"Conservation is not counting carcasses from the air"
Captain Bernard Shayo works for Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Selous Conservation Project as an advisor for aerial surveillance and monitoring. The experienced bush-pilot has been working in the Selous Game Reserve for three decades, accumulating more than 10,000 hours in the air.
Why is aerial surveillance so important for conservation?
Aerial surveillance is quite important for anti-poaching, because you can cover a big area in a short time. It can tell you the condition of an area in terms of vegetation cover, vegetation changes and it tells you very quickly which big animals you have. Also, you can spot signs of poaching as well as encrochments to the reserve. We need to conserve the wildlife, plus the environment, as is stipulated in the Tanzanian Conservation Act of 2009. Our main duty is to support the conservation of the flora and fauna of the Selous Game Reserve.
What makes the Selous special – compared to other protected areas in Tanzania?
The Selous Game Reserve is big. In terms of area it spans across 50,000 square kilometres. Its’ management has been divided into eight sectors and each sector has a sector warden, game scouts and other anti-poaching equipment, like vehicles.
When you are up in the air, what are your duties?
Apart from controlling the aircraft, I have to ensure the safety of my passengers. Safety is number one. There is no air traffic control in Selous. You always have to communicate with the other planes in your airspace. Objective number two is to search for poachers and to monitor the wildlife.
Usually when we are flying we record observations of elephants, leopards, lions and the very rare rhinos. We also document any poaching incident that we encounter.
In 1982, the Selous Game Reserve has been named UNESCO World Heritage Site for its large populations of elephants, crocodiles and hippos, the size of its untouched area, as well as for its rhinos and other rare species. Since then, all populations experienced a devastating decline and Selous is now a world heritage site 'in danger'. We need to monitor those species to make sure they are safe.
You need to make sure poachers do not enter the reserve at all. You have to stop them, before they do damage. Captain Shayo
What happens to the data you collect during your flights?
During the flight, I have a satellite-based positioning system running. Every route I fly, I have to track. I mark every observation that seems abnormal, like carcasses, poaching camps or poachers themselves. After I return to headquarters, incidents will be immediately forwarded to the sector warden, who sends out a group of game scouts to investigate the area and the data is analysed by our Geographic Information Systems officer.
What happens when you observe poachers during your flight?
Right now, it is very challenging because we have to return to headquarters before reporting on our observations. That’s why FZS is supporting the construction of a digital radio network, that will cover the entire Selous Game Reserve. This will enable inflight communication with headquarters. The rangers on the ground will also have access to the radio and our reaction time will speed up significantly.
FZS also provides the game scouts with vehicles, enabling them to investigate incidents reported from the air much faster. Sometimes the rangers have to cover huge distances within their sector.
What are the biggest conservation challenges to the Selous Game Reserve right now?
We need more vehicles to patrol all sectors properly. Some sectors are equiped with just one car, but ten patrol groups. How could they work efficiently? And without fast communication, there is no anti-poaching. Communication is basically anti-poaching. That’s what we are doing right now, we make sure to improve our speed.
What is your philosophy of conservation?
Conservation is not counting carcasses from the air. If you arrest poachers after killing an animal, that is a failure. You need to make sure poachers do not enter the reserve at all. You have to stop them, before they do damage. We are here to conserve living animals. I believe, if we are serious enough, we can increase the number of elephants again. It is possible. We need dedication and seriousness. We are human beings. It has to come from the bottom of our hearts. You have to feel it and love it. It is possible.