Stories From the Skies

Published on the 23rd of February, 2023

The Trust’s stories from the skies could fill several volumes. For this edition of Field Notes, I wanted to focus on a few recent and remarkable moments experienced by our pilots.

– Angela Sheldrick

Stories From the Skies

A skilled bush pilot working in conservation is a virtuoso blend of artist and technician. Keenly observant yet intensely practical, they are equally capable of making sense of an abstract landscape as they are of choreographing an aerial operation with forensic accuracy.

These skills are tested to the limit in a place like Tsavo. Covering more than 40,000 square kilometres — roughly the same size as Switzerland — Tsavo and its environs form one of Africa’s few remaining vast wildernesses. Our Aerial Unit focuses their efforts within this area, but the call of duty often sends them far beyond its borders. They skim the Indian Ocean as they patrol the Arabuko Sokoke Forest and Amu Ranch, they fly in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro to support all manner of field operations, they venture to the northern reaches of the country in order to rescue orphaned elephants.

A pilot's work is extremely specialised and challenging, but they are rewarded with an unparalleled view of the natural world. Only from the skies could you spot a lone orphaned elephant in dense bush, a poacher's hide-out camouflaged in the undergrowth, or a leopard lounging in the top branches of a baobab tree.

Last year alone, our pilots logged 2,534 hours in the air, covering a distance of 347,024 kilometres. To put that figure into perspective, that is the equivalent of flying from Tsavo to London 50 times, or to Los Angeles 22 times.

Every year comes with its fair share of challenges, but recent months have put our teams to the test. The drought brought with it near-daily field emergencies, from orphan rescues to vet treatments to the truly unimaginable. In these missions, time is of the essence — for a starved calf, a few minutes without medical attention can mean the difference between life and death.

One recent rescue stands out in my mind. At the peak of the drought, Big Life reported a calf who was on the brink of death in Amboseli. The local Maasai community had found him all alone, stuck in mud beneath the baking sun. While they managed to extract him, he promptly collapsed upon reaching solid ground.

Because of their prolific appetites, elephants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the drought. As food becomes scarce, mothers struggle to produce enough milk for their young. Their calves are the collateral damage, and when they can no longer go on, their herd must make the heart-breaking decision to leave them behind.

Such was likely the case with this orphan. Keenly aware that there wasn’t a moment to spare, we immediately mobilised an aerial rescue. However, the duty pilot was contending with a challenging juggling act: While this rescue was being planned, another orphan had been reported in the Amboseli ecosystem. This calf was in an even more precarious state; vultures had taken him for dead and started pecking at his ears.

The team came up with a plan to buy some time. The pilot scooped up the first orphan, while our off-duty pilot administered IV drips. They flew the calf and one of our most experienced Keepers, to a tranquil corner of Kimana Sanctuary, where they carefully offloaded the calf and set him down in the shade of a tree. Leaving the calf in the capable hands of his new Keeper, the pilot and co-pilot flew to the next rescue mission.

After successfully rescuing the second calf, they returned to Kimana, where the Keeper and his little charge were waiting. They were met by a shocking scene: The comatose elephant they had left an hour before had sprung back to life! He was charging around as his poor Keeper trailed behind, admirably keeping his drips intact.

Mwinzi today — full of life!

As they flew back to our Kaluku Neonate Nursery, the Keeper regaled them with the complete tale: Once the helicopter took off, he felt inside the calf’s mouth in order to determine his age, which is established by the presence or lack of teeth. Imagine the Keeper’s surprise when the unresponsive young bull suddenly chomped down on his finger — confirming that he did indeed have teeth and that he was very much alive! Today, little Mwinzi (as we named him) is the heart and soul of our Kaluku Neonate Nursery. Had he been rescued a half hour later, he wouldn’t be here today.

A note on the second calf: Initially, he made a very promising recovery at our Nairobi Nursery — but drought victims can be deceiving. While he put on weight and began to visibly improve, he remained very compromised. Several weeks after his rescue, he made a sudden, heart-breaking downturn and never recovered. We wish his story had ended differently, but we can take comfort in the fact that his final weeks were happy ones, surrounded by a cocoon of love and provided with every comfort.

Our pilots provide a lifeline for Kenya’s smallest elephants — and also its biggest. This reminds me of an incredible operation that unfolded in March 2021 to save the magnificent tusker ‘One Ton’. As the duty pilots said at the time, “One Ton walks a line that is the balance between humans and wildlife.” In today’s increasingly developed world, the borders between man and nature have become increasingly strained. An elephant the size of One Ton doesn’t go lightly, and that makes him particularly vulnerable to conflict. We have been privileged to help some of Kenya’s most iconic elephants, from Tim to Wide Satao to One Ton.

One Ton's treatment

On this occasion, One Ton had been reported with a severe injury on his upper neck. Working with partners on the ground, our Aerial Unit pulled off a flawlessly choreographed treatment. While one aircraft brought the SWT/KWS Mobile Vet Unit to the scene, another combed the treetops to locate One Ton. They found him happily foraging in an acacia forest with friends.

An aerial perspective provides an enormous advantage in veterinary treatments. With a view from the top, pilots can find patients who would otherwise be a needle in a haystack. From there, they are also able to optimise treatment conditions. Where possible, the aircraft shepherds the patient into an open area in order to facilitate a speedy operation. Positioned in the sky, the vet is able to land the anaesthetic dart with greater accuracy and precision.

One Ton certainly benefited from an aerial perspective. What could have been a very challenging treatment went off without a hitch. One Ton was patched up, treated, and sent on his way. All signs indicate that he is still roaming the Chyulu Hills.

The end of last year saw one of our most remarkable aerial operations yet. By December, rains had finally arrived in many parts of Kenya. As storms raged across the Tsavo Conservation Area, a four-year-old boy went missing in the surrounding wilderness. Hearing that our Aerial Unit had successfully located another lost child the week prior, the community asked for our assistance.

Finding the lost child seemed nearly impossible

As a search party tried to track the boy’s little footprints, one of our fixed-wing pilots flew endless transects, combing the vast, sodden bush. However, one night stretched into several, and it seemed increasingly hopeless that the child would be found alive. The sixth day, however, delivered a breakthrough.

The village chief called, reporting that the search party had re-discovered the boy's tracks an astonishing 15 kilometres from his village. This was clearly a remarkable child, to survive nearly a week without food or shelter, inundated by rain and surrounded by predators.

With no way of communicating with the party on the ground, our pilot flew in the general direction instructed by the chief. He spent the next hour and a half flying transects in an attempt to locate and liaise with the search party, but they were nowhere to be seen. And then, a miracle happened.

The child, now nicknamed 'Pilot' was safely found

Off the plane’s left wing, dwarfed by shrubs and trees, the pilot spotted a tiny figure. As unlikely as it was, it was the little boy, resolutely tromping through the wilderness. The pilot proceeded to fly tight circles above him, hoping to catch the attention of the ground team. Remarkably, this ploy worked, and the most incredible reunion unfolded. This brave little boy navigated his time in the wild like a hero, emerging from his weeklong ordeal relatively unscathed. Now, he is safely at home — and the recipient of a new, well-earned nickname: ‘Pilot.’

Between these tales, countless other stories unfolded: Fighting bushfires, locating illegal activities, pushing elephants back to safety, pulling off anti-poaching operations. Truly, every flight brings its own adventures. Our pilots take off with one plan in mind, perhaps a routine patrol or a set operation. But they know that by the time they land, a whole other plot may have unfolded.

Conservation work is unpredictable by nature. Our Aerial Unit allows us to be agile, rapid, and ultra-responsive. Countless lives have been saved through our pilots’ actions, spanning all manner of creatures.

Just last week, one of our pilots reported seeing ‘very many elephant herds with new-borns in tow.’ It remains to be seen if the April rains will fall generously. Recent trends suggest they will leave us wanting, just as the December rains did and the rains before that. If that is the case, these babies are in for a difficult road ahead.

But we will be there every step of the way. While we cannot make the rains fall, or reverse the effects of climate change, we can support Kenya’s wildlife as they face a new era of survival. Just as they do every day, our pilots will rise with the rising sun and get airborne, flying to forge a better future for our natural world.

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.

We deeply appreciate any contribution you are able to make. Your donation will be directed where it is needed most, as we work to secure Kenya's great landscapes and protect the creatures who call them home.

Share the article