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Newsletter 48

Rhino War

Rhino's killed by poachers

Rhino poaching statistic in SA for last few years:

2007: 13
2008: 83
2009: 122
2010: 333
2011: 287 (till 8th September)

Despite extensive television coverage and print media, the rhino poaching syndicates continue to deplete South Africa's rhino populations. 

Rhino breeders have appealed to the Government to allow them to trade the rhino horn, just like a farmer trades the wool from his sheep. 

All of this has fallen on deaf ears and the Government, in my opinion, has shown little or no leadership in this war against the rhino syndicates. 

There is strong evidence that poorly paid officials in the Provincial Departments are colluding with the syndicates and permits are being issued and a "blind eye" turned when necessary. 

I have personally written to the President and the Minister of Wildlife and Tourism, but the bureaucratic replies, I've received, are totally inadequate. 

I may just point out to the President that the rhino is an extremely valuable asset to South Africa in terms of a job creator. 

The white rhino especially, is the second biggest land mammal in South Africa. It has dinosaur like features and many photographers rate it as one of their favorite animals to photograph. 

Two people who are at the front line of the rhino war, are helicopter pilot John Bassi and veterinarian Dr. Charlotte Moueix. 

This is their story:

Most of the time it’s a privilege flying free every day with open space and wildlife abounding, lately however it sickens me. 

I climbed to 1,500 feet above ground to benefit from the amazing tail wind bringing me Northwards from the central Free State where the clouds were darkening. Another cold front was sweeping through the interior of South Africa, leaving a trail of ice and snow in its wake, a major inconvenience since I was relying on working in rough country and we needed good visibility. The following morning I painfully finished a preflight, hardly able to move my arms and head due to the five layers of clothing that were cocooning me. It was only 8:30 am but the freezing wind was already restlessly brushing and plucking at the tall golden grass all around the helicopter. I gazed with apprehension towards the seemingly endless jumbled mass of mountains in every direction. My stomach tightened with nervous butterflies as I imagined how it would soon feel to be hammered by the turbulence in the deep valleys where I would be spending the next 14 days. At least the visibility was amazing, all the dirt and muck in the atmosphere had been blown away, replacing the gray smudge with crystal clear blue sky. The sun was feeble; the weather-man had said it would be a maximum of +6c, without the wind chill. The helicopters blades were blanketed in a fluffy white frost, an occurrence delaying our take off each day until 9 am, when the ice would finally succumb to the suns attempt at warmth and drip away. 

A large rhino horn can fetch R1 million on the black market

My task was to provide air support to the counter poaching teams or CPU’s, patrolling the entire game reserve in a methodical and on going basis. Each day we would cover around 20 000 hectares, needing to be airborne from the HQ as soon as there was good light, then fly out to a different quadrant where we would remain aloft for most of the day, refueling from drums every 3 hours. Our goal was to account for each and every rhino, searching every gulley and hill while praying we would not come across new carcasses, wishing that we would be blessed with the luck to discover poachers and get our revenge. For this operation, the perfectly clean, clear light would be a huge bonus; the bitterly cold air would be all I could ask for to improve the helicopters performance, although the relentless wind was a problem. Blowing at 8 meters per second from the south with stronger gusts, combined with the rotary turbulence that was lurking behind the hills, the wind presented some danger. I examined the contours of the topographic map for the day’s section, relieved to discover that most of the high terrain and valleys ran in an east/west orientation. This would be my preferred direction of transects during our sorties. The prevailing wind was southerly which meant that I would mostly have the option of benefiting from up-draughts on the ridges, also a cross wind was safer to work with than a tail wind.  

Anti poaching crews with confiscated rhino horn

Armed with 7.62mm FN Browning’s, clad in military style webbing and camouflage, the scary looking anti-poaching team arrived, fully kitted for their deployment to a remote mountaintop. They would be spending the next few days out on patrol, relieving another “stick” that would be walking out to a remote pick up point, awaiting my arrival. The tired guys, lead by Seymor were still perched snugly between bushes on the top of a strategically positioned hill, an observation post, concealed so as to not compromise themselves as they watched the world below. Discipline and trust is a prerequisite when combining helicopters with eager men, armed with semi-automatic assault rifles, low flying and confined landings. Due to the necessity of having unobstructed visibility, rapid de-bussing, the possibility of opening fire onto armed poachers and the safety aspect of keeping loaded weapons pointing outside the aircraft, we would always fly, doors off. The biting cold wind was almost unbearable while flying for a few hours at a time with no break, imposing the added danger of losing articles of extra clothing in the form of gloves, scarves or balaclavas. Items that could easily fly through the tail rotor if blown out of the cabin by an unexpected gust, hit the tail rotor and certainly bring us all to a spinning end. 

After double-checking my passenger’s security, I maneuvered myself into my seat for the start up. Although simple enough, lighting the turbine takes huge electrical power and is a procedure that I perform with apprehension in sub zero temperatures. Using a 24volt booster pack as security reduces the risk of a hot start that could result from the power loss in the main battery, from a freezing night. We lifted off from the helipad into the fresh breeze that plucked the fully fuelled aircraft skyward with almost 800 feet per minute indicated on the vertical speed indicator, but the chill made us all gasp with fright. Our eyes were watering and we attempted to huddle ourselves out of the airflow, setting course for the 20minute ferry to the remote wilderness area. The morning sun unable to reach any of the valleys, left them cast in deep shadows and frosted in white, in contrast the warming slopes of the hills provided comfort to herds of game. A false cense of peace prevailed as we floated over zebra and wildebeest that reluctantly trotted away from our brief imposition, the tail wind catapulted us forward, detached from reality, our shadow grew and shrunk over the undulating terrain.  

On reaching the starting point of our first session, I descended into a wide, open valley, blackened with ash from a recent fire, the low rays from the morning sun accentuating the new flush of green shoots of grass, a real delicacy for rhino. The helicopter crabbed its way along, 150 feet above the ground, attempting to hold a straight track up and down the mountains, deviating only to glance a peek into shadowed ravines and onto hidden knolls. With our combined eyes peeled in search of rhino, we continued, back and forth along 400 meter wide transects, averaging 60 knots groundspeed, slowing and descending to identify, photograph, sex and age each individual that we came across. Approaching another gradually sloping mountainside that we would need to climb over, I lowered the helicopters nose to accelerate, simultaneously pulling in some power, banking slightly to benefit from any up-draughts. Suddenly the all too familiar rotting stench of death filled the air, banking into the wind we followed the smell like a foxhound, then, next to a line of trees below lay the rotting carcass of another rhino. The drill had become routine, with 692 dead rhino in South Africa over the last 29 months, but the sadness never goes away. Icicled, climbing to 1000 feet in order to make line of sight radio contact with a ground team, the silence inside the cabin matching the glum expressions on everyone’s faces, I called in the closest game scouts. I selected a safe landing site near a deep donga surrounded by large trees and turned onto a short final approach aiming for a small, dust free flat opening just large enough for the helicopter, 100 meters from the dead rhino. This would be my LZ for the next few landings and I made sure that I had all my markers perfectly memorized, such as a small dry stump a foot in front of the right skid, such things ensure that every landing is made in precisely the same place, avoiding a blade strike. It is during times like this that I appreciate the benefits of working with a trained crew, there is no way that its practical to go through the delays of closing throttle, applying frictions, untangling oneself to help everyone out, fastening their safety harnesses, headsets etc. before reversing the entire procedure. The CPU’s departed from the aircraft giving me the thumbs up, signifying that all was secure, with peace of mind I lifted the collective and climbed away vertically to minimize dust, setting course for the forensics team and all their gruesome equipment. The area around the carcass would be searched for clues; police forensics conducted an autopsy and recovered the bullets and any other evidence and another rhino got scratched off the list. During my approach for landing not too close to the carcass for fear of blowing away evidence, a brown hyena loped off, guiltily looking back over his shoulder, while a group of pied crows scattered away between the trees. The young bull lay twisted with his head facing down hill, the top of his face chopped away with an axe. The trackers located blood a few hundred meters away, east along a well-used game trail coming down the hillside. Later with the aid of a metal detector, two mushroom-shaped military .303 bullet heads were found. One, from a hurried shot that wounded the animal in the lower back the other, a round that penetrated the rhino’s lungs, allowing him enough strength to run down the hill before collapsing in a frothy pool of blood.  

We arrived too late to catch the poachers

Our butcher’s work done, we returned to the helicopter to swap over the CPU teams and continue our patrol, lifting off with the detached feeling that comes with flight, leaving the putrid remains for the scavengers. Picking up our last transect, we continued our search, each of us absorbed in our own thoughts of anger and defeat, willing a poacher to show his face for just a second. The shadows grew longer as the late afternoon came upon us, visibility rapidly deteriorated from 4pm and we had all become frozen to the bone, and so, calling it a day we turned for home. At the helipad we were welcomed by the news that a long horned rhino cow had been seen by tourists, badly wounded, limping with a calf trotting ahead. It was too dark to fly and still had to clean and inspect the aircraft, re fuel and tidy up, organize the following days fuel drop, flying crew and download the days data, leaving barely enough time to cook, shower and sleep.  

Capturing rhino to remove the horn

All too soon the alarm clock went off, leaving me startled in the semi darkness with a mind full of thoughts of wind, mountains, dead rhinos and memories of how cold I would soon be. By 9am we were back in the morning sky, cruising along, resuming our mission in the North Eastern corner, searching desperately for long horn, to no avail, then southwards into an area that has been particularly hard hit by poachers over the last 18 months. We all felt stupidly relieved to be making such a presence with the helicopter, thinking that this would act as some kind of temporary deterrent to the savages. We had just settled into our routine of searching when one of the beige colored land cruisers operated by field rangers appeared, hurtling towards us followed by a plume of brown dust, the driver frantically waving to get our attention. I selected his frequency on the HF radio and deciphered from his high pitched, excited voice that trackers had found new holes cut in the electric boundary fence and that poachers were in the park. Receiving the description of the scene, I set the needles to maximum power and we accelerated towards the trackers location, unsure of what to expect, but filled with anticipation. New information that we received en-route was conflicting, however we had the name of a valley where we were needed, fast, and we had high expectations of action. Arriving overhead the scout who was waiting at the place where the fence was cut, he pointed in the general direction that we should head. We would need to pass over a small ridgeline, turn left around the foot of a mountain and enter the valley at high speed, low level, maintaining an element of surprise. We still did not have radio contact with the trackers but felt sure that the moment we arrived on the scene we would manage to communicate, hoping that the unexpected arrival of a helicopter would panic the poachers, forcing them to hide. This would give the trackers an advantage to run on the spoor and together we could get lucky and ambush the poachers, who would not stand a chance with our combined firepower. 

Our nerves were coiled like cobras ready to strike as we rounded the entrance to the valley at 160 kilometers per hour, climbing to 500 feet and calling on the radio, ready to offer instant support to the men on the ground. None of us were ready for the anticlimax and shock that lay before us. The two white rhino lay a few meters from each other, their crimson red blood spilled in pools onto the earth, scarlet gaping wounds glared mockingly up at us from their uniform gray bodies where their horns should have been.  The two adult rhino lay facing each other, lifeless, but so freshly killed that they were not even cold. The poachers were long gone, leaving behind two more of Gods beautiful creatures, slaughtered for human greed. Both had been killed instantly by high powered rifles fired from only 20 meters away as both rhino lay sleeping. The adult cow was pregnant with a six-month fetus. Two days later we were back in the same area responding to another report of holes cut through the fence, then during our search we found a motionless, forlorn looking rhino calf, alone and sad, a few hundred meters from the two carcasses. We descended to look closer, realizing that we had discovered a 15month old orphaned youngster; her mother lay rotting nearby.  

Removing the horn before the poachers can get to it

What, you may well ask is being done by the “authorities” to try and stop this destruction? Nothing. This question takes me back twelve years to a charter flight I once did, transporting a VIP pseudo conservation politician to address the Game Rangers Association of Africa. This annual meeting is a forum of representatives from all over Africa, from all the major conservation organizations. Standing at the podium presenting the opening address to the delegates, this man screwed his face up into a tight frown. He shook his head in disapproval and slowly spat out the words, “What I see here before me, disgusts me, an elitist minority organization. There will be no money to protect your rhino. For the next 30 years the only money that will be spent will be for the community, so, if you want to protect your rhino, you will need to find your own money." This remark I have since discovered was an understatement! This is the bottom line, the reason we are losing the war against poaching. There is NO funding what so ever from the state to fight the fight. The only support to the few determined individuals who actually manage to do something positive, comes from public donations and handouts. 

The helicopter is a vital tool in combating poaching in rugged terrain

We had been working eight days and were back in the central section of the reserve for a couple of hours one morning, we had settled back into flying transects, having guided the field rangers onto the carcass of the long horned cow. Her calf no where to be seen, long horn had managed to move 2 kilometers from her last known position, she had laid down inside a bushy thicket and given in to her wounds. Tired and hungry I turned the helicopter and approached the fuel drop off point where I knew we had very needed toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches with hot, sweet, milky coffee awaiting us. Instead, confusion reigned on the ground when I landed, there were broken urgent messages from the observation post on the western border. They had three, armed poachers visual, walking in broad daylight a kilometer inside the reserve, hugging a river line at the foot of a hill and moving into a thicket of Tambotie trees.Seymore shouted excitedly over the radio," Wearing a white T-shirt and denims, one carrying a red bag, two weapons, another in a brown shirt and khaki longs, 300 meters from the OP and moving west”. In a mad rush we pumped another two hours worth of fuel into the helicopter, grabbed air to ground radios, three 20 round magazines of ammunition and with three armed scouts ready, headed back skyward. With adrenalin filled veins, complete focus, nerves on high alert and this time, utter determination to kill, we flew as fast as the helicopter would allow. Planning the route carefully, staying low and using the valleys to shield the slapping of our advancing rotor blades, we headed towards the unknown. Ground troops mobilized from two directions to assist in a sweep of the river line from east and west, simultaneously as we crept low level all along the river, firing shots at will into thick clusters of bushes, nothing moved. Four tense hours we spent, searched every nook and cranny shooting into every possible hiding place, the scouts on the ground moving in an extended line behind a tracker, spoor from three poachers split into three directions. Even with the combined operations of SAPS dogs, the flying squad, a police helicopter with infrared vision capability, eight ground scouts, trackers, the men on the OP and our selves, somehow the poachers escaped. We were all very despondent.  

We continued flying every day, finding 13 dead rhino in as many days, we also successfully captured the first little orphan. Two days later we discovered another little girl, standing next to her bloated dead mother, her huge worthless horns still intact because she managed to escape, as long horn did, only to die later from her bullet wounds. We all thought we had done such a good thing capturing the two young rhino, placing them together and offering them protection from the ever-prowling lions, sadly neither of them could adapt to captivity. Arriving at the pens early on the second morning with fresh bales of fodder laced with sweet molasses, we were greeted by the motionless body of the youngest calf. Everyone available went searching for long horn’s 15 month old bull calf, hoping to capture him before the lions did, but we never found him. The days blended into nights in a hazy and surreal manner with blurred and mixed up memories of death, exhaustion and defeat. 

If you wish to help fight this war please contact me or look at www.stoprhinopoaching.com

John Bassi
CEO, Chief Pilot
Bassair Aviation
Cell: +27 82 892 9444


Tread lightly on the Earth

Copyright 2007 @jvbigcats  All rights reserved


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