Aerial Unit Report: April 2024

Published on the 7th of June, 2024

April was a relatively quiet month. There was no major change in the status of illegal livestock in the parks; however, the general trend is still positive, especially compared to previous years. There was a fairly significant livestock incursion in southern Tsavo West, but a rapid response from KWS improved the situation significantly before the end of the month.

Similarly, a sizeable incursion was detected during aerial surveillance of the eastern boundary of Tsavo East and quickly addressed by KWS rangers on the ground. By the end of the month, all livestock had been successfully removed from the area. The majority of areas in Tsavo and Chyulu Hills National Parks that historically suffered from illegal livestock are now nearly livestock-free.

Charcoal burning continues to be a major challenge to buffer areas around the parks. Whereas only two charcoal kilns were detected inside the parks, there was an uptick in charcoal production observed on ranches and in South Kitui National Reserve, bordering the park. Even on KARI Ranch, which has been under control for several months, 20 recently harvested charcoal kilns were found, along with one active kiln. On South Kitui National Reserve, two very large commercial charcoaling operations were discovered, which led to dozens of arrests by ground teams. This only emphasises the need for regular aerial patrols, across this landscape, as even conspicuous illegal activities can go undetected for weeks or even months with only sporadic patrolling.

Illegal mining is an activity which can be surprisingly difficult to detect, due to the abundance of old, disused mines, which are often indistinguishable from fresh mines. However, one of our pilots did manage to spot some fresh mining activity and a nearby harbour with a still-burning campfire. A team was dropped near the location, and tracks were followed to an even larger harbour where a significant amount of equipment was either destroyed of confiscated. Unfortunately, no arrests were made on this occasion.

With regards to poaching, only one instance of active poaching activity was observed during aerial patrols in April, which was that of a poachers’ camp on Kishushe Ranch being used by lampers. Old activity noted included multiple makeshift beds in hollowed out baobabs as well as two old poachers’ harbours.

Only two adult elephant carcasses were observed in April, one which was over a month old and another approximately one week old. In both instances, ivory was recovered by KWS, and the cause of death is assumed to be natural. It bears repeating how incredible it is how infrequently our teams now discover poached elephants. In 2012-2013, poached elephant carcasses were discovered on a weekly — if not daily — basis. Now our pilots, with much greater effort in terms of hours flown, often go for months without discovering any poached elephants.

Only one injured animal was sighted during aerial patrols and attended to by the KWS/SWT Tsavo Mobile Vet and his team on the ground. One of our pilots spotted a bull elephant with a large swelling around the genitals. Prognosis after treatment was good.

Two other elephant rescues included a young elephant stuck in a muddy water drainage beside a road in Tsavo West and another even younger elephant that had fallen into a water filled mine on Kuranze Ranch to the south. In both instances, our helicopter flew to the scene with critical equipment and assisted the ground operation. The Kuranze case was one of our most dramatic and hair-raising rescue operations to date. You can read more about this story here.

Although the fire season has not truly begun, our teams did battle with one very large fire in Tsavo East, presumably set by herders near the boundary of the park.

With a quick response and assistance from our helicopter, teams were deployed rapidly to the site and after fighting the flames for most of the day, they were able to extinguish the fire, but not before it sadly burnt several thousand acres of grassland.

SWT Aerial Unit

A cornerstone of our conservation work, our Aerial Unit monitors for illegal activity from the skies and provides a vital, rapid response to all manner of field operations.
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