Objective of the flight: 

To gain an aerial overall view of priority sections of the Sak River and Krom River catchments as a prelude to comprehensive baseline assessments of the underlying ecological condition of catchment areas in the Karoo, including river characterization research, to follow over the next five years. 

To obtain photographs along priority sections of the river, of in particular agricultural development (agricultural lands), existing soil conservation structures (weirs), of degraded sections of the catchment, the condition of river confluences and identification vegetation structure suitable as refugia for the species. This will contribute to our fine scale mapping of degradation in this catchment.

The information gained will inform our baseline assessment of these two catchments and serve to prioritize our conservation actions in the area for the next five to ten year planning horizon.

Pilot:  Reid Wardle

Aircraft:  Kitfox

Beneficiary:  Cobus Theron, Drylands Conservation Programme, Endangered Wildlife Trust

Report from the beneficiary, Cobus Theron:

“Flying in the Northern Cape in August presented us with clear, cold and mostly stable conditions from which to assess the identified catchments. Two flights were undertaken after indemnities were signed. The first flight took place on the 21nd and the second flight on the 22nd of August 2016.

Flight 1:  Lehman Lindeque, land degradation expert, undertook the first day’s flying over the Krom River catchment.  The catchment was of great interest as it contains some of the habitat with the highest historic recorded sightings of Riverine Rabbits.  Much of the riparian  vegetation still appears to be in a  very good condition along the rivers, with most of the development taking place in the confluences. Video feed and photographs of vegetation,  soil conservation structures and agricultural developments were taken.  The camera used was equipped with a GPS which allows us to accurately position photographs over the areas where they were taken after flights.

Flight 2: Cobus Theron of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) flew in the second flight over the Sak River Catchment. Video feed and photographs were taken. During this flight new sites with potential habitat for Riverine Rabbits were discovered in the vicinity of Dunedin, which are interesting as they are not associated with the main river or a major tributary.

During both flights particular attention was paid to the following:

  • Assessment of vegetation and habitat suitable to Riverine Rabbit by assigning a degradation category. In this respect particular emphasis was placed on the confluences as they typically represent larger more continuous areas of habitat and are under the highest pressure in terms of land transformation through agricultural development.
  • Assessment of the condition and functionality of erosion structures in the main river course or on the tributaries.
  • Any additional habitat that we were previously unaware of or interesting features were captured.
  • Expansion of agricultural or degraded areas in the catchment.

Results and observations were discussed in the evening after the flights with our pilot Reid Wardle providing very good insights.

The flight has given us an up to date perspective on the habitat condition of the riparian areas in the Sak and Krom River catchments. It has given us the opportunity to record images and video of all the confluences and other areas in the river system where suitable habitat still exists and what the condition of that habitat is. We have a greater understanding of the suitability and durability of several erosion structures and the overall trend in degradation in the catchment.

Flying over this area enabled us to rapidly visually assess and accurately document, in a very short space of time, with minimal labour, the condition of the catchments and the extent of developments. Gathering the same volume and quality of information surveying on the ground would have require great expenditures in terms of time, labour and cost. In addition, the arid nature of the region makes it difficult to accurately assess degradation from satellite imagery alone. We were able to compare the photos taken on the flight to satellite images of particularly degraded areas, enabling us to better interpret the available satellite imagery of these areas.

The flight has enabled us to characterize two river systems that contain very important habitat for the Riverine Rabbit. It has allowed us to grade the remaining Riverine Rabbit habitat into four classes. The classes relate to different levels of degradation present.  Observers are trained to make a judgment of the level of degradation in the landscape. This measure can be repeated over time to compare results.  This rating scale will assist us to prioritise different sites. The post-flight discussions demonstrated that both observers were correctly applying the rating system.

The flight has also enabled us to assess habitat condition of the confluences and other parts of the Sak and Krom River systems. It will assist us to re-evaluate our conservation strategy and to prioritise areas where conservation engagements are required. In particular it has also highlighted the importance of engaging with some of the new emerging farmers who are farming adjacent to habitat in very suitable conditions on the Krom River. We envisage the initiation of stewardship contract / conservation agreements in the project area and this information will greatly assist in directing our efforts.   

The information collected will contribute, along with other information, in developing a comprehensive baseline for both catchments. This rapid aerial assessment methodology we tested during this flight to establish baselines for the condition of the confluences in the catchments now provides us with a tool to regularly assess certain parameters  over time to establish positive of negative changes in habitat conditions and the efficacy of soil conservation structures. These changes will also be used to evaluate the impact of conservation work taking place on the ground. In addition we can apply this method to the rest of the catchment and other catchments in the Nama Karoo and elsewhere.

The Bateleurs remain one of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s most important collaborators.  Your enabling services allow us to generate information that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive and out of reach for many of our activities. The EWT wishes to express its thanks and gratitude for this amazing service.”

Report from the pilot, Reid Wardle:

“I departed from Home Base (Rexfield) on Saturday, 20 August 2016, in the afternoon to be able to take on the necessary oil and fuel from Wings Park near East London. I borrowed hangar space for the night from Border Aviation Club and tucked ZU-DEC in for the night.

 At 13h40, on 21 August, with close to maximum gross weight in fuel and luggage on board, I departed Wings Park for Graaff Reinet. I had planned to fly at Flight level 085, but I eventually asked Cape Town Information if I could descend to Level 065 due to the huge head wind component higher up.

It was still a very slow and uncomfortable flight in the poor conditions but I was pleased to land at Graaff Reinet and to be picked up by a very gracious Shirley Grindley, who would be my very generous host for the evening. (Shirley is an avid conservationist and always ready to be of assistance to the teams of the Endangered Wildlife Trust).

The Graaff Reinet attendants informed me on Monday morning that there was no fuel available, so after a thorough assessment of the fuel remaining in ZU-DEC’s tanks, the wind conditions between Graaff Reinet and Loxton and the airfields along the route, I decided to take off and route direct. The winds were still onto the nose, but were light enough to not cause any undue concerns. Flying in the Karoo really is a wonderful experience and all too quickly I landed in Loxton.

The very friendly and quite large team collected me at the airfield and after feeding me well and filling me with good coffee, we used the fuel that I had carried with me from Wings Park for the first sortie in the afternoon. This was to fly the catchment of the Krom River and photograph the confluences very ably marked out by the team on my navigation equipment. This made it possible to achieve a high degree of accuracy and enabled Lehman Lindeque (the day’s passenger and representative of the United Nations and the UNDP GEF 5 Coordinator), to confidently score the different habitat conditions while in flight. Some extra points of interest as decided in flight by Lehman were also added and photographed for discussion by the team in the evening.

A good shower and a short rest later saw us all in the Rooi Granaat for a sumptuous supper in order to allow the team to get acquainted, where after we met in the office to go over the afternoon’s mission in detail and to score the entire days photographs. We were only able to retire to bed at midnight, but doing so, satisfied about the work, was most rewarding.

The following morning dawned a clear day and after refueling with fuel bought in Loxton, we got airborne to survey the Sak Rivier catchment in the same manner as the previous afternoon’s mission. My passenger this time was the EWT Dryland Conservation Programme Coordinator, Cobus Theron, who relished the clear glass windows of ZU-DEC for photographic purposes. Once again using the points entered into the navigation equipment by the computer literate members of the team the night before, we were able to fly very precisely and achieve a high level of accuracy in the survey. On both days, the use of a Go-Pro camera proved invaluable in assisting with the surveys.

I later landed and took Bianca Jordan, (the representative of Rand Merchant Bank, on board so that she could be shown, from the air, what constituted a near perfect habitat for the Riverine Rabbit.

Back at Loxton, I added fuel and oil, tied the aircraft down for the night and was able then to retire to Bonnie Schumann’s home (our base in Loxton and the Senior Field Officer for the EWT’s Drylands Conservation Programme) for what I considered a well-earned rest.

That evening we were treated to a braai and a small presentation where the Bateleurs were heartily thanked and recognized as a crucial part of the mission and the protection of this rare species. After farewells from a large team who are very clearly close-knit and focused on a common goal, who had readily accepted me in a friendly manner, I departed for home at about 10h50 on 24 August 2016.

With fantastic tail winds and a ground speed at times of 133 knots, I was home and packed away in about 2.5 hours!

In writing this report, I am realizing what a success this mission was for all concerned and it is being brought home to me how much I have learned and how rewarding it was for me to briefly rub shoulders with such friendly and committed people who do so much for the preservation of our unique and valuable natural resources.

 Thank you EWT and The Bateleurs!

What an Honour!”