Flying for conservation

Eye in the sky – conservation action along the Wild Coast

Illegal and irregular developments along the Wild Coast continue to challenge government departments and officials charged with protecting arguably one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.

 The undulating topography of the region and long distances required to travel by road to effect law enforcement and compliance issues has necessitated aerial surveys to monitor grasslands, coastal forests, wetlands and riparian ecosystems. This task has been made easier by the voluntary efforts of pilots who fly for The Bateleurs, an NGO charged with providing an aviation service for environmentalists.

Earlier this year Springbok pilot Barry de Groot flew down to East London from Pietermaritzburg in his Cessna 172 to pick up DEDEAT official, Robert Stegmann, and museum scientist Kevin Cole. The mission was to survey all activities deemed to be illegal along the coast north of the Kei River to south of the Msikaba River – a distance of 220 kilometres.

Springbok pilot Barry de Groot and DEDEAT official Robert Stegmann

Springbok pilot Barry de Groot and DEDEAT official Robert Stegmann

A sea mist blanketed the area from the East London airport to just north of Gonubie after take-off, after which the skies cleared and the crew readied themselves for action. It was not long before activities deemed illegal were noted – sand mining, built structures in the coastal zone, unauthorised roads, forest and bush clearing and dumping. The most serious of these offences were captured photographically with a GPS locality to be inserted into a provincial data base for action. It was discouraging to note the number of new built structures, and more so, those that have been erected in sensitive environments such as wetlands. New roads have been graded in places to provide access to these developments with no cognisance given to the destruction of forests en route or to steep changes in the topography (thus encouraging erosion and loss of top soil).

Barry de Groot is an excellent pilot who managed to economically cover a great distance of flying (including the return) while accommodating the requests of Robert Stegmann to position the plane above areas of investigation. Transects were also flown with deft, particularly in the area south of the Msikaba River, where numerous built structures were found to be in the wetland ecosystems.

It was discouraging to see the magnificence of the Wild Coast interspersed with the scars of a sand mining, new dirt roads and many new buildings (mostly unauthorised). Viewing all this from the sky put into perspective the collective impact that humankind is having over hundreds of square kilometres of relatively pristine land. It would have taken weeks to survey the area covered by vehicle to list the transgressions noted.

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 Museum scientist Kevin Cole also had the opportunity to record the regrowth of mangroves at the Bulungula estuary, archeological sites (shell middens and stone walls) and potentially new stromatolitic sites (areas which reveal the earliest life forms which occurred on Earth).          

Kevin Cole with the data sheets

Kevin Cole

The Bateleurs and particularly Barry de Groot are gratefully acknowledged for flying this mission in the interest of conservation along the Wild Coast. Robert Stegmann and his team will be able to strategise and plan more effective law enforcement initiatives with the information gained by this time in the air. It will also encourage an approach to tackle more ‘hotspots’, particularly those in very inaccessible areas – only noted by having an ‘eye in the sky’. 

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About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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