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Objective of the flight: 

To translocate three male lions from Tswalu to uMkhuze to introduce new distant genetic individuals into uMkhuze to prevent inbreeding.

Pilot:  Ryan Beeton

Aircraft:  Cessna 402 C

Beneficiary:  uMkhuze Game Reserve, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife

With thanks to Anton and Sue van Langelaar for their contribution towards fuel costs for this mission.

Report from the passenger (vet), Dr Rowan Leeming:

“Ryan Beeton and I met the other two passengers at Grand Central airport in the morning. Take off was at approximately 07h15. Once landed at Tswalu Private Game Reserve, Gus van Dyk and Dylan Smith (ecologist and manager at Tswalu) and I, proceeded to the holding bomas where the 3 lions were being kept. The lions were darted in the boma and transported to the plane using 3 vehicles. Each lion was laid down in dorsal recumbency (on its back) to facilitate the lions fitting in the plane. The removal of the back seats made it possible to fit all 3 lions in. Once the lions had been loaded and sedated for take-off, we set off for uMkhuze Game Reserve. We were late taking off, however, a strong tail wind afforded us to make up an hour in the air and we landed at 14h30 instead of the ETA of 15h30. During the flight, I monitored each lion’s anesthetic level closely and topped up with the sedative (Zoletil 100) when necessary (if lions started showing signs of stimulation).

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Breathing was a concern in the tight space in which they were fitted, and as a result, each lion had to be monitored for airway obstruction or any disturbance in the breathing of the animal. Fortunately, apart from a bit of turbulence, all went well during the flight and the lions were off-loaded at uMkhuze airstrip with relative ease and transported to the uMkhuze holding bomas.

Once we arrived at the uMkhuze bomas, the lions were processed (bloods taken, collar fitted, genetic samples taken) and left to recover from their journey under an anesthetic. They will spend the next 6 weeks in the bomas to adapt before being released into the park. Later that night, the lions were seen to be feeding on the Wildebeest carcass left for them inside the boma.                

Without this flight, alternative plans to transport these lions to uMkhuze would have been necessary. This would have most likely have been a very long journey by vehicle and a very extended journey for the lions in transport crates and an additional tranquilizer would have been necessary for the lions on the journey. Existing pride dynamics will likely change as the new males adapt and challenge existing males. More resilient lion genetics will result in an overall, healthier lion population.”

Report from the pilot, Ryan Beeton:

“The land arrangements made by Zelda and Brigitte were excellent. I collected the Vet, Rowan, from his residence in Olivedale and drove him to the aircraft. We had prepared the aircraft by stripping out the seats and carpets and layered the aircraft with the lining used for Roof Trusses to ensure that if there was any urination or saliva from the lions that the lining would absorb it.

The flight from Grand Central departed at 07h00  as there was a fuel shortage in Gauteng and we had to uplift the last 400 L prior to departure. The flight went without incident to Tswalu. Upon arrival, Rowan and Patrick Daly went with the Rangers from Tswalu to dart the lions. The darting took a little bit longer than anticipated, as the lions were skittish after the first one was darted. The size of the lions was a surprise. The estimated 120 Kg’s turned to a more realistic 160 – 170 Kg per lion. The lions were loaded into the aircraft without much fuss and we said our farewells to the team at Tswalu who were super efficient and friendly.

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With the size of the lions, it resulted in us departing 400 lbs. overweight. It was to be expected. The runway length was more than adequate my calculations for an engine failure had sufficient space to land again should we lose an engine on take off  – it is prudent to always plan for these scenarios. The flight to uMkhuze was far quicker than originally anticipated as we had a 60 knot tailwind. Rowan and Patrick kept the lions well sedated and rolled them over periodically ensuring ventilation was adequate.

Upon landing the team from uMkhuze arrived and unloaded the lions and sped off to their new home. We were low on fuel and landed at Newcastle to top up for return to Central. We departed Newcastle at 17h15 and landed safely at Grand Central shortly after 18h00 for a much needed cold Amstel or 3.

The operation went successfully. A long day and a real privilege to be able to assist the Bateleurs and Emzevelo. Rowan was exceptional and a pleasure to have onboard.”

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