South Africa’s rhino fight takes to the air

29 November 2013

South African National Parks (SANParks) is to beef up its arsenal in the fight against rhino poaching with the deployment of a Gazelle military helicopter.

The Gazelle was donated by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation and African aerospace and defence group Paramount, and forms part of an on-going capacity building partnership announced a year ago. A Seeker MKII Surveillance aeroplane, also donated by the foundation, has been operating in the Kruger National Park since December 2012.

Speaking at the helicopter’s unveiling at Letaba in Limpopo province on Thursday, SANParks CEO David Mabunda thanked the Ichikowitz Family Foundation for their involvement, which has included the provision of fuel, pilots, specialised training and operational capacity.

Ivor Ichikowitz, the chairman of the foundation and founder of the Paramount Group, said the Gazelle would give SANParks superior airpower in its fight against rhino poachers. The light attack helicopter has a maximum airspeed of 310 kilometres per hour and a range of 670 kilometres.

“A critical part of this helicopter’s capabilities is its speed and the fact that the Gazelle has a night vision capable cockpit,” Ichikowitz said, adding “Part of our contribution is to the training of the pilots to be able to fly at night, thereby fundamentally taking the war directly to the poachers.”

Kruger rhino census

Mabunda, outlining the results of a census conducted a few months ago, said it was estimated that the Kruger National Park was home to between 8 400 and 9 600 white rhino.

SANParks scientists conducted the census using a 40% block count survey method. The census took three weeks to complete in September, making use of three helicopters with a total of 220 flight hours.

The bottom line, Mabunda said, was that despite escalating poaching, increased anti-poaching operations had ensured that there were relatively stable rhino numbers in the park since 2008.

“We are certain that without intense anti-poaching operations, Kruger’s rhino population would have begun significantly declining by now.”

Ichikowitz said that, with the Gazelle now part of SANParks’ anti-poaching operations, “we hope that the fight for the rhino will reach a tipping point in 2014”.

He added that his foundation was assisting SANParks with further training of its game rangers in advanced bush tracking techniques, and together with Paramount would be providing SANParks with tracker dogs and related training in 2014.

SAinfo reporter