Newsletter 11 – November 2003

Welcome to a Special Edition Newsletter where Mark Bent reports on his Sinus being used to track Elephants in Africa.

I had the most amazing experience last Saturday – definitely one of the best flights of my life. I have been involved over the past months in starting up a conservation effort here in Eritrea for elephants – Africa’s most northern wild herd. There is very little research on these animals, and local legend has it that this herd inter-bred with some Indian elephants from an 1878 British invasion of Abyssinia, by the British India Regiments, led by a General Napier.

The river which separates Eritrea and Ethiopia

I had made plans to take one of the University professors in support of the Ministry of Agriculture, flying along the border to search for this particular herd which travels back and forth between Eritrea and Ethiopia. We took off at about 8:30am and flew a little over 200 kilometers to a village where locals had reported elephants previously.

The land dropped away from the 7600 feet Asmara airfield to about 2000 feet above sea level and the terrain changed from a mountainous region to more of a typical African rolling savanna. We arrived at the village without any problems navigating via GPS and we could see the river which separates the two Countries off in the distance. This part of the border is calm – lots of mines, but both sides agree that the river is the demarcation line between the Countries. I dropped down to about 200 feet and turned to the river. Even though we had filed a flight plan and I personally went to the control tower prior to take off to show the Eritreans where I was going, there was always a chance some solider from either side could get too excited and take some pot shots. I was also concerned about UN helicopters flown by Russians, their English is very poor and they are frequently unsure of where they are, so I tended to keep very alert when flying low. I had also informed the UN about the flight, but I was concerned that word had not gotten passed around.

Arriving at the river we turned north, I dropped down to about 50- 70 feet over the river and pushed the throttle forward, traveling just under 200 kmh as I wanted to go fast enough that even of we did run into soldiers we would be past them before they knew we were around. The sensation of speed was incredible and the visual images were amazing; like something out of a movie. We followed the river down through some gorges, banking 30/40 degrees in the turns and coming around small hills, occasionally getting a little g-force as I pulled hard back-stick to ensure we did not violate Ethiopian airspace. The professor was as excited as I was and we were having a wonderful time, even though we had yet to see any elephants. We traveled for about ten minutes and then jointly made the decision to try the other direction. I pulled up into a hard turn and we came back down the river, however, I off-set to one side in case we had attracted any attention on the way up by soldiers.

We got back to our original entry point and I moved back over the river, with the professor looking out the left side, and I the right. We saw a large crocodile in the water, a troop of baboons and village boys herding cattle and sheep, but no elephants. After about ten minutes we came around a turn and up into a small divide to the right I caught sight of a herd of elephants!! The immediate massive surge of adrenalin (and I was already pretty much wired 100 percent from the low flying at high speed) had me screaming “Elephants!” “Elephants!” as I pulled back on the stick and reduced power to idle. We came up to about 300 feet in a tight bank as I kept the herd in sight through the passenger window. We were able to make passes over the herd for about twenty minutes taking a bunch of digital and still photographs as well as a video. The Sinus aircraft is pretty quiet and I was able to climb to 400/500 feet, go to idle and then exchange altitude for airspeed, passing over the herd at 50 feet or so. I kept fighting the aircraft in turns as I did not want to fly into Ethiopia until I finally figured out that in the excitement the professor was craning his body to keep the herd in sight and stomping on the left rudder pedal; after I figured that out we were fine.

The heard heading for greener pastures

The herd numbered between 70-90 animals – all ages and they appeared healthy. The bulls were magnificent! I have a great photo taken on our last pass of one facing the aircraft and challenging us, ears erect and head up with tusks pointing at us – really amazing. The professor is writing his report now and I have a meeting with the Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture this afternoon, really a wonderful experience. The Sinus is perfect for this work and I will be flying for the UNDP looking at coral reef degradation in the Red Sea as well as performing a Dugong (sea cows) census. The Ministry of Agriculture has also asked me to help out with a census on the wild African ass as well as some other endangered species, so I will be busy flying a lot in the next few months.

Mark and the professor, looking happy after their adventure

The UN has money for paying me for their work however I am doing the elephant flying on my own cost right now. We will file for a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife service as well as National Geographic to keep studying the elephants.

Take care all and safe flying Mark