How the Kenya Wildlife Service Air Wing Operated in 1995

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With fifty-nine parks and reserves spread over a country of 584,896 km2 , the KWS Airwing Unit is on permanent standby to fly into action anywhere in Kenya, either for routine monitoring and field trips or security operations and emergency evacuations. The Airwing Unit has a total of nine professional pilots and can call on seven other KWS officers who holdprivate pilot licences. The Airwing Unit operates out of Wilson Airport, Nairobi, where a maintenance facility has been established. Additional field-operation centres are located in Tsavo and Meru. In 1994-95, the Airwing team flew a total of 1,237,500 air kilometres/4,950 hours in a fleet of fifteen fixed-wing aircraft and one helicopter.

Each member of the Airwing Unit has to be more than just a pilot. Knowledge and understanding of Kenya’s terrain and wildlife is vital to ensure that flying time, in often difficult conditions, is dedicated to the mission, which may require sensitive, low-level flying.

In 1994-95, 55% of the Airwing Unit’s time was devoted to national park patrols, security surveillance and special operations, and veterinary support (monitoring, collaring and tracking problem animals such as leopard, lion and elephant and rhino and antelope). The remaining 45% went to general communications operations ranging from supply and transport to special veterinary operations, training and emergency support including mountain rescue and casualty evacuations.

The Airwing Unit is generally funded out KWS recurrent expenditure and had a cost-centred budget of Kshs 22 million in 1994-95. Specific areas, however, received donor funding or equipment donations. The PAWS project, for instance, donated one helicopter, a Caravan and four Husky fixed-wing aircraft in late 1993.

AERIAL MARINE SURVEY

A classic aerial operation unfolded when the KWS Airwing Unit undertook Kenya’s first comprehensive marine survey in November 1994. The purpose of the mission was to count and record the populations of sea turtle, dugong, whale, dolphin and whale shark. Two Huskies, one Caravan and two helicopters (one on loan from the Eden Wildlife Trust) overflew Kenya’s 500-km coastline in 1-km transects-a total of 36,000 km in 243 flying hours-during the course of one week.

The pilots served as front-seat observers, recording data using a global positioning system (GPS). (Continuous contact between pilots in the two-person Huskies prevented double counts.) Additional observers, besides spotting and counting, recorded sightings on datasheets. The helicopters, usually with a crew of four, concentrated on inshore waters and creeks and had the highest number of sightings.

Upon landing, each crew downloaded its GPS rover file onto a geographical information system (GIS) via laptop computer. Accurate maps of each aircraft’s flight path and observation waypoints were then printed and matched with the species data recorded. The KWS GIS Section later used this data to create a full database for the marine survey, making the data available for application in KWS management and planning.

The survey, part of KWS’s Marine Resources Inventory, was funded by KWS, UNEP, OCA/PAC, Eden Wildlife Trust, the South African High Commission, IUCN and the African Wildlife Foundation.

MARINE COUNT RESULTS

SPECIES NO. COUNTED TOTAL POPULATION (EST.) MAIN THREAT

Sea Turtle 500 – 600 800 – 1,000 Hunted for food,
ornamental and
medicinal (asthma) value.

Dugong 8 -16 25 – 30 Hunted for food and
medicine (flu, relief of
labour pains), lamp fuel,
charms against evil,
ornamental and aphrodisiac
properties.

Whale 0 Humpback group Hunted predominantly
sighted in deep seas for oil, on limited
(October 1994) scale for meat, production
of gelatin, aphrodisiac
properties.

Dolphin 3,000-4,000 12,000-15,000 As for Whale

Shark 25-30 60-80 As for Whale

Whale Shark 60-80 130-230 As for Whale

Ray 60-100 140-200 Not known

Source: KWS Marine Survey Report

VETERINARY SERVICES

KWS Veterinary Services was formed in 1991 under the Scientific Services Department. It has since been moved to the Wildlife Service Department. Vet Services supports KWS field operations in wildlife management, intervening only when extinction is threatened through predation, poaching or disease. Human encroachment on traditional wildlife migration corridors and dispersal areas and the contraction and condensation of wildlife populations during the period of rampart poaching in the 1970s and 1980s have meant that wild animals in Kenya increasingly are threatened by disease, often transmitted by livestock, and injuries due to snaring and subsistence poaching outside the national parks.

In 1994-95, Veterinary Services spent much of its time and resources countering disease, tackling major epidemics among lion, buffalo and flamingo; on orphan-rescue and wildlife-translocation operations; and co-operating to solve human-wildlife conflict and community issues (problem-animal control, vaccination, antisnare operations, ostrich farming). Veterinary Services also supports KWS research programmes by darting and radio collaring animals when necessary and collecting samples for generic research.

The new veterinary clinic adjacent to KWS headquarters in Nairobi has the capacity to take in orphans that can not be reintroduced into the wild but may be suited to wildlife sanctuaries and private ranches.

Community support and protection is vital to protect Kenya’s remaining wildlife, and Veterinary Services acts quickly to solve community problems, encouraging vaccination programmes and livestock management. In the Maasai Mara, for example, poor control of canine distemper in domestic dogs resulted in an outbreak of the disease among lion. Surveillance data from the Mara show that in 1995 between 30 and 40% of lion (about 300 individuals) died of distemper.

Veterinary Services took the opportunity to educate local communities about the risk to their dogs. A mobile vaccination unit with two vets immunizsed approximately 80% of domestic dogs in the area against distemper and rabies. The 60% of lion that survived the bout with distemper developed lifetime immunity but will not pass it on to their offspring, so regular immunization programmes are planned.

RINDERPEST CONTROL

One of the most dangerous threats the veterinary team identified in the last year was rinderpest, a ferocious disease of cattle that also affects wild grazers. In December 1994, hundreds of cattle and buffalo died in the group ranch area between Amboseli and the Chyulu Hills, Maasai lands that support more than forty thousand head of cattle. The Maasai community called in KWS, and within a week, the remaining cattle had been immunized. Veterinary Services’ quick action prevented spread of the disease via cattle and wildlife across the Maasai Steppe and into the Serengeti. As an extra precaution to prevent the spread of the killer disease, the Airwing Unit drove a herd of several hundred buffalo out of the area into Kimana District, creating a break between the cattle and vulnerable buffalo.

A follow-up aerial survey in March 1995 indicated that between 1993 and 1995, 60% of buffalo and 90%of kudu in Tsavo ecosystem have fallen prey to rinderpest. In the Tsavo parks, six thousand of eleven thousand buffalo died. The presence of rinderpest in Tsavo poses a grave threat to the extremely endangered hirola antelope, which experiences 90% mortality on exposure to the disease. Endangered species such as the forest hog, bongo and greater kudu also have a high risk of exposure due to their limited dispersal areas.

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