By Tremaine van Aardt
The fight against poaching in the Eastern Cape received new air support at the weekend when Reserve Protection Agency (RPA) unveiled the first of three gyro planes at the Amakhala Game Reserve’s Leeuwenbosch Lodge.
The state-of-the-art two-seater plane, named SashaJada after the granddaughter of the project’s primary sponsor, is fitted with four infrared cameras programmed to a cyber canopy which constantly updates a computer about animals’ whereabouts and their behaviour – and if there are any potential poachers in the area.
RPA director-general and former US military pilot Scott Williams said the technology on board was a first in the war against poaching.
“The reason we decided to launch the project here is because we can’t test the equipment in the combat zone that is the Kruger Park, where it will eventually be used. With this technology we can track anything at anytime.
“This is not just for rhino protection but for overall nature protection as well,” Williams said.
“It will be used by several private and public parks in the Eastern Cape for research and data gathering. The unique thing about this is that the computer educates itself, which is a first.
“For example, if a rhino is in green status, but then suddenly sprints and stops, the status will change to red because it is unusual behaviour. The machine will alert us to send out a ranger, drone or whatever, according to the situation.”
Despite only being established two years ago and working from a dilapidated barn on Leeuwenbosch Lodge, 40km south of Grahamstown on the N2, RPA has already invested R2.5-million in research. Of this, R800000 is the cost of the gyro’s equipment, with all the finance raised through private donations.
“This gyro is the first of three. The second will be a three-seater and then a troop gyro. Both will be unveiled later this year.
“All of the gyros are fitted with military technology,” Williams said.
The gyro has already clocked more than 100 hours of flight time over the past week, pilot Lovemore Musoni says.
“We are using the gyro as a platform to fight the problems in wildlife preservation. I say problems because besides looking for actual poachers we have been using the gyro for animal counting, identifying broken fencing and terrain monitoring.
“What would take rangers about three hours to do now takes 20 minutes because of the aerial view. The infrared cameras will also help in identifying poachers who could otherwise slip into the dense bush,” Musoni, who trained as a commercial pilot, said.
Veterinary expert William Fowlds said the region provided the ideal landscape to test the gyro.
Asked why the RPA had opted for a gyro rather than a helicopter, Williams replied: “It’s about six times cheaper to operate a gyro.”