Objective of the flight: The aim of the flight was to relocate 32 Red-billed Oxpeckers from the Kruger National Park to Mokala National Park as part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Operation Oxpecker project. This was the third and last relocation of birds to Mokala National Park to ensure that a sufficient number of birds to establish a founder population has been relocated.

Pilot:  Justin Bass

Aircraft:  Mooney

Beneficiary:  Leigh Combrink, Operation Oxpecker Endangered Wildlife Trust

Report from the beneficiary, Leigh Combrink:

“On the morning of the 2nd of October, Justin Bass arrived at Skukuza Airport in his Mooney ZS-SUS. Shortly after he arrived, the birds were loaded onto the aircraft and we took off in the direction of Kimberley. There was quite a bit of cloud over the escarpment, which meant a bit of a bumpy start. Luckily, Justin is instrument rated, which allowed us to travel above the clouds and allowed for a smoother ride.

The flight to Mokala took about 2 hours and 50 minutes. We had quite a strong head wind, which added some time to the journey. We were met at the airstrip by Deon Joubert (Mokala National Park Manager), Koketso Kotsoe (Mokala Section Ranger) and Charné Kemp (Volksblad Newpaper). After a short drive, we arrived at the lodge where the new holding facility for the Oxpeckers had been placed. Deon Joubert had a special holding facility built near to the lodge to allow for access to electricity for heat lamps for the birds. This was placed facing a water hole to allow the birds to see their future hosts. On arrival the birds were released into the holding boma. The section ranger, Koketso, and some of the Mokala staff had already prepared some food for the birds. Leigh showed the staff how to prepare the food for the birds, ensuring that the mixture was sufficiently “runny”, much like a meaty blood smoothie.  The food was placed into the holding facility and the birds began eating almost immediately.

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Deon and Koketso arranged to feed the birds at least twice a day, depending on their needs and to switch on the heat lamps at night. The birds would need to be kept in the holding facility for about a week and released thereafter, provided at least 3-4 days of good weather were forecast for after the release. This would ensure that the birds had sufficient time to explore their new environment and find suitable roosting and nesting spots.

Deon then took Leigh and Justin back to the airstrip and we then left for Kimberley at around 3pm. After stopping over to refuel in Kimberley, we took off with a great tail wind for Rand airfield. The journey from Kimberly to Rand airfield took 1 hour and 19 minutes.

The flight was a great success. All 32 birds travelled well and settled into their new holding facility. Deon Joubert reported that one bird died in captivity. This bird was an adult bird. We have found that adults do not handle captivity as well as sub-adults and juveniles. Deon and Koketso think that the bird might have flown into the side of the enclosure and broken its neck.

On the 9th of October, Deon and Koketso opened the door to the cage after placing food down for the birds. The birds then had a quick meal, hopped outside for a sand bath and then flew off to explore their new home. Koketso also noticed, two Oxpeckers sitting on the outside of the cage on the morning of the release. Both of these birds had purple rings on them, which means that they were birds released during the second relocation to Mokala. The current birds all had orange rings on their left legs, whereas those released in 2012 had yellow rings.

We would like to thank Justin Bass and the Bateleurs for making this trip possible and for ensuring the establishment and long-term survival of Red-billed Oxpeckers in Mokala National Park.”

Report from the pilot, Justin Bass:


Deon Joubert, Koketso Kotsoe, Leigh Combrink and Justin Bass

“Operation Oxpecker and the specific mission request immediately attracted my attention.  It seems to be a very real and tangible initiative which the Bateleurs could assist with in an immediate and practical manner. Quite simply, the birds were to be caught in an area where there is a relatively prolific population and transported to an area which is suited to their species but where the numbers have been reduced dramatically.

The birds were to be in quarantine for 3 weeks prior to the relocation and it was critical that they arrive before their breeding period as they become aggressive and could harm each other in the close confines of a quarantine cage.  So, when the urgent flight request was received by EWT I was delighted to be able to take part in the project.

The first leg of the flight on the morning of Thursday 2nd October was from Johannesburg to Skukuza.  On arrival, I was met by Leigh Combrink from EWT who was ready with the two crates containing the 32 Oxpeckers.  The paperwork was scrutinised by the efficient and friendly staff at Skukuza airport and we were soon on our way to Mokala. The distance between Skukuza and Mokala is 470 nm (880km) and despite a stiff head wind we arrived in just under 3 hours. On arrival, we were met by Deon Joubert, the Park Manager at Mokala National Park, together with the local press from Kimberly.

Deon Joubert had created a very spacious and comfortable looking cage for the birds for their remaining quarantine period, complete with heat lamps for the colder nights in Mokala.  After a full briefing by Leigh on how to manage the final period of captivity she prepared their favourite food of blood and other delicacies. After a brief stop at Kimberly for fuel, we flew back to Johannesburg with the empty crates and a very satisfied and relieved Leigh Combrink having successfully completed another key episode in Operation Oxpecker.

I was very proud to be able to participate in this mission. It was incredibly heartening to witness (first hand) the dedication and passion of the people I met from the EWT and the National Parks and also to be able to contribute to a very worthwhile conservation initiative.”