Durban - Fidgeting, tinkering with planes, talking flight paths, poring over maps… and waiting.
Perhaps it was the informal setting, but there were hints of similarity with the classic Battle of Britain pilots of 1940 – tense and fatigued youngsters waiting expectantly on grassy aprons for the equivalent of a “scramble” alarm.
With no radar, this rhino-poaching war is an aerial guerrilla game conducted by four dedicated soldiers of Project Rhino KwaZulu-Natal’s aerial Zap Wing unit.
Their task is interpreting vague information and finding needles in the vast haystack that is the Zululand bushveld.
A bit of reliable intelligence had come through. Armed poachers were about to infiltrate Mkhuze Game Reserve.
Etienne Gerber, principal pilot for Zap Wing, got the call and he lit up.
It was the third tip-off the pilots had received in two days. Good intelligence is everything, such is its rarity. Should they fly? When – and where exactly in Mkhuze?
It was nearing month-end, and budgets were stretched.
They had long since used up what money was available for February, but the airwaves were full of chatter. Poaching syndicates were on the move, from Tembe and Swaziland in the north to iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the south.
If the comparison with our World War II pilots seems extravagant, then the tension, bravery and sense of duty allows for the analogy.
Zap Wing co-ordinator Lawrence Munro, section ranger Dirk Swart, Etienne Gerber and Wayne Cornhill are nothing if not consumed by tackling these rhino poachers.
Talk to them and you find theirs is a calling – to save every rhino that inhabits the vast 500 000-hectare northern KZN map they try to cover on behalf of private owners and state reserves.
Daily flights to root out and uncover poachers are dangerous and exhausting.
To start with, two of the guys double up as section rangers on the ground for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, commanding anti-poaching units and controlling field management issues.
And the added intensity comes from not only piloting these craft, but also simultaneously staring intently out of their craft for hours on end for any sign of trouble on the ground.
The unit is now coming into its own. Praise is being heard in many quarters, especially the private rhino conservation sector called the Zululand Wildlife Security Initiative.
Dave Gilroy, the community conservation manager for the Somkhanda Reserve, gave voice to this admiration.
“Utterly invaluable. This is one of the great success stories of this rhino-poaching war in KZN,” he said. - Independent On Saturday