to other types of vegetation.  This required flying at heights between 500’ and 1000’ AGL, and sometimes down to about 200’.  At this time of year the Mopane trees were easily identified by their greenish/orange tinge, contrasting with the beige/brown of dry grass and other vegetation.  After a bit of coaching,  my spotting the subtle differences in colour improved.  It appears that specific areas had to be identified where a ‘ground station’ could be located in order to study and monitor the conditions that are causing the spread of the Mopane Veld.  For this flight we were not required to do steep, hard turns:  the slow, sweeping turns with very little additional G forces made for a much more comfortable ride and nobody felt nauseous.  

The two flights together (not including the flights to and from Phalaborwa) amounted to approximately three hours in total.  Tony Swemmer and Rodney Landela accompanied us on both flights, with Jesse Nippet on the first flight and Alan Knapp on the second flight.  The first flight was cut slightly short in the morning because of severe passenger discomfort, but I believe that they obtained all the information they required.

William and I set off for home via Tzaneen in a bit of a rush, hoping that we could still get AVGAS there late on a Saturday afternoon.  We arrived on the ground at Tzaneen well after 16h00 to find the airport totally deserted. We had flown about six hours in total without refuelling and just when we were wondering how we would get into town to overnight there, the petrol attendant appeared.  Hallelujah!  After paying for the fuel and landing fees we headed off on 06, the downhill runway heading away from the mountains, this time routing south to Rand Airport.

By this time I was beginning to feel really tired and I was very pleased to have someone else taking the responsibility for flying home.  We passed over the mountains at Flight Level 085 just before it got dark. Still feeling drained, I was grateful also to have someone strong with me to help push the plane into the hangar when we got back to Rand in the dark. Sleeping in my own bed that night was a bonus, and although  in my dreams I continued to adjust the manifold pressure, DI, mixture, power settings and trim, all night long, I slept the sleep of the righteous.”

A Better Understanding of Mopane Trees and Crocodile Mortalities
by passenger Tony Swemmer

There were two objectives to our Bateleurs-supported flight in July:  The first was to identify suitable research sites along the southern boundary of Mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane) in the Kruger National Park. This was to assist with designing a scientific research project to better understand what factors control the current distribution of Mopane, and make predictions about whether Mopane will spread southwards as global climate change intensifies.  The second objective was to search for dead fish and crocodiles in the Olifants River, within the Kruger National Park. Over the past two years, large numbers of crocodiles and barbel have been dying in this stretch of the Olifants River. The exact cause of these mortalities is not yet known, and rapid detection of new deaths is required both to manage and research this phenomenon.  Aerial reconnaissance is a huge help in searching for dead crocodiles and fish in the more remote parts of Kruger and consequently a Bateleurs-supported flight was arranged for Saturday 18th July 2009.  The research team was hosted by myself, representing the local branch of SAEON, based in Phalaborwa.

The team of visiting scientists from the USA and Rodney Landela (Section Ranger for the Phalaborwa region of the Kruger National Park) were understandably disappointed on the morning of the flight when we were informed that the flight would have to be cancelled due to engine trouble with the aircraft. However, Bateleurs pilot Jeremy Woods called back an hour later to say that the problem had been fixed and after a few hours delay he arrived in Phalaborwa.

From the left:  Alan Knapp, Gene Kelly, Tony Swemmer and Rodney Landela discussing the flight plans for the two routes over Kruger.


Discussion of the flight plans for two routes over Kruger soon began.  Rodney and I  participated on both flights to assist with navigation over the park. On the first flight, the fourth place in the 4-seater Piper Commanche was taken by Dr Jesse Nippert, an ecologist from Kansas State University. It was decided that we would first check the Olifants River for dead fish and crocodiles as there had recently been a spate of mortalities in the river, particularly in the eastern stretch close to the Mozambique border.

Jeremy headed south from Phalaborwa airport and intercepted the Olifants close to the western boundary of the park. He then carefully navigated along the course of the river, flying at only 100 or 200 feet above the ground.  While Jeremy kept an eye out for eagles and vultures (a potential danger when flying at that height), the rest of the crew scanned the river. Hundreds of hippo were seen sunning themselves on the banks of the river, but very few crocodiles were observed.  Happily no dead crocodiles or fish were seen, but the number of live crocodiles counted (about 15) is cause for concern.  No carcasses have been reported in the river since the flight and the results of this part of the mission confirmed that the spate of fish and crocodile deaths is over (for now).

After flying along the Olifants as far as the Mozambique border, we turned around and flew up the Letaba River from its confluence with the Olifants to the main tar road in Kruger.  Again no carcasses were seen. We then headed north to search for areas on the Kruger’s basaltic plains where dense Mopane vegetation gives way to open grassland. However, the constant banking and turning required to follow the rivers was too much for the two passengers in the back seats, and we decided to re-route back to Phalaborwa to save them from further suffering.

The second flight included Jeremy, Tony and Rodney, again, plus Professor Alan Knapp, an ecologist from Colorado State University, and again the flight initially followed the Olifants River eastwards.  At the confluence of the Olifants and Timbavati rivers, we turned south and began to track the boundary between the Mopane-dominated vegetation and ‘Combretum-acacia’ vegetation which is more typical in the south of the park. The time of the year turned out to be perfect for this exercise, as the orange-tinted leaves of the Mopane trees contrasted clearly with other tree species which had already dropped all their foliage. This enabled us to determine the southern boundary of the Mopane trees from the air.  The extreme south tip of the distribution of Mopane trees (in Africa) was located near Orpen Gate, and after circling this area, Jeremy put us on a course back to Phalaborwa.

Seen from the air the boundary can clearly be seen between Mopane trees,
which dominate vegetation in the northern half of the Kruger National Park,
and the more typical bushveld of the southern half of the Park.


Mopane-dominated vegetation gives way to riparian trees on the banks of the Olifants River.

A handheld GPS was used to map patches of Mopane along the boundary, and this information enabled the research team to find suitable research sites on the ground.  There are vast areas of the Kruger that are not accessible by road, and it would have been impossible to identify good research sites along the Mopane boundary from the ground.

This map shows the flight path of Flight 1 (in dark red) that tracked the length of the Olifants River. 
The flight path of Flight 2 is shown in green, and followed the Mopane boundary to the south. 
For Flight 2 the blue flags show patches of Mopane at the edge of its distribution, marked by a handheld GPS. 
Red flags show the location of sites subsequently located for collecting leaf and soil samples.


Later, at the sites located from the air, samples of Mopane tree leaves and soils beneath them were taken, and the data obtained from the analysis of these samples will be incorporated into a research proposal that the team will submit to the National Science Foundation in the USA.  If successful, the proposal will lead to the creation of a large research project that will run for a minimum of three years and will involve both American and South African scientists. The project will focus on determining why Mopane trees do not occur any further south than they currently do, and whether they are likely to start spreading south as global climate change progresses.  Due to the large negative influence that Mopane trees have on the diversity of ecosystems in the Kruger Park (and the neighbouring private nature reserves), any southward migration of this species will have important consequences for the eco-tourism industry in the Lowveld.

Both objectives of our flight were achieved:  Suitable research sites were found, and the Olifants River was surveyed.  However, more flying will be necessary to accurately map the entire boundary of Mopane trees within the Kruger National Park.”

Mpophomeni Wetlands


Mission: Obtaining photographs for promoting the area
Date: Mid June 2009
Requesting organisation: Dr Lyn Hurry of the Thuthuka Ecobizz Project
Location: Mpophomeni Wetlands
Pilot: Steve McCurrach

In mid-June we were approached by Dr Lyn Hurry of the Thuthuka Ecobizz Project, wanting a flight over the Mpophomeni Wetlands.  Bateleurs pilot and director Steve McCurrach volunteered for this mission, saying that “it was right in his backyard”, and here is the post-flight report from Dr Hurry.

The team that flew the Mphopomeni Wetlands mission, from the left:
Dr Lynn Hurry, an Ecotourism Consultant;  Frank Mchunu, CEO of the Zulu Mphopomeni Tourism Enterprise (ZMTE); 
Steve McCurrach, Bateleurs pilot and director;  and Adam Hoosen, an office bearer for the ZMTE.

The Mpophomeni Wetlands for the ZMTE
by passenger Lyn Hurry

“Living up to their motto of “Flying for the Environment in Africa” the Johannesburg-based Bateleurs recently flew to assist the Zulu Mpophomeni Tourism Enterprise (ZMTE) when they agreed to help us to obtain photographs of the Mpophomeni Wetland. Durban-based Bateleurs pilot Steve McCurrach volunteered to fly the mission and he and I took a series of stunning photographs of the wetland and its surrounding catchment area.

Thanking The Bateleurs for their assistance, Frank Mchunu, Director of the ZMTE, said that the photographs would be used in different ways to promote the Mpophomeni Project:  ‘We intend to use these beautiful images of our priceless wetland not only to promote its long-term conservation, but also to encourage its incorporation into our local ecotourism plans.  Since the wetland delivers water to the upper uMngeni catchment, its conservation and wise-use is also vitally important in terms of water security for the entire uMngeni basin.’

As a development agency with a strong environmental commitment, the ZMTE networks with a number of community organisations and supports their environmental programmes. These include greening programmes, community-based organic gardens, and school-based environmental education programmes such as those provided by the Midlands Meander Eco-School initiative. Enviro clubs are active in most schools in the area and the ZMTE provides support to their annual school clean-up campaigns.

As an important part of its eco-tourism work the ZMTE is to build the Mpophomeni Gateway Information and Craft Centre at the entrance to Mpophomeni, and it is already working to develop eco-businesses (environmentally-friendly businesses) that will provide marketable goods and services to this centre. An eco-business project, the Howick-based Thuthuka Ecobizz Project, has been mooted by a local agency, and a proposal to launch this project is currently under consideration.”

A panoramic view of the Mphopomeni Wetlands and township


Mapungubwe National Park and Mining


Mission: investigation into proposed mining activities within the Mapungubwe National Park
Requesting organisation: anine Grobler, an independent TV producer commissioned by 50-50
Location: Mapungubwe National Park
Pilot: Avroy Shlain accompanied by Tamiko Sher

The Mapungubwe survey team.  From the left: Bateleurs pilots Tamiko Sher and Avroy Shlain, with Janine Grobler

Shortly before its withdrawal by the SABC, 50-50 conducted an investigation into proposed mining activities within the Mapungubwe National Park, and this story was featured in their final programme.  Avroy Shlain, Bateleurs pilot and director, flew Janine Grobler, an independent TV producer commissioned by 50-50, to survey the situation in Mapungubwe.  They were accompanied by Bateleurs pilot, Tamiko Sher.

This photo shows an open cast mine in the region of the Mapungubwe National Park


Report by Janine Grobler

“Unfortunately the 50-50 offices closed down shortly after their last broadcast, which was on the Mapungubwe National Park, and at that time the Mapungubwe coal mining issue had not been resolved.  The mining company, Coal of Africa, will submit its environmental impact assessments to the Department of Mineral and Energy (DME) at the end of June.  All interested and affected parties must also submit their objections at the same time, and we will have to wait to hear the outcome.  
Once again, assistance from The Bateleurs enabled the production team to fly over the Mapungubwe National Park and the proposed Transfrontier Park.  Coal of Africa has applied for rights to mine within this region.  The reality is that prospecting permits have been issued to a number of mining companies all around Mapungubwe National Park, and within nature reserves and on private game farms.  The aerial footage gave both the production team and the TV viewer the opportunity to see an overview of the area and where and how mining will impact on the region as a whole. The area is reasonably flat and this makes it difficult to show distances and positions of the proposed mining concessions when seen from the ground.  The aerial views made it so much clearer and one could clearly see just how close the proposed mining, the Vele Colliery,would be to the National Park.  As many South Africans are not familiar with the area, or have not actually travelled through the park, I believe that the aerial footage may also have promoted the region in terms of tourism.
I would like to thank Avroy for his time and supportive input, and thank The Bateleurs for once again coming to the fore and supporting a worthy environmental cause.”

Brits Granite Mines


Mission: Monitor the degradation caused by legal and illegal mining of the granite koppies outside Brits
Date: Early June 2009
Requesting organisation: Andrie Loubser of the Brits Brokenveld Bewarings Forum (BBBF)
Location: Brits, North West Province
Pilots: Abrie Kruger and Wouter van Ginkel

In early June we were asked by Andrie Loubser of the Brits Brokenveld Bewarings Forum (BBBF) to fly their annual survey to monitor the degradation caused by legal and illegal mining of the granite koppies outside Brits.  No sooner had we accomplished this survey for the BBBF, flown by Bateleurs pilot Abrie Kruger in his microlight, when we were asked by Andrie for a second flight, this time to give award-winning environmental journalist, Elise Tempelhoff, a bird’s-eye view of the destruction of the koppies.  Bateleurs pilot Wouter van Ginkel flew the second mission in his Cessna 182, with passengers Andrie, Elise and cameraman, Herman Verwey.  Extracts from Andrie’s reports appear below:

The second Brits survey team.  From the left:  Bateleurs pilot Wouter van Ginkel, journalist Elise Tempelhoff, and cameraman Herman Verwey.  The photo was taken by Andrie Loubser of the BBBF

“The flight in mid-June 2009 confirmed that the degradation caused by legal and illegal mining of the Brits Koppies is worse each year, and that there is clearly an entrenched pattern of total indifference by the authorities.  The Department of Minerals & Energy( DME), regardless of worldwide concern regarding the carbon footprint of mankind, does not pay even lip-service in terms of honouring the processes and principles stipulated by our own South African laws.  The DME allows the perpetrators to carry on as usual, and the more the laws and regulations change, the more the activities and the side effects stay the same. More mines have been abandoned without any attempt at rehabilitation of the landscape, although certain mines have made a token, meaningless attempt at visual camouflage, especially where this is visible from the roadside.
Flying with Abrie Kruger in his Beaver was, as always, a pleasure. Thank you to The Bateleurs for your sincere concern about our environment and your willingness always to be of assistance. I would like to dedicate our flight on 14 June 2009 to the memory of our beloved Nora.”

An open cast mine at Marikana


“Our aerial survey in mid-June provided the BBBF with photographic evidence of the number of derelict granite mines that are not being rehabilitated.  

We showed these photos to Elise Tempelhoff of Media 24 and she was alarmed enough to want to survey the area herself. Elise is an award-winning environmental journalist and has taken up the cudgels in her own home town against the pollution of  the Vaal triangle by Iscor, as well as coal mining in Mpumalanga, radioactive water pollution in the Wonderspruit area, and many other environmental causes for which she acts as champion. Thanks to The Bateleurs and volunteer pilot Wouter van Ginkel, we were able to provide Elise with a valuable aerial perspective of the extent of the problem.  Our second aerial survey demonstrated that granite mines and platinum and chrome mines are all perpetrators of environmental devastation.  In addition, informal settlements with no services have mushroomed in the area, adding the problem of pollution as a result of human occupancy.  These settlements provide legal and illegal mines with labour on a short-term contract basis.  Contractors are by definition not employees, and so the mines cannot be held responsible for housing their temporary labour force.
We appreciate the time and concern given to this survey by Elise and her photographer, Herman Verwey.  We hope that the information obtained from this aerial perspective will form the basis of an exposé of the mis-management of the mining industry by the DME.  To The Bateleurs and Wouter van Ginkel:  thank you once again for your unwavering support.”