A conspicuous patrol airplane cruising at low altitude over a Kenyan National Park has an impact similar to a conspicuous police car cruising along an American interstate highway: It produces a prompt and significant decline in violations.
Deterrence is a top priority for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Warning potential poachers that there is a very high risk of getting caught and being punished serves to deter the majority. Such deterrence results in no laws being violated, no animals being harmed.
Still, a minority of those seeking to profit from stolen wildlife refuse to heed clear warnings and go poaching anyway. Most of these soon learn why the majority were wise not to chance it. Aerial patrols are very effective in discovering the presence of poachers and leading park ranger units on the ground to intercept and arrest them. To be effective, aerial patrols must fly at low altitude and relatively slow speed. The pilot can see better this way—looking for human footprints on a muddy riverbank, peeking under trees, always searching for circling vultures (who have excellent vision and usually find a poached carcass or an animal caught in a snare before the sharpest-eyed human could).
But flying low and slow is innately hazardous. It offers precious little opportunity for a patrol pilot to handle a mechanical failure or recover from a botched maneuver. Response to emergencies must be decisive and prompt. Sadly, the Heroes Monument at KWS headquarters includes the names of several pilots among the six dozen KWS rangers and wardens who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep Kenya’s wildlife secure.
AWI has historically helped KWS protect wild animals by providing quality training and supplies to KWS Airwing. With 14 pilots and a fleet of seven patrol aircraft, one utility aircraft, and two helicopters, the Airwing provides aerial support and security for Kenya’s 65 national parks, reserves, and sanctuaries (a total area of about 18,000 square miles), as well as for wildlife everywhere within Kenya’s 224,000 square miles of national territory.
Most recently, AWI sponsored a one-week flight safety and proficiency training clinic that brought three of America’s very best flight instructors—Patty Wagstaff, Jeff Rochelle, and Pete Muntean—to Kenya, where they volunteered to help KWS pilots hone their flying skills and improve their safety.
“Kenya deserves it,” said Wagstaff, three-time US National Aerobatic Champion, celebrity airshow performer, and owner of Patty Wagstaff Aviation Safety LLC in St. Augustine, Florida. “Kenya has demonstrated long-term devotion to protecting wildlife. They closed the door to trophy hunting and similar harmful uses of wildlife back in 1977, and have maintained a fully consistent protective policy ever since.” She explained that most other African countries welcome trophy hunters, who pay very high fees for their trophy licenses. “But Kenya has declined that approach for very sound biological and ethical reasons.”
The training exercise was conducted in Tsavo West National Park earlier this year. “It’s important for this kind of training to be conducted in the environment where our pilots actually work,” said Michael Nicholson, head of KWS Airwing. “The instructors provide each pilot with a thorough flight review, which identifies and corrects any bad habits that a pilot might have unknowingly developed. It also provides important refresher safety exercises to assure prompt and appropriate response to any in-flight issues. Once flight reviews are accomplished, the instructors use their remaining time providing advanced instruction to KWS pilots—making them all the more proficient and better able to provide the very best security for wild animals on the ground.”
In addition to supporting pilot training, AWI has also been helping KWS Airwing keep its aircraft in safe flying condition—providing the Airwing with several replacement engines for patrol aircraft, as well as a large inventory of certified parts needed to restore a Piper Super Cub and a Cessna 182. Skilled pilots flying safe airplanes are an important key to protecting wildlife in Kenya.
While protecting wildlife from poachers is a priority mission for KWS pilots, these aviators are also responsible for accomplishing many other tasks important for the successful operation of national parks. They deliver food, water, and supplies to ranger units on extended patrols and evacuate sick or injured rangers. They conduct periodic censuses of wildlife populations. They also have good experience evacuating wild animals in distress—including orphaned infant elephants.
Tourist security and rescue is another important part of the KWS Airwing remit. KWS pilots have an excellent record of searching for—and finding—errant tourists. Some tourists wander off the road and get stuck in sand or mud. Others suffer flat tires or mechanical problems. Some simply run out of gas. Still others just get lost in the vastness of the African wilderness—Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks combined cover an area larger than New Jersey. KWS pilots have tracked down wayward tourists from the depths of the Great Rift Valley to the 17,000-foot slopes of Mount Kenya.
Illegal grazing by livestock is yet another challenge facing KWS pilots. Sometimes herdsmen sneak tens of thousands of cattle into remote parts of national parks for some free grazing and water. Such large herds can block the park’s wild animals from access to those habitats and deprive them of vital food and water. It is important to herd the cattle out of the parks, and KWS pilots use their patrol airplanes like aerial border collies to get the job done.
There are other missions assigned to KWS pilots, each in its own way contributing to the security of national parks and the wild animals who live there. “Kenya Wildlife Service is very grateful to the Animal Welfare Institute for its generous contributions of training and equipment,” said Dr. Erustus Kanga, acting director general of KWS. “This is a welcomed expression of partnership that results in providing wildlife with the very best security possible.”
By Dr. Bill Clark, whose long and colorful experience in the service of wildlife conservation includes flying for KWS and helping to train KWS pilots (see AWI Quarterly, fall 2018). Patty Wagstaff and Michael Nicholson, who are quoted herein, also contributed substantially to the writing of this article.