Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Patrolling the national parks
At the end of a long day, I walk into the lodge and see our group of pilots silhouetted by Mount Kilimanjaro, enjoying a cold beer, describing maneuvers with their hands. I'll join them, but sometimes just sit back to watch this exquisite camaraderie. I smile with joy at the transcendent power of aviation.
The KWS is the only official paramilitary Airwing in Africa. The pilots may be called upon for animal tracking census, mountain rescues, veterinary support services, transport of supplies and more but, no doubt, their most important mission is in being a critical deterrent in the ivory wars.
Driven by greed, poachers are always armed and dangerous. Airplanes are fired upon. Rangers on the ground are killed in the line of duty every year.
The demand from Asia for elephant ivory and rhino horn has escalated at such an alarming rate that it's not inconceivable to imagine Kenya without wild animals in just a few years. For anyone who has seen elephants and witnessed their majestic presence and emotional intelligence, it's beyond heartbreaking. Poachers kill elephants with poisoned arrows that kill slowly, leaving baby orphans standing alone. The thought of an elephant with its faced hacked off with machetes makes me want to scream in horror.
The first time I visited Kenya, it felt Disney-esque and surreal, as if someone were behind a curtain directing animals to appear especially for me. I've seen lions, hartebeest, wildebeest, elephant, rhino, many types of antelope, two types of giraffe and zebra, hippo, white and black rhino, 30-foot-long crocodiles, wild dogs and foxes, and more cape buffalo than you could imagine. I've been on walking safaris so close to elephants you could hear their stomachs growl.
I've flown a Husky to 18,000 feet, to the top of Mount Kenya on the equator, and felt like I could reach out and touch its face. I've landed a Super Cub on an uphill dirt dogleg strip at 10,400 feet mean sea level. I've flown an open cockpit Waco on the Laikipia Plateau. I've had a martial eagle with a snake in its talons whoosh right above my head and I've had problems getting to my airplane because a lion was lying underneath it.
I've never lived there, but I'm often homesick for Kenya. It's where my DNA began. I think of the pilots there often and hope they aren't in harm's way. They must stay safe and skilled to do their work, and the precious airplanes that they use to fight the ivory wars must be kept flying.
In the past we've been supported by contributions from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Friends of Animals and other organizations. Companies, including Bose and Champion Aerospace, have provided funding, and we also receive private donations, most recently from Dr. Rich Sugden and the Lindbergh Foundation.
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