Yesterday afternoon the Rhino911 initiative was formally launched at a reception at the AAD site.
The programme has declared war on the animal poachers that threaten to eradicate the rhino, and to decimate the populations of other vulnerable species such as elephants and lions.
Where Rhino911 differs from other efforts is the employment of a Bell 407GT helicopter, fully equipped with advanced night vision systems, to continue the battle against poaching by night, which had hitherto provided the poachers with a degree of immunity against the forces ranged against them.
The problem is very real: in 2007, a total of 13 rhinos was killed by poachers, but by 2013, the annual death toll had topped 1,000, and the animals are now killed at a rate of roughly three per day. The illegal animal trade, particularly that of rhino horn to Asia, is the third-largest smuggling industry in the world, after narcotics and human trafficking.
Rhino911 was established as a non-profit organisation by Fred Hees, president of BBM Inc (Hangar 2, Stand E10) in co-operation with Heli Africa Wildlife. The initiative has brought in high-level sponsors, and the formal launch was held to widen the awareness of the effort and to generate more fund-raising help and ideas.
At the heart of the effort is the Bell 407GT helicopter, which is owned by BBM. The GT is a version of the civilian 407GX fitted with military-grade systems, including the option to mount weapons.
For the anti-poaching mission, the aircraft is fitted with an electrooptical turret that allows the camouflaged helicopter to operate from beyond the visual range of poachers. It is fitted with low-visibility, low-noise blades to further reduce its signature. The need for stand-off capability has been driven by instances in which well-equipped poachers have fired upon helicopters that are attempting to track them.
Although Rhino911 was officially launched only yesterday, the Bell 407GT is already on call and at work. On Wednesday night, it responded to a notification of shots being fired at night, and while the poachers escaped, the injured rhino was quickly located, allowing ground units to be guided to its location so that it could be treated.
Rhino911 is engaged with government and other organisations throughout South Africa and hopes – as funds allow – to roll out the initiative across all the areas of the country that are afflicted by the poaching issue.
In turn it would also seek to broaden the efforts into neighbouring nations.