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How helicopters have revolutionised rhino conservation

Aviation enthusiast Ursina Rusch, who is the population manager for the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP), reflects on how the use of helicopters have been a game changer for the conservation of these iconic animals.

A rhino is airlifted for translocation by BRREP
© Micky Wiswedel/WWF
A rhino with its legs attached to strops is brought in by air during a BRREP translocation.

As a teenager, after visiting airshows in my hometown of North Bay in Canada, the aviation bug bit me. Ever since then I have been fascinated by aeroplanes and helicopters despite ending up in the wildlife conservation sector for my career.  
Luckily, wildlife capture requires the use of helicopters and add in a brother that is an experienced helicopter pilot in Canada, the industry has become somewhat part of my life.  
In 2019, while assisting with post-release monitoring of BRREP rhinos in Malawi from the air, I made the decision to obtain my pilot license which has served me well working in partnership with the aviation sector. 
I’m fortunate to work alongside some truly incredible pilots and their helicopters during capture and translocation of black rhinos for BRREP. This is a story of rhinos, helicopters and how they changed the way we can conserve a critically endangered species.  

Back in the day

If you ask Dr Jacques Flamand, founder of BRREP, how he darted black rhinos back in the early 1980s when he was the chief veterinarian with the then Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife), he will tell you, “the old-fashioned way – on foot”. In those days, Jacques would have to stalk a rhino, dart it and then, with the help of a tracker, follow the spoor of the startled rhino on foot to find where it dropped.  

Fast forward and wildlife conservation now has an incredibly effective tool at its disposal: helicopters and their highly skilled pilots. Where it once might have taken Jacques a minimum of 20 minutes to find a darted rhino, today, with the help of helicopters, this has been reduced to under five minutes – at which point a veterinarian can be dropped off to attend to the rhino.  

The use of helicopters has made rhino management and conservation extremely efficient and allows conservationists to quickly immobilise rhinos for capture and translocation.  

A rhino being airlifted on a flat board during the early stages of BRREP.
© Peter Morkel
In the early days of the project, a variety of techniques were tested in a bid to make it easier and safer to move rhino but not all were equally successful. Here, a rhino is airlifted on a flat board which was not very aerodynamic.
Early airlifts

But the use of helicopters didn’t stop there. While smaller, nimble helicopters, such as the Robinson R44, were used for darting rhinos, larger helicopters were used to airlift the immobilised rhinos out of inaccessible areas for translocation.  

A lot of thought and experimenting went into finding the ideal way to airlift rhinos when Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife first tested these new techniques in the 1990s.

Initially, they used a South African Airforce Puma helicopter. The ground crew could load the rhino into a crate which was then lifted by the Puma to a drop zone where it was loaded onto a truck to take the rhino by road to its new home.

This technique was problematic; the crate was not aerodynamic causing it to swing dangerously under the helicopter. During one operation, a Puma pilot came close to jettisoning the crate with the rhino inside, to prevent it from downing the helicopter. Fortunately, he managed to control his precious load and land it safely, but the crew had to go back to the drawing board.

Over the next couple years, other techniques were tried including laying rhinos on a flat board for airlifting, which was equally un-aerodynamic. 

A team works to manoeuvre a large sedated rhino into a net on the ground.
Manoeuvering a heavily sedated rhino into a net was easier said than done.

When BRREP first began to airlift black rhinos out of inaccessible areas for translocations, the conventional method was to roll the rhinos into a net and hook the net under a helicopter. But the nets put undue pressure on the rhino’s body and its internal organs during flight, which was not ideal. It also required a large team of people to roll the rhino into the net. 

Then Jacques saw a technique used in Namibia that would change the way BRREP would airlift rhinos and the helicopters it needed to use: slinging rhinos upside down by their feet. Over the years, BRREP would go on to sling over 150 rhinos (and counting!) with this technique, which causes minimal physical stress on the immobilised rhinos over shorter flights lasting 10 minutes or less.  

The “flying rhino” technique allows crew to get a rhino ready and airborne in a matter of minutes and ensures a smooth and aerodynamic flight for the helicopter crew. It also has one additional advantage – it means a smaller helicopter than the mighty SAAF Puma can be used for airlifting rhinos, saving huge costs and resources.  

A Huey lifting a large rhino in a net for translocation.
Hueys were used to do the heavy lifting, but this came with a few drawbacks.
The mighty Huey

For over 10 years, BRREP used a famous helicopter workhorse to get the airlift job done – the indomitable UH1-H Huey. Designed and built in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the USA, these helicopters were used during the Vietnam war with some still in civilian use today, including many that have airlifted rhinos for the project.  

With their Vietnam battle wounds visible in the form of bullet hole patches and even floor installations showing remnants of mounted gun covers, these helicopters went from fighting wars to saving a critically endangered rhino species.  

But UH1-H Hueys also came with a disadvantage. There are not many of these helicopters in South Africa and these were often unavailable due to contract work, making the planning and executing of airlift operations difficult at times. The rising cost of operating Hueys prompted a search for an alternative. 

The BRREP team stand with the Airbus AS350 Astar
© Elke van Gils
The Airbus AS350 Astar’s advantage is it is a small but powerful aircraft that is more readily available.
The nimble Squirrel

Enter the smaller but incredibly powerful helicopter in the form of the Airbus AS350 Astar, nicknamed Squirrel. What BRREP found in the Astar was a more cost-effective and more readily available helicopter in South Africa. In autumn of 2021, the Astar was used for the first time in a BRREP airlift operation and subsequently again in spring of the same year. Rhino airlifting had gone from using a large helicopter to lift rhinos in crates to a helicopter one fifth of the size, simply by slinging rhinos by their feet.  

BRREP is famous for its “flying rhinos” and none of this would be possible without the use of helicopters, both to dart and transport rhinos. Today aviation forms an integral part of the success of wildlife conservation, and rhino conservation in particular, across the African continent.  

So next time you see a helicopter fly overhead give it a nod. These flying machines have saved and continue to save some of Africa’s most iconic and endangered wildlife species. 

The 2019 KZN BRREP airlift team with a UH1-H Huey
© Warren Smart
The 2019 KZN BRREP airlift team with a UH1-H Huey
Ursina Rusch Photo
Ursina Rusch, Black Rhino Range Expansion Population Manager

When Ursina isn’t wrestling rhinos on translocation or wielding a syringe to collect blood from rhinos for genetic testing, she can be found at the airfield flying aeroplanes and working towards her commercial pilot license.