U.S. trains Kenyan pilots to fight poachers more effectively

Seven Kenya Wildlife Service pilots traveled to Hammond, Louisiana, to train on gyroplanes with a goal of becoming more effective in fighting poachers.

The training is part of a Department of Justice–funded study to equip conservationists in Africa with tools to combat poaching.

Poaching harms Kenyan parks’ conservation efforts and generates money for terrorist groups in the region.

The air wing division of Kenya’s Wildlife Service tracks poaching, illegal logging, fires, and other threats to animals. Pilots radio rangers when they see trouble, but using traditional fixed-wing airplanes to deter threats to wildlife is challenging.

Many elephants moving past trees, seen from above (© AOPA)
From the air, pilots with the Kenya Wildlife Service can see animals on the move, like this herd of elephants, as well as criminal activities in the parks, like poaching and illegal logging. (© AOPA)

Gyroplanes can be flown “with virtually unlimited visibility,” said flight instructor Stephen Rastanis, and at lower speeds with more maneuverability than airplanes — features that are ideal for tracking movement from the air.

The seven pilots “were all very skeptical about using gyros,” Rastanis said. Fortunately, they began to see the gyroplane’s advantages after only a few test runs.

Aviation solutions

The Kenya Wildlife Service started using planes to monitor its 59 parks in 1990, but its fleet has been small and costly. Pilots have been able to survey only 8 percent of the service’s 58,265 square kilometers per month. Some parks had no aerial support at all.

Two pilots in aircraft cockpit (© AOPA)
Kenya Wildlife Service pilots prepare to start the agency’s Caravan, the largest of 11 aircraft operated by the service dedicated to conservation and wildlife protection. (© AOPA)

A team of aviation scientists at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina has been studying air-wing options since 2015. The team looked for a solution that was “low cost on the front end, easy to maintain, and safe,” said the team’s leader, professor Kuldeep Rawat.

The gyroplane delivers. The gyroplane costs a tenth of the price of a fixed-wing plane or conventional helicopter and requires half the time to train pilots to fly it.

In addition to the Louisiana training, two air wing engineers and a flight inspector went to Maryland to learn how to maintain the gyroplanes. They will tend to a fleet of five gyroplanes paid for by a Department of Justice grant. Rastanis will go to Kenya in November to complete the pilots’ training with their new gyroplanes.