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The effect of helicopters and other low-flying aircraft on flamingos

flamingos helicopters drones animal harassment ethical wildlife viewing

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#1 offshorebirder

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Posted 24 March 2016 - 08:06 PM

@Game Warden - I was not sure if you meant we should copy and paste the previous posts (from two topics) into this new debate topic, or whether you would be moving/copying the full posts.  If the latter, feel free to edit this and insert the original posts in their proper timeline into this topic.

 

This debate concerns the question of whether low altitude flamingo-viewing flights by noisy aircraft, in particular helicopters, is detrimental to flamingos and harms efforts to conserve them.  It seems there are Safaritalk members who do not think this is so.

 

In a recent topic - @Safaridude posted images he took from a helicopter of Flamingos fleeing in a seeming panic:  http://safaritalk.ne...e-3#entry191603

 

 I commented:

" I can't help saying that in some of the photos, it looks like the Flamingos are frightened/panicked/fleeing en masse.  Perhaps it is photographic artifice - how close were y'all to the Flamingos @Safaridude? Was it an Eagle or other predator flushing them instead of the helicopter?

"

 

In post #79 at the time, which began raising serious doubts in my mind, @Safaridude replied:

"Yup.  Guilty as charged. For the most part, we kept a good distance.  A couple of times, there is no doubt that we made them flee.  The consolation is that they would settle down very quickly.

"

 

Then @Tom Kellie asked a question about how noisy the helicopter was. 

 

In post #82 at the time, @Safaridude replied: 

"@Tom Kellie   @offshorebirder

 

If I had to guess, it's the noise that bothers them.  I can't comment on the relative noise level of the helicopter.

There were many instances when the chopper got pretty close to a flock and the flock remained relaxed… as these photos (previously posted) show...
 
In general, greater flamingos were more relaxed than lesser flamingos.

On the question of whether this constitutes "animal harassment"… I think the answer depends entirely on the intensity of the endeavor.  I think, in moderate doses, flying over flamingos is akin to walking up to a herd of buffalos in Luangwa or canoeing down the Zambezi next to a pod of hippos.  Surely, the buffalos and hippos can and will flee from you, as they are meant to.  Now, how much do you pursue closer contact with the buffalos and hippos from there?  That's the million dollar question.  I have no illusion that flying with flamingos (or going on safari at all, for that matter) is anything other than a luxury and an outlet for the well to do.  It is not conservation in itself, and it doesn't help anyone or anything except for one's memory of a beautiful experience.  While I can't speak for other people's helicopter excursions, at the end of the day I am satisfied that Andrew and Squack did an excellent job of providing a great experience and at the same time minimizing disturbance.

"

 

That post (#82 at the time) is where I started to became convinced that a serious breach of wildlife viewing ethics had occurred.  So I consulted numerous Kenyans about how harmful disturbance is to Greater + Lesser Flamingos in general and about Helicopter flights and flamingos in particular.  I received many answers, all to the effect that it was deleterious and serious.  I also learned that it is illegal to fly less than 1500 feet (500 meters) over a National Park, National Reserve, or Game Reserve in Kenya.

 

Then in post #94 at the time I said (after quoting @Safaridude's post #82):

"@Safaridude - how close was "pretty close"?    Because if it was less than 1500 feet, it was illegal.

In reaching out to experts I have been told that there is a provision in Kenya's aviation rules that lists flying at less than 1,500 feet altitude when over National Parks, National Reserves and Game Reserves as a prosecutable offense - except in an emergency or in the process of landing and taking off from a licensed aerodrome.

I managed to find an online reference to this:

http://eaip.austroco...-1.1-en-GB.html

 "The attention of all persons in command of an aircraft is drawn to the necessity to refrain from low flying over National parks, National Reserves and Game Reserves and to the fact  that under existing legislation, provisions have been made for prosecution in cases of intentional low flying.

 1.2.2  To protect Game in areas detailed in 1.2.4 below, persons in command should not fly  below 1500 feet above ground level except in an emergency or when in the process of landing and taking off from a licensed aerodrome."
 
Section 1.2.4 goes on to list Kenyan National Parks, Reserves and Game Reserves.  Lake Bogoria is listed.

This prohibition is for good reason and I contend the 1,500 foot minimum height should be increased over Flamingo-hosting lakes.  Like shorebirds, Flamingos live on a knife-edge energy budget and even a little regular disturbance can create conditioning problems for the birds (particularly soon before breeding season).  Disturbance can also cause abandonment of feeding and nesting grounds. 

Another point:

When comparing Flamingo disturbance to Safarigoers' disturbance of Buffalo for example - the question arises:   do the helicopter flights contribute a portion of their fee to Lake Bogoria National Reserve or to Flamingo conservation?

More to come soon in a thread on the Wildlife Conservation forum.

"

 

Subsequently, @Safaridude, @Sangeeta, @Paolo - to name a few - essentially said they did not think it was a problem in terms of disturbing the flamingos.   Multiple members also made statements to the effect that @Safaridude and company were at a considerable distance from the birds, and that it was inappropriate to judge distance just from a few photos. 

 

I replied that:

" Respondents thus far seem unwilling to admit the strong possibility that the helicopter flight in question was in violation of the law and therefore of ethical wildlife viewing." 

 

I followed by saying I did not make an assessment from photos alone, that I used @Safaridude's OWN WORDS ("There were many instances when the chopper got pretty close to a flock"), combined with his saying that the photos show this, combined with photo detail in a couple of cases that seems hard to achieve from greater than half a kilometer away in a vibrating helicopter.  Thus it was perfectly reasonable to suspect (or even conclude) they were less than half a kilometer from the birds.

 

Subsequently I stated that my feedback from multiple Kenyan experts all condemned the flight in particular and helicopters near flamingos in general.  Then another statement from @Sangeeta indicated she still did not seem to think it was a problem for flamingos.

 

I will follow this post (perhaps tomorrow at this point) with citations and excerpts from peer-reviewed ecology + conservation + ornithology journals to support my contention that relatively low altitude flamingo-viewing flights of noisy aircraft (in particular helicopters) are detrimental to flamingos and should not be pursued. 

 

I think it has been abundantly demonstrated that getting closer than 500 meters to flamingos in an aircraft in Kenya is both illegal and unethical...


Edited by offshorebirder, 24 March 2016 - 08:10 PM.

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#2 PT123

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Posted 25 March 2016 - 12:23 AM

@offshorebirder Thank you for starting this post as it is an interesting topic.  In general, I would put this in the over-all category of other wildlife viewing activities but perhaps to a different degree - presumably a helicopter does disturb wild animals (as would a jeep or any human presence to some degree).  Would animals/birds react differently if approached on foot (i.e., take flight)?  In my opinion it is a bit of a trade-off - if it helps generate tourist based revenue/economic activity and is limited than I guess in the aggregate it would be acceptable.  I fully appreciate that I am being hypocritical as people have said the same thing to me about trophy hunting and while rationally I see their point, ethically I can't quite buy into it. 


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#3 Antee

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Posted 25 March 2016 - 01:55 AM

Helicopter safari is a horrible development of the safari-industry in general.

It disturbs the animals as much as other customers who is in the wild....to just be in the wilds.

What is next?? 
Roller-coaster who is built around the park?

For transport, YES. 

For just fun and play around that has started to appear here and there, NO.

This is my opinion :) 


Edited by Antee, 25 March 2016 - 02:10 AM.

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#4 madaboutcheetah

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Posted 25 March 2016 - 02:14 AM

I'd be very unlikely to write up a trip report next time I'm in Africa - especially, the helicopter trip if/when i do one next .............

 

I do not know why a helicopter trip is deemed horrible - for one, I saw Eland relax and stand their ground from the air .......... when they bolt a mile a minute when they hear the Landcruiser!!!


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#5 Sangeeta

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Posted 25 March 2016 - 02:24 AM

OSB - Just to clarify what I was trying to say in the second instance - I was saying that since the number of heli flights over these lakes are very few (mainly because their costs are so high), I did not think that these one-off flights create enough disturbance to cause the flamingos to abandon their feeding sites.

However, we do have guests who visit Bogoria by car and who have come back with images of flying flamingos, similar to Safaridude's, except they have been taken from below. Clearly, people approaching the lakeshore on foot or in a vehicle also causes them to take to the air (perhaps in panic?) Based on that one article you have cited in the other thread, human presence itself can apparently be construed by the birds as a danger and can cause them to behave as if they were being predated.

If that is indeed the case, then what is the answer? Should we put these Rift Valley lakes off-limits entirely because our presence may panic the birds?

I take the points you make about their habitat having become severely degraded at Lake Magadi & elsewhere & how imp it is for them not to deplete vitally needed energy in unnecessary panicky flights. But what is the answer here? What is the best way to preserve their habitat?

I believe that the soda ash plant on Lake Magadi was an easy decision for the govt to approve because most people did not know about the flamingo populations there. People know about Lake Nakuru as a habitat for flamingos (even though this is no longer true due to high water levels), but very, very few people have any idea that there are places like Bogoria, Suguta, Logipi etc. with these kinds of flamingo populations. We can opt to not publicize these places and hope that soda plants will not be erected on their shores in the years to come, or we can opt to showcase these places to the world and hope we can create the impetus to lobby for world heritage site status or provide other protections to these fragile eco-systems. If the latter, then there will be some type of human disturbance for sure. But hopefully not too much. And in all cases, much less than potential soda-ash plants.

I think you are right to remind everyone about the altitude restrictions and park regulations. But I think these birds stand to lose a lot more from other types of human inteference than an occasional heli overflight. I am not a heli fan myself because I am not a photographer, but I can appreciate the images they provide and the awe these images produce in the people that look at them. So yes, flying too low is wrong. But demonizing them is not particularly helpful to the cause of conservation.


Edited by Game Warden, 26 March 2016 - 08:46 PM.

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#6 Sangeeta

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Posted 25 March 2016 - 02:30 AM

Also, does anyone know if that 500m rule applies if the birds are approached on foot or in a vehicle?

Edited by Sangeeta, 25 March 2016 - 02:34 AM.

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#7 bettel

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Posted 25 March 2016 - 02:46 PM

Well, I believe that one of safari rules is not to disturb animals. E.g. if an animal is afraid of the car we are not getting closer we are giving it space. Same with walking. Drones and helicopters can be very loud and pretty scary (and they are unusual for the majority of animals).  I guess the rule of 500 meters wasn't not developed just because. To conclude, any safari method is good if it does not stress animals. 

 

I am also thinking would you be enjoying the loud helicopter flying around pretty close if you watch animals from the ground :)? At least I like to enjoy peacefulness and quietness. I think even a drone would not make me happy :)


Edited by bettel, 25 March 2016 - 02:51 PM.

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#8 offshorebirder

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Posted 25 March 2016 - 04:39 PM

People keep citing mammalian scenarios which I am afraid are not applicable to the subject at hand - the effect of helicopters on flamingos (delicate colonial waterbirds that are very sensitive to disturbance).  

@madaboutcheetah - I am afraid that buzzing flamingos in a helicopter is not comparable to its effect on grazing animals.   Eland don't necessarily have evolutionary responses to aerial predators - which flamingos certainly do.   But Eland do have them to terrestrial predators which dovetails with the difference in behavior you reference.   And you would not have anything to worry about in terms of trip reports on helicopter rides, as long as the TR doesn't indicate possible (or probable) illegal/unethical behavior.  I have no problem with helicopter rides to see scenic vistas and landscapes, or animals far below.

* It's important to remember that Kenya's government agencies have banned helicopter flights under 1500 feet over National Reserves, National Parks and Game Reserves for a reason - because they deem them to be harmful for wildlife.  

I also just found the relevant regulations for Botswana; they also have a 1500 foot minimum altitude over national parks or game reserves.  In addition, Botswana regulations state that:
"No person shall fly or permit to be flown or land or permit to be landed a balloon, helicopter or microlight over or in a national park or game reserve for the purposes of game viewing, recreation or research without the prior written authorization from the Director which authorization may contain any conditions including areas which may be flown over, take off
and landing sites, flying height or time of day."   Reference:   http://faolex.fao.org/docs/pdf/bot66252.pdf (pages 21-22)

-- So Botswana completely bans ad-hoc helicopter flights for game viewing and every one has to have written authorization and instructions from the Director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (not just the local manager).  This indicates the Botswana authorities deem game-viewing helicopter flights to be a serious matter to be strictly controlled.  I wish Kenya were as strict.


There are multiple significant differences between the "people on foot" scenario that @PT123 and @Sangeeta mentioned and relatively low helicopter flights  (relatively low being less than a couple of thousand feet).  It is important to remember that different types of disturbances have greatly different effects on wildlife and the exact type and degree of disturbance matters a lot.

One difference is that parties on foot are confined to the lakeshore - a thin linear strip around the edge.  Foot parties cannot access areas out in the lake.  But helicopters can and do swoop over a much larger area and can access the entire lake, potentially affecting the entire local flamingo population rather than a few birds on the lake periphery near the on-foot party.

Another difference is the VAST disparity in noise and commotion between the two scenarios.  Multiple papers on the subject I have found state that loud noise is one of the primary factors exacerbating disturbance as a form of predation.


@Sangeeta contends that it is not a serious issue because the number of flights over Lake Bogoria are few and therefore do not have a significant negative effect.  I am not so sure about this.  @Safaridude and @Tom Kellie have told us about two such trips in February, or within the span of a month in the off season, if I have my dates right.  They are probably only a fraction of what actually took place.  And what about during the high tourism season?   I don't think anyone here knows what the threshold (number of flights, their altitude + duration, etc.) is for real harm.  Is it once a week?  Twice a week?  Once a day?   That is something I am trying to find in the available literature.  Though I am having trouble finding any research or publications concerning the narrow scope of helicopter disturbance upon flamingos (versus more generalized human disturbance, quieter boat-based disturbance or terrestrial disturbance).  That is not surprising considering the cost of frequent tests from a helicopter are more expensive (and more difficult to obtain permission for) than terrestrial or boat-based human disturbance.  But I am seeing publications that urge caution and minimizing human disturbance of flamingos (including away from breeding grounds) as much as possible until further studies and more quantifying is done.


I do agree with @Sangeeta that tourism and its revenue are important to maintain, in order for a given government and its citizens to have a stake in Flamingo conservation.  But that does not mean opening the door to buzzing them from helicopters (even at hundreds of feet).  That notion is repulsive to this ornithologist and most, if not all, the others I have heard from.

I think a potential way to provide access to the Flamingos at places like Lake Bogoria might be to have designated viewing areas for terrestrial observers.  And have park/reserve managers periodically adjust those designated areas to conform with the flocks' movements.   The size and number of viewing areas could be set up in consultation with flamingo experts so people could have their looks and photos without adversely affecting the flamingos.  Perhaps low-profile hides or blinds could also help with that (but not if they were found to help predators sneak up on flamingos).  

Given what I know about colonial waterbirds in general and flamingos in particular, I think viewing the flamingos from motor vehicles would be less disturbing than parties on foot approaching them.  So perhaps a blend - larger areas or even unrestricted vehicle viewing and more limited areas for on-foot observation.

 

I also agree with @Sangeeta that helicopter flights are far from the only threat flamingos face.  But it seems like one of the most easily solved.  I think the minimum flight altitude over Flamingo-hosting parks and reserves should be greatly increased and enforced.  That would still allow wonderful views and good photos of vast flocks of the pink birds.  But without affecting them too much.


I also want to urge people to report any aircraft they see flying at less than 1500 feet over a National Park, National Reserve, or Game Reserve.   The report should go to the Director General of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority http://www.kcaa.or.ke stating: date, time, location, registration number and color of the aircraft. Photographic evidence is also very useful to the authority to help with their inquiries.
 


Edited by offshorebirder, 25 March 2016 - 05:19 PM.

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#9 offshorebirder

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Posted 25 March 2016 - 06:12 PM

Also, does anyone know if that 500m rule applies if the birds are approached on foot or in a vehicle?

 

No it does not, but see my comments above about the big differences between on-foot and vehicles versus helicopters.


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#10 offshorebirder

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Posted 25 March 2016 - 06:31 PM

For some reason the link to the Kenyan civil aviation statute in my first post got altered and seems to redirect back to the topic itself.   It should be:  

 

http://eaip.austroco...-1.1-en-GB.html


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#11 madaboutcheetah

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Posted 26 March 2016 - 02:53 AM

@offshorebirder - but, the majority of flights in Botswana is from and over Private concessions!  

 


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#12 twaffle

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Posted 26 March 2016 - 03:58 AM

I have hesitated to become involved in this discussion as it has taken me a little by surprise, to be honest. I welcome the opportunity to debate the effect of helicopters on flamingoes, I don't welcome a discussion that has become little more than a witch hunt, to put it bluntly.

The opening post is more or less accusing a long serving and highly respected Safaritalk member along with a guide and pilot who command a high degree of respect for their professionalism throughout the industry with illegal activities. What is worse and unconscionable is that you've contacted unnamed people in Kenya and questioned this behaviour and in effect encouraged these unnamed people to bring the full force of the law to bear upon the guide and pilot.

There is no evidence that anything illegal occurred in the incident that you keep quoting BUT this thread is supposed to be about the effects of helicopters on flamingoes so let's see some evidence and some papers and some facts on this issue.

You quote the air traffic regulations but you don't quote the Wildlife and Conservation laws that only prohibit low flights over National Parks and don't mention Reserves. You don't mention that Ministerial approval can be given for low flying operations.

Have you approached the pilot who is the only one who should be answering your questions? A pilot who has been conducting aerial operations for conservation, search and rescue as well as some sight seeing for many years?

This is bordering on victimisation. I think debates are great if they aren't assuming guilt where non has been proven.

And what has made me totally irate is that you are encouraging the Safaritalk community to become vigilantes, to photograph and report flights below the prescribed limit. Tell me, who amongst us has the experience to judge a flight's distance above ground. I do not want to be part of a group who are going around reporting on others in this manner.

Please take this debate back to discussions on the effects of helicopters on flamingoes and remove any further discussions that speculate on what may or may not have happened on third parties safaris.

I plan to remove any references that infer any illegality undertaken by anyone, whether a Safaritalk member or people employed by them.
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#13 madaboutcheetah

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Posted 26 March 2016 - 04:49 AM

PS - I would think the Eland flee when they hear the Landcruiser - more so with their association with hunters from the old hunting days .............. I doubt they associate that sound with Predators (only likely one being the Lions)


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#14 offshorebirder

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Posted 26 March 2016 - 10:25 AM

I think certain people's friendships are tilting the field. I have gone over multiple times the admission and photographic material that was cited in said admission and which is consistent with it.

And the asking people to report too-low flying aircraft over parks and reserves was not my idea originally - it came from the managing director of the Kenyan aviation company. You can read it over on the KenyaBirdsNet Listserv / forum. He declined to have it posted on Safaritalk - I don't want to mention the reason because I could get accused of a bad tone.

In addition, @twaffle said:
"What is worse and unconscionable is that you've contacted unnamed people in Kenya and questioned this behaviour and in effect encouraged these unnamed people to bring the full force of the law to bear upon the guide and pilot. "

-- Actually, what I did was point people to the Safaritalk trip report, a publicly available Internet web page, and they drew their own conclusions and gave their own (negative) responses.


I will indeed be posting references and papers. I already posted a couple that got deleted in @Game Warden's cleanup. I am on my way out the door for nine days of field work for the International Shorebird Survey and a long-term shorebird research project at the Yawkey Wildlife Center - but I should have Internet access Monday and have sYaved some papers and citations on my laptop.

I also protest being censored by a sub-administrator who, like others, seems more interested in who is involved rather than the arguments being made.

Edited by offshorebirder, 26 March 2016 - 10:32 AM.

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#15 Game Warden

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Posted 26 March 2016 - 10:51 AM

I have currently closed this topic to new posts.

 

Thanks for your understanding.

 

Matt


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