MISSION 33 of 2011

Name of Mission: ZAPP  PATROLS  – Zululand Anti Rhino Poaching Surveillance for Phinda
Date of Mission: Late December 2011
Pilot: Steve McCurrach

The following article by Steve McCurrach a Director of The Bateleurs, resident in Durban and regional manager of this particular ongoing Bateleurs mission, writing his feedback here to the KZN group of Zapp pilots.

Greetings fellow flyers and conservationists,

Launching on a negative note is no way to put out a positive 2012 ‘new year’ vibe, but how else does one react when 2012 is heralded in, with more rhino deaths year to date than what there are days in the year – 21 poaching deaths by the 18th of the month. This is sickening and our rhino are under siege by poachers who will kill this massive beast, merely in order to take the horn. As we all know, the horn material is sold in the east (China) where it is revered as a potent aphrodisiac. Most ironically is that science has proven there to be zero stimulant to the libido or anything similar in rhino horn, so the poor endangered animals are dying for the sake of a myth born out of man’s vanity.

The alternate use of the horn is that of dagger handles, used as decorative wear in Yemen. The fact that any human will allow the death of this gentle giant, for the sake of what amounts to a fashion statement, is an indictment of the highest order on people who call themselves men. Most will know the quote of the infamous Mahatma Ghandi “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated“ and this being so, then the converse will be true, making the Yemenis and the South African poachers the lowest of low.

a 009December Patrol Feedback

Continuing with rhino conservation efforts – namely the very kind and caring handful of local pilots flying anti poaching patrol in conjunction with ZWSI (the Zululand Wildlife Security Initiative), supported by The Bateleurs and Project Africa/ACT (African Conservation Trust); I spent almost all of December on patrol in Zululand, that is until my wee aeroplane threw in the towel with wear and tear breakdowns. At a first glance I had what looked to be a stitching failure in the plane’s fabric covering but upon closer inspection by maintenance engineer Kevin Fryer he promptly declared the plane unfit for flight back to it’s base and this due to a UV breakdown in the structural integrity of the fabric. There began a long plot; of acquiring a trailer, derigging, loading and driving to Springs, Jhb and leaving it at the manufacturer where it is to have an entire recovering. So whilst grounded I obviously have time to write feedback reports right! Anyway there endeth my bleat and on with the report.

a 003For the first time since starting our Bateleurs flight patrols in June, this zone took its first hit, in terms of poaching directly for horn, but then again one poacher in another incident was found in the reserve and when confronted he stupidly fired on the guards with his shotgun. He was subsequently fatally wounded in the return fire. Loss of life can never be a yardstick for success in terms of anti poaching, but it does sometimes take such sad loss, before people realise that areas which are  diligently conserved for the all important  preservation of wildlife is not a food and products store. I suppose that when we reach a place one day where there are no longer any incursions into game reserves, then this message will have evolved into a universal understanding. If only.      

We covered thousands of kilometres and many hours of flying through December with two pilots Duncan and Jas continuing patrols into January. This saturation patrolling being the case, some will immediately ask “how then did we allow a rhino loss during this very period?” a question which could have a dozen answers, but suffice to say that the poachers are damned lucky that we did not bump into them on that day’s work, because once we have them spotted, then they’re not going to get away. The aerial advantage has adequately proved it’s enormous benefits and saddened as we are by the rhino loss, we will continue undeterred and all the more motivated.   

a 006Back to the unrelated reserve incursion; where the wounded poacher managed to crawl back out through the fence and a short distance into the adjoining settlement area, where he succumbed to his wounds. A substantial search for him and his two accomplices was undertaken and interestingly the ground sweep of the relevant area by the APU did not detect him, but after several orbits of the zone in the plane the body was spotted by B and we then talked the ground crew into the position.

The APU arrives, thanks to our early spotting and guiding them in on radio, as the APU was then able to gather evidence, a major item of which was the shotgun carried by the poacher – this would have been ‘hustled’ away by the community members had they found him first and thereby making a very weighty load on the guards, to convince a judge that this poacher was armed and shooting at them.

After some heated moments, the tribal Induna arrived and negotiated a calm on the scene and tactfully leading the folk in prayer for their fallen brother, irrespective of the reasons by which they had lost him. Notice so typically the cheeky young uns in the bottom of screen, little interested in such humanitarian matters and issues of faith, whilst everyone else has their heads bowed – these were even possibly his accomplices of the night before.

a 011No greater a statement could possibly have been made w.r.t. poaching being verboten and a dangerous occupation. This fella was through a stout, barbed and electrified fence, he was armed and he then shot at the guards, the consequences of which were seen first hand by the community. This occurred preceding the public holiday 16th December which generally marks the start of the annual vacation. We can only surmise that the volumes of migrant workers later arriving home for their annual leave were all told of this fatal occurrence and this resulting in the most powerful possible statement, deterring would be poachers for ‘the season’.

Just for good measure, on this same outing and whilst on our way back to base we ran into a poaching party, who were thoroughly straffed by the aircraft and who were running like scrub hares in a car’s headlights. They ran in circles whilst looking over their shoulders at the plane, so heaven knows the extent of the certain thorn assault on them. Nevertheless they went to ground and whilst pinned down a ground patrol arrived and we left it to them. This was one hectic flight, but accomplishing so much.

a 005Whilst the above incident might have deterred the small game poachers, the professionals made their mark on ‘our’ zone with the abovementioned first ever poaching of rhino specifically for horn. Two rhino were seemingly shot right where they lay in the shade of a tree and within only a couple of hundred metres of the boundary fence. With the horns efficiently and neatly removed, this was clearly the work of a professional. Amidst the sadness for this loss and the enormous concern that it brings for the welfare of the rhinos in the region, it was most impressive to see the response to this crime. The Ezemvelo KZN Vet, the serious crimes unit, the “CSI” special unit van, amongst others arrived pretty damned quickly at the scene. Rhino poaching is now formally listed as a priority crime in S.A., as would be say an armed robbery, a murder or such like and it was something of a comfort to see this reaction in accordance with the declared priority status. Evidence was gathered for ballistics etc. and apparently there is an ‘earmarked’ suspect in this case – so we can only hope that the investigation team is successful.

Rhino horn poaching is taken very seriously by all parties, evidenced in the images by the entourage of vehicles attending this crime scene. If the sophisticated poacher has only ever heard that rhino poaching is now a rated ‘priority crime’, then hopefully by distribution of these images they will also see that this is true. This crime scene speaks volumes, in terms of how committed and how serious is the law enforcement in this regard.

The most current images are first in line and then going back to older Zapp images and eventually to even older and unrelated Bateleurs images.


With grateful thanks to these folks, a fast growing band of people who are ready to step in and to go the extra mile in protecting our wildlife. At a rate of 21 in 18days, this band will soon turn into an army – so poachers beware, the net is tightening on you!

To the contributing ZWSI landowners who provide our accommodation and to BP (names may not be mentioned) for organising this so efficiently.

Simon for the indispensible runway, fuelling and logistics support, all done in his calm and unflappable manner.

Simon (again) and Kim at Bayete for so readily looking after the visiting aeroplane ‘rescue team’.

Dean L and Jas for a brilliant act of Samaritanship – I called back to Durban looking for a trailer, they provided one, brought it to Zululand and helped to load up.

Lorelle, my Schatzie, for her unstinting patience and background support of the work.

Jas (again) and Duncan for the follow on flights.