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'Bird-man' now saves jumbos

Jessica Hatcher
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Martin Wheeler, aka ‘bird-man’, and team use paraglider, car and footwork in surveillance effort to help thwart illegal wildlife trade They call him bird—man. Martin Wheeler stands on a rocky bluff overlooking an expanse of semi—arid land framed by the mountain ranges of the Northern Frontier District

“I’ll just see if there are any elephants on my landing,” Wheeler says, peering down at the dry riverbed below. His motorised backpack and paraglider allow him to go anywhere. Wheeler and a security team look after the Lekerruki group ranch owned by the Mukogodo-Maasai people, in north—eastern Kenya.

A quietly spoken young Kenyan, Wheeler’s face becomes animated when he talks about birds - he has a sanctuary for rehabilitating birds of prey - and his jaw becomes set with uncharacteristic anger when the topic of poaching comes up . Africa’s wild elephants are being killed at their fastest rate since 1979-89, the bloody decade in which their number more than halved from 1.4m to 600,000.

Elephants are the most prevalent big animal species on the Lekkuruki group ranch, where he and his girlfriend, Antonia Hall, run a lodge. “Paramotoring air patrol enables a more constant presence. You can cover large areas without disturbing wildlife or livestock. Its unobtrusive, and slow moving, so you gain unobstructed views,” he says.

It is not just conservationists with technology at their fingertips. Speaking earlier this year at the British high commission in Nairobi, the UK minister for natural resources, Richard Benyon, said organised gangs and militias now used helicopters and gun silencers to poach.

“All figures suggest that the [elephant] population has now dropped below 500,000 and may be 450,000 or lower,” says Charlie Mayhew, chief executive of the charity Tusk Trust. Experts estimate Africa will lose another 30,000 this year.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013


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