Operation Maneater

Operation Maneater

Human-Animal conflict is one of my big interests. This series gave me the opportunity to work with scientists and wildlife experts trialling new approaches to resolve three challenging conflict problems.

In Namibia’s eastern Caprivi region (that’s the far right hand end of Namibia’s pan handle, if you look at a map), protected crocodiles have bounced back big time thanks to conservation efforts. So much so, that farmers, their families and their livestock are now on the menu.

I flew in to join Dr Pat Aust – a man with a very ambitious plan. Using a car tyre, some hand bells, a bit of fence wire and a cattle electric fence energiser, he wanted to see if he could teach crocs to associate the sound of a bell with a momentary electric shock. The idea being that if it worked, ringing a bell could help locals scare away killer crocs in the shallows. I had my doubts. Still do. But, the trial worked, although not before I was head-butted by a croc who split my face open, pushed back my teeth and put me in a South African trauma hospital. And, no, it wasn’t a croc we had shocked, just another one we were moving. Don’t worry. The electric shock wasn’t that powerful. I knew that because Pat constantly zapped himself wiring up the device !

Polar bears walking up the west cost of Canada’s Hudson Bay, as they march north in search of sea ice, are a serious problem in the town of Churchill. I arrived just hours after a young bear had attacked and nearly killed two people just a few hundred metres from my lodgings. But, my final destination was Arviat, a smaller town further north. I spent a very busy week with a bloke called Jo – truck mechanic by day and wildlife officer at all other times.

We trialled some new bear alert ideas, but the camera drone couldn’t cope with the cold. And, the software controlling the auto-tracking thermal imaging system kept crashing and died. But, the LRAD (long range acoustic device) I borrowed from the US military was an immediate success. Three bears scarpered as soon as they heard the digital growl of a virtual super bear I had created on a laptop from a recording of a big captive bear. But it doesn’t make sense to simply scare bears off unless you give them a good reason to stay away. Jo and I both wanted to have a go at diversionary feeding – a controversial technique that many wildlife experts oppose. Jo had made some giant size puzzle feeders out of old oil cans from his workshop. We dragged them way out of town and onto the ice, rigged camera traps and headed home. The footage we captured over night was mind-blowing. For the first time that season, no bears came in to town.

Along the coast of Western Australia, shark attacks are on the increase. While some very cool science is being done on both deterrent and early warning systems, like sonar, it’s a military grade, multispectral imaging camera that really interested me. It’s a piece of super hi-tech that could dramatically improve the accuracy and reliability of the existing aerial shark spotting service that helps provide sea-users with potentially life-saving information.

So I headed to San Diego in California to run some tests with ace pilot and aerial surveillance expert, Eddie Kisfaludy. Eddie’s office is to die for. It’s a hangar. You sit for meetings on old aircraft seats right next to his plane and chopper. My kind of Heaven. The system we wanted to trial is used by the navy to locate divers and, if set up properly, can see underwater way deeper than the human eye. It’s fair to say we had a few problems but, on our final test flight, the camera picked up the two decoy sharks that Eddie and I had submerged the day before. On the monitor they glowed in the dark. Trials continue. One day, the cameras could be carried by drones.

And, yes. The photo is fake. It’s cool though, isn’t it. But, that is me and Eddie in his R44 !

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