August 1, 2006

Pilots fly the flag for S.Africa’s environment

By Anton Ferreira

CLANWILLIAM, South Africa (Reuters) - Rock cliffs loom high
above the wingtips of the two-seater plane as it banks sharply
through the winding course of a narrow ravine in South Africa's
rugged Cederberg mountains.

Pilot Johan Ferreira is in his element -- he has found a
way to combine his love for flying with a passion for nature by
helping to track the elusive leopards that roam the mountain
wilderness some 150 miles north of Cape Town.

Ferreira is a member of the Bateleurs, a South African
group of 124 pilots who volunteer their time and aircraft to
provide a free aerial view of environmental problems for
policymakers, conservationists and students among many others.

The group has flown a wide range of missions, from mapping
the spread of invasive alien vegetation to transporting
endangered species and photographing illegal dumping and

"Nature is the most important thing," Ferreira said. "It
must be protected. If the rainfall fails and agriculture
suffers as a result, this area must still have its natural
beauty to attract the tourists."

The beauty of the Cederberg range, which includes
attractions for hikers, climbers, botanists and archeologists,
is apparent from the passenger seat of Ferreira's Balanca Scout
light plane.

Dramatically folded layers of ochre sandstone and quartz
fall away under the plane's wings as Ferreira cruises over
spectacular rock formations and the last remaining examples of
the cedar trees for which the mountains were named.

The cedar forests that once covered these slopes have been
decimated by logging and fire.


The pilots' group, named after a species of eagle known for
its aerial acrobatics, was formed in 1998 by Nora Kreher, a
Johannesburg woman who was inspired by a similar organization
in the United States called LightHawk.

"The educational aspect is the reason I started it," Kreher
said in a telephone interview. "I wanted to give people the
bigger picture from the air."

She said someone planning a dam, for example, might not
realize its full impact without getting an aerial view.

"On the ground you will see a little river perhaps, but go
and look from the air and you will see so much more."

Kreher said the Bateleurs made the most of the natural
talents of pilots. "They are very savvy human beings -- you
have to be, to have a flying license. They see what happens
from the air and they want to help."

"We've taken tribal chiefs up so they can see the erosion
that is being caused by over-grazing," Kreher said.

Bateleur pilots have also taken game rangers, the
foot-sloggers of conservation, up in microlights and fixed-wing
aircraft to give them a new perspective on their work.

"For me that's the heartwarming thing," Kreher said. "Our
clients are delighted, our pilots love doing it, and everyone
has fun."

Fuel used on Bateleur missions is paid for by corporate
sponsors, but pilots donate their time and the use of their

Kreher said demand for the service provided by the
Bateleurs was growing -- the group has flown about 30 missions
a year in the last few years but had already flown 26 missions
by June this year.


The missions include Ferreira's help for the Cape Leopard
Trust, a non-profit organization that is researching the
leopards of the Cederberg mountains and trying to reduce the
conflict between the big cats and sheep farmers.

Ferreira, who owns an organic rooibos or red-bush herbal
tea farm and processing plant near the town of Clanwilliam,
spent 15 years flying crop dusters before turning to farming in

He describes his devotion to flying as "a kind of madness"
and is happy to be able to indulge it by helping the trust with
its conservation work.

In 30 minutes, his aircraft can cover as much territory as
a fit hiker could manage in three days over the rugged terrain,
where peaks rise about 2,000 yards above the surrounding

The mobility offered by Ferreira's plane is invaluable for
Quinton Martins, a project director at the Cape Leopard Trust,
who has fitted global positioning system (GPS) collars to two
adult male leopards that were trapped and released in the

Flying in the Scout, Martins can locate the leopards using
radio signals emitted by their collars, then download stored
data about their movements over the previous weeks.

"Johan has been incredible," Martins said in tribute to the
pilot. "He is top class."