The Niassa landscape is one of the few remaining large wilderness areas, covered by extensive woodlands, jagged rock outcrops and large sand rivers devoid of any major forms of access infrastructure. The Niassa Reserve spans over 42,000 square kilometers, an area larger than the State of Maryland or a country the size of the Netherlands.
The few access roads that traverse the landscapes are only drivable during the hot dry periods from July to December and still, reaching some of the more remote areas of this reserve from the management headquarters in Mbatamila can take two to three days of travel. During the rainy season the majority of the Reserve becomes non-traversable by vehicle, with rivers flooding and clay soils saturated by water, in effect splitting the landscape into large isolated blocks only reachable by foot or canoe.
In order to manage such enormous, remote and inaccessible landscapes, aircraft are an essential tool for operations and implementing effective conservation. This is why WCS launched an aviation program in Niassa, and our aircraft is now engaged in a wide range of applications across the Reserve.
Besides providing safer and cost effective transport for field staff, including vital assurance in case of medical emergencies, the core work of the aviation program is to allow for the year-long deployment of scouts, helping them maintain a presence in even the most isolated locations. To allow for this, the Reserve has developed and is maintaining a number of airstrips and conducts food, equipment and ammunition airdrops for mobile teams and remote outposts. The aircraft is also a vital tool for strengthening and improving the efficiency of Law Enforcement by providing an eye in the sky, collecting data on human and wildlife activity, and informing the strategic deployment of the scout force.
In addition to the airplane, the WCS Niassa aviation program also sources additional capacity from a pool of selected helicopter operators to support specific technical work in the Reserve. These helicopters provide a platform for darting elephants during collaring operations, targeted law enforcement operations, and infrastructure work and maintenance such as the replacement and repair of VHF radio repeaters.
Imperatively, for large areas such as Niassa, continued aircraft patrol also asserts a Law Enforcement presence across the entire reserve, as many areas are not reachable by standard patrolling.
Lastly, the aircraft is an important tool to better understand and monitor this vast landscape with its conservation assets and evolving threats. In this context a number of activities are being undertaken by the Niassa aviation program including:
• Biennial aerial surveys of wildlife and human activity across the entire Reserve;
• Radio tracking of collared elephants to allow for real time monitoring;
• Conducting research and development to improve aerial survey methods and monitoring applications, specifically addressing challenges in elephant population monitoring in Niassa;
• Development of baseline mapping of human activity in the reserve using advanced aerial photography applications (ENSOmosaic) which allow for detailed mapping of land-use for agriculture and proxies for estimating human population numbers.
Due to the importance of aviation support to our conservation work, WCS is focused on further strengthening and developing the program, allowing for safe and efficient operations of aircraft and associated assets. Current activities include:
• Development and implementation of standard operation procedures and aviation management tools;
• Development of aviation infrastructure at the Niassa headquarters including the construction of an aviation hangar, storage rooms and a fuel storage facility, as well as basic facilities to allow for maintenance and repair on site;
• Upgrading and registration of the hq airfield to adhere to national standards leading to the full registration of the facility;
• Further construction of new airstrips across the reserve to improve connectivity and continued maintenance of existing airstrips.
WCS’s aerial program was made possible by the Bennink Foundation, D. N. Batten Foundation, Wildcat Foundation, Butler Conservation Fund, and numerous other private donors.