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Avroy Shlain


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Vaal Triangle Air Pollution


Mission: Survey the Extent of Air Pollution over the Vaal Triangle
Date: 28 March 2009
Requesting organisation: groundWork
Location: Vaal Triangle
Pilot: Avroy Shlain

Report by pilot and director Avroy Shlain
Report from Bobby Peek of groundWork

Report by pilot and director Avroy Shlain

During March we were asked to fly Bobby Peek of groundWork, an environmental justice NGO based in Pietermaritzburg, together with a representative of the Sigrid Rausing Trust, to survey the extent of air pollution over the Vaal Triangle.  Bateleurs pilot and director, Avroy Shlain, volunteered for this mission and provided this short post-flight report: 

“If pilots could design weather we would always get what we woke up to on Saturday morning 28th March  –  not a cloud in the very blue sky and a temperature that floated between 23 and 25C.

Scheduled for an 08h30 (local time) take off from Lanseria, I left Sandton at 07h15, stopping en route to pick up some Cokes, water and Lunch Bars as we were to be on the go for a few hours. The traffic was remarkably mild and I arrived ahead of schedule so took the time to get my permit to drive to the hangar and right up to the plane. (I knew that my passengers would have a lot of luggage with them and this would make loading a lot easier.)  Back at the terminal at precisely 08h00 and everyone was on time and we made our way directly to the C182T parked outside the Comair hangars.

With the windscreen cleaned, fuel loaded and pre-flight completed, we left minutes after 08h30 and headed directly to Carltonville, circling over a variety of mines and dumps. With the sun coming up from the east we planned our flyovers so that we had really good lighting over the “bad spots”.  Our route had been explained to me some days before, and this took us over Everton, Vanderbijl, Sasolburg, and ultimately Vereeniging, where I dropped off my two passengers who planned to continue their survey at ground level.

Alternating the photographs with the light behind us, we circled the massive industries in this area and took many photos into the sun, highlighting the ghastly volume of pollution, and making the point to our international visitor – Theodorous Chronopoulos of the Sigrid Rausing Trust.  In addition to physically seeing the problems, up at 5 and 6,000ft one could really smell the facilities we were flying over.

While my passengers claimed to have seen what they had come for, it was interesting for me to hear these two professionals talk about their findings! The enormous effect that the “dumping” of toxic and other waste has had on both ground and surface water is horrifying.  Hopefully the assistance that The Bateleurs has given groundWork will assist these good people to influence the right authority so that these industries are made to clean up their act.”


Report from Bobby Peek of groundWork

From the left:  Theodoros Chronopoulos, Avroy Shlain (pilot) and Bobby Peek.

“On March the 28th, I was fortunate to share a memorable two hour journey with Avroy Shlain, Bateleurs pilot and director, who flew me and Theodoros Chronopoulos of the Sigrid Rausing Trust over the Vaal Triangle, to give us the experience of being above the smells and dust rather than in between.  Well, that is what I thought … !

As we flew over the industrial hub of Sasol I was amazed to recognise the same smell that is found between the fences of Sasol and in Zamdela, the local township downwind of Sasol. This confirmed what we forced Sasol to admit, publicly, in 2000 – that its operations pollute the neighbourhoods of Sasolburg.  In 2000, Sasol did a flyover air pollution sampling process and they picked up high levels of sulphur and volatile organic compounds, confirming the validity of the air sampling performed by the communities in the area.

Over ArcelorMittal, despite the fact that it is operating well below capacity, the haze of dust pollution was immediately evident.   Alarmingly, alongside ArcelorMittal, I saw for the first time the large expanse of toxic waste that they have been storing – for decades.  It is often spoken about but its magnitude can only be appreciated from above.

I was to witness even more of a visually devastating effect on the landscape as we passed over and around the Eskom power plant east of Vanderbijlpark.  The land was scarred from past coal mining and present coal storage areas and toxic waste ash dumpsites.  The ‘power’ of Eskom is oh so evident when you realise that it does whatever it wants, without any checks or balances.  Our government has no control over Eskom.

We were also flown over the West Rand and the gold mines and gold dumps around Carltonville.  These mine dumps are all so well constructed that they look like large swimming pools which could provide some relief from the intense heat of the Vaal summer.  But what these mine dumps actually bring is unseen groundwater pollution.  This includes radio-active contamination and intense dust pollution containing toxic chemicals – highly dangerous when the dry winter winds blow in this part of the world.

It all looked so calm from above, yet the reality on the ground speaks differently.  Just speak to the local people who endure this industrial experience day in and day out!  groundWork would like to thank The Bateleurs and especially Avroy Shlain who made this flight possible for us.”


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