Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Protecting Kenya’s National Parks

Training the Kenya Wildlife Service Airwing

guest speakerI often wear a little leather choker with two bronze elephant tusks. I picked it up a few years ago in a Nairobi gallery called Matt Bronze, and it reminds me of the wild things that still live in Kenya. Sometimes I wonder if they’ll still be there the next time I return, or the next time after that, or 10 to 20 years from now, and if so, will they be living free? Will elephants still walk slowly into the sunset in herds of a hundred or more—a bull, mothers, aunts, sisters, sons and daughters, a perfect family unit—or will they become rarer and possibly extinct? Will the parks be fenced and come to resemble large zoos, or will they remain as they do now, places that time hasn’t touched or wounded?

Undoubtedly, Kenya’s animals, especially elephants and rhinos, will become increasingly endangered as they’re subjected to warfare by bad neighbors—lawless countries ruled by warlords—and greedy consumers who hire poachers, desperate men with no other chance of finding work. Human encroachment due to an expanding population also is to blame, and some animals are killed for bush meat (aka “dinner”), while others are killed by farmers or tribesmen in territorial disputes.

Luckily, there’s the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), whose mission is to “sustainably conserve and manage Kenya’s wildlife and its habitat.” The KWS Airwing’s 12 pilots focus on protecting 33 national parks, reserves and sanctuaries, and they fly missions and patrols primarily in Huskies, Super Cubs and Cessna 180s. The KWS Airwing also flies a Bell Long Ranger to support ground rangers and a Cessna Caravan to support elephant relocation projects. The pilots fly their missions over thousands of square miles of territory ranging from coast, savannah and desert to forest and mountains; they largely operate off of dirt and gravel airstrips—some short, some straight, some crooked—and often at high altitudes. Except for the coastal region, most of Kenya sits on a high plateau ranging from 2,000 feet MSL to Mt. Kenya National Park, where the patrolled area of Mt. Kenya sits on the equator at almost 19,000 feet MSL, making it the African continent’s second highest peak after Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Patrols are done low and slow, often at 200 feet AGL. The pilots look for dead and injured animals, signs of poachers, lost tourists and illegal cattle in the parks (tribesmen often illegally graze livestock in the national parks, especially during times of drought). The pay is low, the days are long and the flying is risky.

While they’re skilled, the pilots are often low-time, and until 2000, there was no system for recurrency training in place, a combination allowing any pilot to develop bad habits. The KWS’s accident rate has been high in the past, but not all of the incidents are the fault of the pilots. For example, at Tsavo National Park, a Husky was recently dragged out of a shade hangar and destroyed by a frisky young elephant. Animals—e.g., giraffes, zebras, elephants, warthogs, ostrich, etc.—often cross the airstrips and are potential hazards.


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