The story starts in 2008 in the South African Kruger National Park. Located on the Eastern part of South Africa bordering it’s neighboring country Mozambique. On one Saturday poachers were able to kill one rhino, Mbongeni Tukela , who currently is the director of operations, recalls. In 2008 11 more rhinos would be killed. By 2009 the park had a poaching epidemic within the park.
"We threw everything we had at them,” he said. “We were making arrests, but the poachers never stopped coming.” Tukela says, and yet 10 years later the poachers continue to attack the rhinos in the Kruger National Park. Historically, poaching cycles in Africa have waxed and waned over the decades, but yet no one is able to pinpoint. “We’ve had to throw a lot of technology at it; we’ve had to throw a lot of men at it,” said Tukela. From his office at Skukuza Airport in the south of the park, Tukela monitors anti-poaching operations across the Kruger using customized command-and-control software, which consolidates rangers’ reports and location data onto a single screen. “I can see the activity and understand what’s happening in the entire area,” he said, explaining that this “big picture” helps him decide how to allocate more expensive resources such as K-9 units, and SANParks’ four Airbus H125/AS350 helicopters and two Cessna airplanes.
With this technology, the team fighting against the poachers have the ability to get into tight areas.
SANParks helicopter pilot Charles Thompson recalls when the poaching first began in 2008, “We were caught completely by surprise when it started happening. We were just putting out fires.”
SANParks Pilot Jaco Mol and Grant Knight, along with Charles Thompson all came back from a conservation type of flying background, not law enforcement.
“We were game capture pilots — we were really good at catching animals,” he said (Charles). “When it came to anti-poaching, we had to quickly learn, and it was trial-and-error”. Back in 2009 SANParks were operating two Airbus AS350B3 AStars, having upgraded from the Airbus EC120 in 2006. In 2014 and 2015 the park was given a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to get more AS350 for anti poaching operations. The company flies about 2,000 hours a year in anti poaching operations, with aircraft on 24 hours call, the company is in need of pilots. The helicopters support anti-poaching operations in a number of ways across the Kruger’s 7,500 square miles or 2 million hectares (an area larger than Connecticut). The park relies on rangers to identify incursions and begin tracking suspects; then, helicopters are used to fly in K-9 units and provide top cover when contact is imminent.
While the suspects are hiding they cannot run from the AStar helicopters, SANParks official say. While the The flying can be dangerous. Arrests are sometimes preceded by shootouts, and SANParks helicopters have been targeted on multiple occasions
(Pictures come from the SANPark officials)