STEP has been providing aerial support for law enforcement and elephant monitoring in the Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem since 2014. The primary goal of the program is to reduce elephant poaching through surveillance and reconnaissance, in close collaboration with our partners, especially the rangers and protection managers of Rungwa Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park. To date, we have flown over 220 hours recording, reporting and mapping poachers camps, elephant carcasses, live elephants, boundary encroachments, illegal grazing and bushfires, as well as re-supplying rangers cut off at remote outposts during the rainy season. Through specialised training of rangers, provision of communications equipment, and ongoing technical (mapping and strategy) support, we are ensuring effective ground-air coordination of patrols in Rungwa, Kizigo and Muhesi Game Reserves, increasing arrests and the overall success of anti-poaching operations.
STEP uses small, two-seater aircraft or microlights, which fly exceptionally “slow and low”, and have great visibility, optimising the observer’s chances of spotting illegal activities and elephants in the thick bush and woodland that characterises the elephant habitat of Ruaha-Rungwa. These aircraft are also extremely economical – running at less than 10% of the cost of a four-seater Cessna per hour in the air – meaning we can maximise the flying hours we do with the funding we receive.
The STEP Aerial Program began in August 2014, using a Savannah ultralight. Pilot Charles Nagy flew 98 hours of surveillance, deterrence and monitoring flights around Ruaha National Park, in partnership with rangers. We also carried out a survey of dry season waterholes to better understand the poorly known distribution and movements of elephants across this vast landscape in the dry season.
In 2015, STEP deployed a Shadow microlight and logged 88 flight hours throughout Ruaha-Rungwa. At the invitation of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism and TAWIRI (Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute), the Shadow participated in the 2015 Ruaha-Rungwa Wildlife Census, completing six reconnaissance flights of elephant corridor areas and twenty-six 10 x 10 km census blocks, counting elephants and carcasses. More details and results can be found in the official government report.
In October, STEP initiated training of rangers of Rungwa Game Reserve to enhance coordination of aerial patrols with ranger response on the ground. The provision of GPS units, a ground-to-air radio and satellite phone increased communications capacity, and the supply of fuel for rangers’ vehicles assisted them to reach and patrol remote parts of the Reserve.
In November, calamity struck when freak winds overturned the Shadow microlight at Ruaha’s Msembe airstrip, causing irreparable damage (thankfully noone was hurt). We responded with a rapid fundraising drive and a fantastic response meant we managed to raise $21,000 in two months – including $9,000 from a crowdfunding webpage – to buy a replacement ultralight and ensure operations continued.
During the wet season of 2015-16, we continued to support the rangers of Rungwa Game Reserve, using a 2-seater Cessna 106 flown by local pilot, David Moyer. Supported by STEP’s aerial program, the rangers have re-occupied a remote ranger post and begun patrolling of an elephant poaching hotspot. El Nino brought phenomenal rains making the aerial support even more vital, enabling us to re-supply the rangers when floods had cut off all road access to their post.
In March, our Conservation Technology Manager Frank Lihwa, conducted three days of additional training for the Rungwa rangers in monthly mapping and planning of patrols using GIS, setting up ongoing and long-term technical support to enhance anti-poaching strategy and success for the Reserve.
In August 2016, the new STEP aircraft, a Zenair Skyjeep, arrived in Tanzania from South Africa, following an epic four days of flying via Mozambique and Malawi by solo pilot Anette Kruger. We are delighted to have the new plane, and are now working on expanding the pilot team, to ensure that we are able to keep flying all year round, in support of elephant protection.