Rhinos in state and private reserves in KwaZulu-Natal are targeted by poaching syndicates from Mozambique and South Africa.
More than 3 000 rhinos are spread over 300 000ha of government, private and community reserves – a huge area to patrol on the ground.
In 2012, the provincial anti-poaching collaboration called Project Rhino KZN established The Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing (ZAP-Wing) to patrol game reserves from the air.
“We react to a poaching threat almost every day. In April we had 44 reactions,” says Sheelagh Antrobus, co-ordinator of the project.
ZAP-Wing has two light aircraft and two dedicated helicopters. “Private landowners have also offered us the use of their planes when ours are busy,” says Antrobus.
Chief pilot Etienne Gerber says daily patrols are a visual deterrent and an efficient way to monitor rhino numbers and movements.
The operations room map is full of markers of battles won and lost; arrests made, horns and weapons recovered, and sites of massacre.
Dave Gilroy, a manager at the Somkhanda community reserve, says the aerial surveillance has made a difference. “ZAP-Wing is amazing,” he says.
“In a single hour they check fences and waterholes, report break-ins, and can land to support rangers.”
The Rhino Joint Committee that comprises members of the provincial conservation authority, police and private landowners share intelligence with the pilots.
“We have arrested 40 poachers this year,” says Gerber, “but we need more political will to catch the kingpins.”