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The use of helicopters in the agricultural industry Part 1: Helicopters to the rescue!

New heights of efficiency can be reached in the agricultural industry with the employment of helicopters. The use of helicopters in agriculture is nothing new, but the array of uses may be a bit of a surprise to some people.

Helicopters are widely used in the game industry. “Game capture with the use of helicopters started in the early 1980s,” says Jean-Pierre (JP) Steyn of Fly Ventures Africa flight school in Pretoria. “Before helicopters were used, men on horseback and motorcycles were used to herd game. But especially in rough terrain, it was difficult and the team, the animals and the machines suffered injuries.”

Capturing on horseback

Jan Oelofse catching zebra with a rope once they were herded into a boma. Photo: Annette Oelofse from her book: Capture to be Free – Memoirs told by Jan Oelofse, reproduced in Master Game Ranchers of South Africa: Passion and Power.

Burt van der Walt from the Soutpansberg area was the first to capture game commercially. He did so on horseback between 1907 and 1935, capturing animals for many local and international zoos. Burt and his team of riders pursued their target and caught the animals around the neck with a noose fitted to a long stick. The animals were led into wooden bomas, tamed, and transported and shipped in wooden crates. Later, the animals were driven by riders on horseback into net fences.

Capturing game with vehicles

Willie de Beer and his team chased down animals in Tanganyika with vehicles and captured them with noosehandles. The film, Hatari, starring John Wayne and Red Buttons, was based on his activities, and his equipment was used for the filming.

The ‘Oelofse method’

The animals are herded into a canvas funnel towards the waiting truck.

Namibian-born Jan Oelofse, a former assistant of Willie de Beer, captured game for zoos for Tanganyika Game Limited from 1957 to 1964. He herded game on horseback into net fences. While working for the Natal Parks Board between 1964 and 1972, he started using lightweight woven plastic sheets, which are invisible from a distance, but visible when the animals come closer. This method is still known as the ‘Oelofse method.’ Jan later started using a helicopter for capturing game, which enabled him to capture 6 000 animals over a period of six weeks for the Zululand game reserves. Stocking of other parks and reserves and private landowners followed.

Alec and Petra Rough

Refuelling takes place along a road in the bush.

Alec Rough was another pioneer game capturer who started working as a professional during the mid-seventies. “When I met Alec in 1985, he was already a well-known and respected game capturer,” says Petra, his widow.

Alec grew up in the Northam district and started capturing game on horseback at a young age. He also created fenced camps and lured the game into it.

During the late seventies and early eighties, he developed the boma capture method. He then made use of helicopters to herd the animals into the bomas.

In 1982, he obtained his helicopter pilot licence with Slade Healy. The late uncle Norman Atherstone of Dwaalboom supported him financially to get the licence and to buy his first helicopter.

Landing in the bush requires special skills.

After the couple got married, Petra joined him in game capturing.

Alec was involved with the development of the Pilanesberg National Park.
“He was instrumental with Operation Genesis, which in 1979 involved the translocation of more than 6 000 animals that used to occur there. He also helped with the translocation and acclimatisation of the first elephants in
the park.

“Alec held the capture and translocation contract for Pilansberg for ten years,” says Petra. “When game auctions started, we also captured most of the game for Mike Englezakis’ auctions at Sun City. Rhino and nyala were provided by Natal Parks Board.”

As game ranching became an established part of agriculture, they started working in the rest of the country as well, capturing and translocating animals for private farmers and government bodies. Selling game out of hand was the norm, as auctions became more popular after 2000.

“By 1985 there were only a handful of capturers, among them Jan Oelofse, Shorty du Randt, Keith Coppen, Vere van Heerden, John Brooker, Nico Roux
and a few others.

Culling is done by a marksman inside the helicopter.

“We worked mostly in the old Transvaal, Free State, Northern Cape, and
translocated animals all over South Africa. We also did several projects in Botswana.

“Capture methods ranged from using plastic or net bomas, chemical darting and net gunning, depending on the species, number of animals to be captured and the terrain where the capture took place. We mostly used the helicopter to herd the animals, but sometimes also used vehicles or worked on foot.”

During the early nineties, the ‘older’ game capturers established the Professional Game Capturers Association, which has since become defunct. “The aim of the organisation was to regulate the industry and to set standards. At that stage, several newcomers entered the industry, which caused chaos regarding ethics, transport, a high mortality rate because of ignorance and abuse of chemical sedatives, as well as game theft.

A sedated rhino is walked to the waiting translocation truck.

“To be recognised as a graded game capturer, one had to write an exam about capture methods, animal behaviour, transport ethics, chemical capturing, the use of medicine, pilot skills and practical training, as well as
ten testimonials from farmers or companies, and the flight school where you obtained your licence.

“Equipment and transport facilities were inspected, and grading certificates were issued which determined which species, transport or chemical methods may be used.

“Alec and I left the game capturing industry in 2000, after his brother died in June 1999. After Alec’s death in 2004, I continued farming, and whenever there is an opportunity to capture game, I’m in!”

Petra’s daughter Alexi followed in her parents’ footsteps after matric. She recently married Timon Dreyer, who is also in the game capture industry.

Helicopters

Giraffe are being herded along a road.

The growth in the industry in the early 80s was necessitated by a new and growing interest in game as a valuable commodity. Initially, the piston-driven Hiller, Enstrom and Schweizer 269 helicopters were used. “There were turbine engines, but they were expensive and cumbersome to operate,” says JP, who is a flight instructor with more than 4 000 hours at the controls of a helicopter assisting with the capturing, counting, and culling of game.

“Only with the introduction of the two-seater Robinson 22, and the upgraded Hughes 300, did the game capture industry by helicopter really take off. The Robinson 22 remains a favorite because of its agility, manoeuvrability, and cost efficiency.”

Up to then, farmers merely tolerated the game that happened to be on their farm for the sake of biltong – hence the name ‘biltongjagters’, but in general regarded them as the carriers of disease that competed with their cattle for grazing.

When they realised that game had monetary value and they could charge said ‘biltongjagters’ to hunt, they started thinking. When foreign visitors started flocking to Africa in their search of a serene bush experience, game watching and photographing wildlife, the value of game increased. The growing number of private reserves needed game — especially the Big Five — to lure wealthy foreigntourists, several celebrities among them, to their luxury lodges.

A rhino darted from a helicopter is being taken care of by the veterinarian and the ground crew.

At that time, game was abundant and relatively inexpensive, and the pioneers in the game farming business started looking for ways to capture wildlife safely and effectively for relocation to private reserves.

Thus, the method to dart animals from a helicopter evolved: a pilot would get as close as possible to the running animal to allow a veterinarian to dart
the animal with a chemical that would immobilise it. When the animal goes down, the pilot must immediately land so that the vet can do whatever must be done to make sure the darted animal does not go down in an awkward position that could cause its death.

Because farms in South Africa are not the size of Serengeti, the numbers of game on a farm must be managed. Again, helicopters came to the rescue.

Alec Rough in a helicopter with Nicki Young on their way to perform a game count. Photo: Eddie Young, courtesy Nicky Young.

If the number of wild animals exceed the carrying capacity of the farm, which could lead to overgrazing, or if the numbers must be reduced to make room for the introduction of new genes, game must be captured and relocated.

It is not viable or economical to dart and capture these animals one by one, as is done in the case of prized trophy animals or rare and endangered game, or any of the Big Five that cannot be herded.

A herd of plains game species, including anything from impala to buffalo and giraffe, are captured by herding a family group with a low-flying helicopter towards a funnel consisting of netting or canvas sections. These funnels lead into a boma, where animals can be rounded up and herded into the waiting trucks.

An elephant darted from the helicopter needs the care of a veterinarian.

There are many risks when mass capturing animals, the worst of which is probably when a pilot intent on herding the animals miscalculate and back the helicopter into nearby trees. “The industry is rife with accidents and incidents,” says JP. “This is not a playing ground for helicopter cowboys!”

Besides capturing and darting game, the industry also needs helicopters for game counts for census and planning purposes. Counting is done by the pilot while flying in a grid pattern. “When it is difficult to get an accurate count because the herd is too large, they are scattered into smaller groups which are easier to count accurately.”

Individual animals that need care are darted from a helicopter. The helicopter is landed in a hurry so the vet can ensure the animal is safe.

When culling for the use of the meat and other animal products, the pilot is accompanied by a hunter with exceptional marksmanship who shoots the game from the open door of a helicopter. The aim is to get as close as possible to the herd and to keep up with them while they scatter.

Contact JP Steyn of Fly Africa Ventures at +27(0)-82-299-3096 or flyventuresafrica@gmail.com.

References

Steyn, T., Van Zyl, P. (2017) Master Game Ranchers of South Africa:
Passion and Power. JLO Publishing.

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