Planes vs. birds: Namibia takes the lead

By Sibangani Dube
October 2013
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If you thought wildlife and human beings’ conflict is only limited to elephants trampling mahangu fields or lions preying on livestock, you are in for a shock.


The presence of birds at the airports has aggravated safety concerns, calling for a well-rounded intervention and Namibia has not disappointed.


Goes without saying the probability of bird and plane collisions is highly likely, due to a number of factors. Namibia is therefore compelled to adhere to international safety regulations aimed at preventing bird strikes, which could consequently result in, among others, collisions that could lead to the loss of life.


The issue of bird strikes is a global problem. In Nepal, a plane collided with a bird just after takeoff, resulting in a plane crash that left 19 people dead. In Namibia, on 23 March 2012, a British Airways Boeing 737 ingested a steppe buzzard (Buteo vulpinus) into its star-board engine, causing extensive damage. After that, the plane was grounded for weeks.


Added to such freakish incidents are costly repairs, expensive flight charters and hotel bills to accommodate stranded passengers. Lucrative as it may seem, airline business is meant for those with iron nerves.


In worldwide living history, air plane and bird collisions have caused 231 deaths while 80 planes have so far been destroyed. Namibia’s largest airports; Hosea Kutako International (HKIA) and Eros airports have recorded 128 such incidents to date.


To help arrest this alarming problem, in 2008, the Wildlife and Aircraft Research started a project as a doctorate research of Morgan Hauptfleisch, through the Namibia Airport Company (NAC), the Centre for Environment Management of the University of the Free State and the Southern African Institute for Environment Assessment (SAIEA), the National Museum of Namibia and the Polytechnic of Namibia (PoN).


The aim of the project has been to find measures to minimise the risk of aircraft collisions in general and not only by birds at the Namibian airports. This project is unique in the sense that it is pro-active and does not only focus on reactionary measures used to remedy the effects once collisions have occurred.


“It’s like being a detective. People say there are birds at the airports. As a scientist, you not only turn into a different direction and ask why but get directions on how to solve the problem from a preventative perspective,” says Hauptfleisch who is the project leader and lecturer in the department of Nature Conversation at the PoN.


So successful has been the project that it has taken a different route in tackling the problem from an ecological perspective. It engages in thorough investigations through recognised scientific methods to identify the factors attracting wildlife to birds. Armed with these methods, Hauptfleisch aims to find measures that are undisruptive to wildlife populations, some of which are protected species.


Hauptfleisch says the industry players often try to shoot the birds, disable them with laser lights, prytechnics, dogs or falcons and in some cases, airport personnel try to chase them on foot or in vehicles, which has yielded very little success.


“Namibia is a country of good nature conservation and those who fly here actually come to watch those birds and wildlife. The NAC asked us to manage these living things from a national perspective. But how do we go about it? Our partnership with NAC has been running for the past five years; it funds us to help it find answers to this problem,” he elaborates.


To this end, the project has expanded to provide scientific, ecological guidance to the local aviation industry with regard to wildlife and bird risks. For the past five years, the project has been able to analyse “bird strike” data, to find answers to the risky species. Testimony to that is the setting up of the Bird Strike Centre and Research Laboratory, located at Eros Airport. It has become a nerve centre for co-ordination of aviation-scientific and biological expertise for all the key stakeholders.


“In terms of international requirements of what needs to be done, we are high up.”

Through the project, Hauptfleisch and co. are already closing in on the key factors, such as the analysis of insect productive areas, which attract birds; the analysis of the stomach content, which provide useful information; as well as the experiment to test the influence of the apron lights.


“We need to know whether or not the insects are major attractions for the birds. Whenever airport personnel find a bird on the runway, we collect and open it to see what it has been eating. We often find white stock with seeds, insects and grasshoppers. So we question why we experience problems with these birds and find it is because we have grasshoppers all over the vicinity. Then we decide to remove the grass where they live. By so doing, we minimise the food chain and the problem,” he explains.


He, however, stresses the importance of reporting bird strikes. According to worldwide statistics, only 20% of bird incidents are reported annually, meaning, there is very little information available to give insight into the depth of the problem.


Hauptfleisch laments the biggest challenge in Africa has been locally trained scientists in this field often resort to a copy-and-paste approach. However, the NAC has, to date, sponsored six internship students from the PoN to help address this problem. These students do a lot of research and learn how to manage the problem. According to Hauptfleisch, they could be on their way to creating the capacity Namibia needs.


Despite the challenges, Hauptfleisch is impressed with the way they have managed to build valuable knowledge, overtime, around what is happening in the world. They have additionally managed to build capacity by training firefighters at HKIA as a safety aspect. The pilots, too, have been trained to be wary of anything unclear before takeoff. So far, the well-designed posters showing all different types of birds and their associated risks, help a lot.


“Because you need everybody’s input in this; your need the pilots, airport personnel and the scientists,” Hauptfleisch says, however, worried that while vultures are an important part of nature as rubbish removers, they are a risk to planes because they fly at the same height as planes. His fears are heightened by the fact that there is a breeding colony of vultures just two kilometres away from HKIA.


Nonetheless, plans are at an advanced stage to conduct research on vultures’ habits, which will hopefully yield positive information. To this end, gadgets have been developed the size of normal cell phones with chips inside them, to SMS people every day to help collect valuable information.


But is Hauptfleisch and co. winning the battle? Indeed, he says. At HKIA, there is a downward trend to the problem while the Eros Airport shows mixed results. The figures went down in 2009 and 2011 in Eros but have been increasing since 2012, due to poor rainfalls, forcing wildlife and birds to move to urban areas.


On a parting shot, Hauptfleisch admits it is unclear when the problem will be solved once and for all, “With never-ending climatic changes, the problem will never disappear, unfortunately.” PF