30 Aug A Different View
Interview with pilot, Steve McCurrach.
Steve McCurrach is a blessed man. While the rest of us lovers of wild spaces experience the bush from car window level, Steve has a view most of us can only dream of…the sky.
I met Steve while gathering information for my novel, Down at Jika Jika Tavern. I was looking for someone who had experience working in the field of anti-poaching, and Steve kindly responded to my request.
In the novel, rhino poaching was a driver of the plot, but also an issue close to my heart. My family was involved in a game farm for 18 years, and in that time six rhino were poached. Steve was able to educate me and expand my knowledge of those involved in conservation and protecting our wildlife.
Born to fly.
Steve was born to fly. His father was in Engineering on the Sunderland flying boats in Durban harbour, and his older brother obtained his Private Pilot license at the age of 17. It stood to reason that Steve would follow suit. He started, however, with a different set of wings: those of a paraglider. Steve became an instructor, then moved on to powered paragliding, winning local champs, eventually gaining a place on the S.A. international team. It was while powered paragliding that Steve began “dabbling” with aerial photography.
Today, Steve is the founder and owner of Airserv, a company offering aerial photographic services to clients, such as eThekwini Metro, Enviroserv, La Farge, and Engen. The gallery section of his website is a must-see. Sitting at your desk, scrolling through his imagery, is akin to a mini holiday.
Flying to preserve the future.
One of the most exciting (and rewarding) areas of Steve’s work is volunteering as a pilot for The Bateleurs. He learnt of the organisation while transitioning from powered paragliding to regular aviation. He was instantly enamoured by the organisation, and its mission to support environmental issues.
Today, The Bateleurs, an NPO founded in 1998, work with approximately 240 volunteer pilots and aircraft. Together with the pilots, they give of their services, free of charge. They aim to offer relevant information to those who make important environmental decisions. A recent project saw pilots translocating 14 African Wild Dogs from South Africa and Mozambique to two reserves in Malawi.
ZAP-Wing Anti-poaching Missions.
And it is through this organisation that Steve began working on rhino related missions, starting with the creation of the Zululand Anti-poaching (ZAP) Wing, back in 2011. Steve worked closely with Simon Naylor (conservation head of Phinda), who initiated the concept of ZAP-Wing.
ZAP-Wing was formed as a response to the significant increase in rhino poaching syndicates operating in northern KZN. A rhino count on private game farms revealed that they collectively homed and protected more rhino than Imfolozi Game Reserve. Simon worked with game farm owners to set up ground-based anti-poaching measures. Steve then involved the Bateleurs to initiate air surveillance.
“The Bateleurs did this job with our volunteer “environmental air force” for a few years. I was the coordinator and on numerous occasions the patrol pilot. The considerable success of this endeavour quickly revealed the fact that it needed to be permanent, rather than being operated erratically and by volunteers, with each new pilot requiring some pre-patrol schooling. So, with further workshopping and resourcing by Simon, with my role as “the aviation consultant”, the ZAP-Wing was formed.” Steve McCurrach
Steve’s work in the conservation sector has seen him involved in vitally important missions. From anti-poaching patrols to annual census of large game conducted in reserves. Steve’s emails are by far the most interesting I receive in my inbox. In 2020, he flew a fixed-wing Light Sport Aircraft over Phinda Game Reserve in search of the 29 rhino due for de-horning. On the same trip, he was looking for two bull elephants. The bulls had been selected to be transferred to another reserve, to ensure genetic diversification. I make it sound like he simply hops in his plane and flies around, but the planning, logistics and documentation of these missions is phenomenal.
There are two chapters in the book where protagonist, Nonhle Ngubane, learns far more about rhino poaching than she ever could have imagined. I didn’t make mention of the preventative poaching method of de-horning, as it wasn’t a popular choice at the time (2012). People fly in from all over the world to see animals in their original form. For many, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. A rhino without a horn is, well, a very disconcerting sight to behold.
The question I had for Steve was whether removing the horn was indeed an effective measure against poaching? Steve believes that it is and that it has led to a drop in poaching. However, it is not the de-horning on its own that has led to the drop. De-horning must be done together with other measures, such as anti-poaching efforts, and monitoring of rhino populations.
In addition to the above collective measures, community engagement is crucial. Steve relates that in 2012, community engagement was not done well. But it is vital to the conservation efforts of game reserves. If the community has a vested interest in the reserve, the protection of the reserve is far greater.
Many, if not most, of the communities that surround reserves, struggle with poor education opportunities and high levels of unemployment. Many would remember when they could hunt freely and ‘poach for the pot’ on land that they had unrestricted access to. Additionally, wild animals that escape kill, and can bring disease, to cattle. For those that rely on subsistence farming, the loss of animals (and crops) is significant.
Future conservationists vs future poachers.
One of the characters in the novel, Mandla, is a young boy who lives on the fence line of the reserve. He’s 16 years old and has never set foot inside. And he is unlikely to; an inferior education and minimal prospects, will see to that. So, when an opportunity to earn a living through poaching presents itself to him, he takes it.
When I posed this reality to Steve, he gently reminded me that without these conservation areas, there would be nothing left of our natural heritage. And that if relationships between communities and reserves are intentional and reciprocal, both stand to benefit.
For the second book in the series, I interviewed Nunu Jobe, the well-known Barefoot Game Ranger. He shared with me how he went from primary school poacher to conservationist. He believes that education, and a personal experience of the reserve in which children live near, go a long way to prevent poaching. It is most often through experience that we become invested. When a child experiences the bush as a tourist does, watching a giraffe pick leaves from the highest trees, or an elephant giving itself a dust bath, a certain magic takes place, and a seed is planted. It was through a school Environment Club, in his rural community, that Nunu began his journey towards conservation. Although this particular club is funded by the learners, rather than outside partners, it highlights the need for, and benefits of, early exposure to conservation.
It is people like Steve McCurrach, and Nunu Jobe, who are so generous with their time and sharing of experiences and information, that makes writing socially minded fiction, incredibly rewarding. Thanks and Siyabonga, to you both.