Airwing Update – June ’23

The SAWC airwing has been hard at work during the past few months. Our main objective has been with follow-up rhino de-horning projects on a number of different wildlife reserves within the Greater Kruger sector.  

Mass rhino de-horning follow-up operations were conducted in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve as well as the Balule Private Nature Reserves during the April and May periods. Further small-scale de-horning projects were also conducted on the Selati and Karongwe Private Nature Reserves. 

The SAWC Savannah aircraft plays a vital role in the de-horning projects, saving time and money.  

Typically, the Savannah is used in first locating the rhino’s and then guiding the helicopter in to dart and immobilize the animal. Once the animal has been immobilized, the ground team is guided in to de-horn the animal. While this operation is in progress, the fixed-wing aircraft will continue searching and locating other rhinos. Working with professional wildlife vets, ground teams and helicopter pilots, we have managed to streamline these operations down to 15-20 minutes of downtime, from darting and immobilising to administering the reversal and waking the animal. 

“Obviously, the rhino de-horning process is a controversial topic, and I am often asked is it working? The answer is yes. If one looks at some of the private nature reserves that have de-horned their rhino populations, the stats speak for themselves with some reserves not losing a single rhino in over three years. It is not the long-term solution by any means, but it certainly buys us precious time until viable long-term solutions are reached.” 

The other question often asked is “What are the consequences of removing a rhino’s horn?” 

An important consideration in the de-horning debate is whether rhinos actually need their horns and their evolutionary significance. It is known that rhinos use their horns for several behavioural functions, which include defending their territories, defending their calves, maternal care, guiding their calves, and foraging behaviour. A study in 2022 done in Namibia found that de-horning did not have any effect on population productivity. The study found no evidence to suggest that the de-horned rhino population had any differences in age of first production. Inter-calving interval, birth sex ratios, calf survival, cause of death or lifespan. Further, de-horning has shown to reduce fighting related mortalities. 

Other projects which we have taken part in this quarter: 

  • Located a snared elephant and removed snare 
  • Located a rhino in communal area near Lulekani Phalaborwa, darted and re-located to a place of safety 
  • Continued with VHF rhino monitoring 
  • Patrol flights conducted in Kruger National Park’s Pafuri area 
  • Continued with regular patrol flights within the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) 
  • Responded to various contacts and incursions within KNP and APNR 
  • Trained flight students from RSA/Malawi/Kenya and Zambia 
  • Conducted two Advanced flight training courses  
  • Trained two SANParks Section Rangers to fly