Ever since she can remember, Jana Meyer wanted to be a ‘Wildbewaarder’ – a game ranger, or nature conservationist, in Afrikaans. Later in life, exposed to different sectors in wildlife conservation, she discovered she had an affinity for helicopters and a natural talent for flying them. Bronni Bowen (for HeliOps Magazine) looks at the events that sparked Jana Meyer’s passage into aviation, and what it is like to be one of South Africa’s very few female specialised game capture helicopter pilots.
Red dust runs as the rotors wind up. It is August in South Africa – hot, desperately dry and windy – and a massive breeding herd of almost 50 elephants has penetrated the Botswana border, charging the Limpopo River and breaking into a private South African game farm on the other side. The fenced-in, 4000-hectare property boasts numerous water sources, lovely green Mopani trees, and giant green Acacias lined up along the banks of the river. An elephant’s paradise!
For the farmer, however, it is devastating. A herd this size will destroy the natural vegetation and infrastructure here in a matter of weeks. Elephants pull plastic water pipes from under the ground, stretching them like chewing gum until they snap to access the fresh, clean water inside. They plunder gardens beyond repair, break fences, and push over beautiful trees. It is enough to bring even a fiercely patriotic animal lover to his knees. The only option is to drive the animals back out as benevolently as possible: a job that requires a specialized aerial team.
Jana was beside herself when she got the call. Here was her first opportunity to work with elephants from the air, something she’d dreamt about since she started flying. Even the idea of it made her stomach flip – incredibly intricate and intellectual animals, elephants can be next to impossible to manipulate. It takes skill, understanding, and patience to ‘change their minds.’ Jana is confident in her game-capture flying skills and feels capable of completing the job, but she knows elephants well from her work in conservation, and circumstances like these do not promise an easy end.
Jana checks her instruments one more time before the aircraft tilts and swells into the air, parallel with the sunrise. Soon she is headed for the section of boundary fence the team had flattened before dawn. The leading cause for concern now is that, since the animals know there was a barrier here prior, it could be challenging to convince them to move towards it, let alone coax them through. The gap is clearly marked to make it easy for Jana to see from the air. Assessing the surroundings, she takes note of her heading and sets off to test the herd.
Doing my part to look after and protect God’s creation is my calling, and I have never wanted to do anything else.
– Jana Meyer
A young Jana Meyer tracked straight into nature conservation studies, finishing in 2000 and merging her love of the natural world with a career as a field guide in the world-renowned Kruger National Park. Guides conduct walking safaris and game drives for groups of up to eight people, early morning and late afternoon, with a high chance of Big Five interaction and the interception of potentially dangerous animals on foot. Training includes rigorous, heavy calibre weapon drills, survival and first aid, the development and fine-tuning of tracking skills and familiarization with wild animal behaviour. Eventually, as Head Guide, Jana hosted high profile guests and celebrities, a position requiring a superior knowledge of the flora and fauna, security, and interpersonal relations.
Some years later, Jana moved north to the Limpopo area and took up game breeding: large-scale work involving herd monitoring, game counts, and captures from the air. She spent many hours in the passenger seat of helicopters and swiftly recognized the potential to make an even more significant impact in her field.
Jana completed her Commercial Helicopter Licence and accompanying game capture rating in under 18 months. All of her training was of a very high standard and in the field, counter-poaching and game monitoring, specialized for the roles she would fill in the industry. She completed her night rating soon after and was signed off to operate the R22, R44, R66, and AS350.
Justine Musk once said, “Choose one thing and become a master of it. Choose a second thing and become a master of that. When you become a master of two worlds, you can bring them together in a way that will create competitive advantage… speak both languages, connect the tribes, mash the elements… until you wake up with the epiphany that changes your life.”
Jana’s passion for the natural world, her knowledge of the South African bush and its wildlife, her life experience and ethos, combined with her natural aptitude in a helicopter, puts her in a different league – both as an individual and a pilot.
She is the perfect person for this job.
The matriarch approaches one of the trees bearing a white flag marker, and Jana is sure her heart is going to beat out of her chest. Instinctively, she pulls back to provide a gentle-womanly space, ever grateful for the R44’s absolute manoeuvrability. The huge elephant mother reaches the fence and comes to a gradual stop, prudently considering her next move. Finally, she throws out a giant foot and leads her extended family gingerly through the gap.
Working with animals requires intuition, understanding, patience, and skill; even with these tools in the box, your success is not guaranteed. Since that day, Jana has worked with hundreds of elephants from the air, in all kinds of roles and purposes, and has seen, firsthand, how easily things can go awry.
South Africa is the home of the world’s largest Rhino population and the highest inequality in wealth. Unemployment is rife – the ‘brain drain’, as it is known, an attempt to describe the decline in formal jobs and a rise in informal. Poaching is a huge problem in South Africa, but it is easy to misinterpret the extent of the socio-economic difficulties it fuels – and is fueled by.
The acquisition and utilisation of a rare and threatened species like the rhino, for example, means not only the potential eradication of a species but the ongoing breaking down of a society in pursuit of a living. There is a veritable fortune to be made through illegal trade of the rhino horn and, to move as swiftly and as effectively as they do, poachers appeal to hard-hit locals for information, offering obscene amounts of money, often enough to support a family under these conditions for a year. These people, already desperate, are now faced with a real ultimatum.
Accept the cash; the poachers kill the rhino.
Protect the rhino, and there’s a good chance the poachers will kill you.
Rangers have found fresh tracks within the reserve that indicate an incursion – it seems unknown persons have passed through, and the security team is requesting assistance from the air. An armed, senior member of staff is already wheeling the helicopter out of the hangar as Jana shrugs on her bulletproof vest and heads for the machine. Minutes later, they are airborne, flying out in the direction of the ground team to pick up the tracks and go on ahead. Suppression flying forces the pursued to take cover and allows the dog teams to make up some distance. It’s low and tactical – follow no routes and proceed unpredictably. Occasionally, Jana holds whilst her companion vacates the aircraft to carefully inspect a low hanging rock or an especially thick clump of scrub. It’s a grim and desperate business – for this reason, the aircraft also features loose, armoured plates under the pilot and passenger seats. Upon return to base, the aircraft is refuelled, the doors left off. Always ready for action.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed and fearful when your eyes turn to the issues of your world. In South Africa, there are never-ending cycles of social dissonance; corruption causes another crash of the economy, fuel prices fluctuate, and the affliction of diseases, both old fashioned and new, poise to strike during peak flying season. Jana learned early on, though, that a positive mindset is a survivor’s essential, and that negativity will only take you backwards. Another lesson Jana learned when she was still a small child is that you are much more likely to get hurt if you approach something with fear.
“Never let fear get hold of you – fear in itself is deadly. As soon as you are scared or stressed, it is impossible to function the way you should.”
“Back when I was a field guide in Big Five areas, and when I started flying helicopters, I had to force myself to be confident instead of afraid. Now, going out on counter-poaching missions, that assertive strength is more important than ever. My faith goes hand in hand with this.”
In 2018, Jana moved back to her beloved Kruger and started her own company, Hope for Wildlife Helicopter Services. By that time, her two children, twins, were approaching their teens, and Jana decided it was time to address her priorities.
“Decent helicopter pilot positions, particularly in South Africa, are very scarce. Jobs, in general, are very scarce, and finding a position that fits like a glove is very difficult. Our human lives are mostly made up of work, so I would say it is important to find something you love doing.”
“It needed to be something that I am passionate about, something that I could be very proud of… with a boss that I could work with easily, who would share my passion.” The autonomy to take initiative and exercise ownership was inherently important, as well as logistics – the distance between work and the home – being mindful of family.
In her unique position, Jana realized the only way to accomplish this was to create the job. Starting her own company was a daunting endeavour, but she says that faith and the support of family and good friends made it achievable.
And what does a healthy work-life balance look like when you are pursuing poachers and defending some of the world’s most sought-after animals from the sky?
“I love running and keeping physically fit and healthy, for obvious reasons, especially being a pilot. Living in a Big Five game reserve, open to the Kruger National Park, this can be very exciting! We take turns to drive behind the jogger so that we always have a safety vehicle and rifle at hand. We have had to jump on the vehicle on a couple of occasions, especially coming across elephant breeding herds!”
Today, Hope For Wildlife is the only commercial heli operation based out of a private nature reserve in the Greater Kruger area – a distinct advantage when it comes to gunshot response and anti-poaching work. Jana’s partner, Willem, who she met while fighting the mutual and ongoing war against rhino poachers, is the reserve’s anti-poaching and security manager; he plans the patrol flights and is the first point of contact when an incursion unfolds, or tell-tale gunshots are heard. Forces to be reckoned with, on the ground and in the air, they form an authoritative alliance.
Jana’s vision for HFW is to impact and curb the poaching practices in South Africa and conserve and share the wonders of her home with visitors from all over the world. It’s approximately 400 flying hours per annum doing everything she cares about: counter-poaching, eco-tourism, charters, and wildlife conservation work – almost all of it in an R44 Raven II dedicated to Hope for Wildlife on a lease agreement.
The Robinson R44 wins contracts for this type of work due to its relative size and ability to fit into confined landing spaces in the bush. They allow excellent visibility, and the doors are easy to reattach – a favoured feature when you are almost always required to depart with haste! Not too sensitive to dust, a battery that can handle regular startup cycles, reliable, affordable: all big drawcards when operating an aviation business in the wilds of Africa, particularly the latter.
“Everything regarding aviation is super expensive; I am sure you would agree on this. So many game reserves and provincial parks in South Africa have financial constraints… they do not have access to the funds needed to protect their wildlife and, for them, paying for helicopter services is not always an option. It is agonizing to sit and watch, unable to help.”
“My problem is that my passion sometimes overrides my business sense – I want to fly for free when it comes to wildlife conservation.”
Finding a solution to all of this is a process, she knows. “I will just keep on doing what I can, with what I have, to make a difference. I feel I have found my purpose, but I suppose I will always feel that I want to do more!”
Jana Meyer’s passion is palpable. Making a real difference working on the front line and living in the pristine African bush that she loves so much outweighs all the negatives by far. “I am where I am because of dedication, sacrifices, choices I have made, and opportunities that I have grasped. I count myself as one of the lucky ones to be able to experience this, with my family, the way I do.”
Although Hope for Wildlife is registered as an essential service in the time of COVID-19, the resulting lockdown has had a significant impact on the business. Jana Meyer is very thankful for sponsors that have come forward to support Hope for Wildlife during this time, enabling them to stay operational for wildlife and rhino security missions.
First published in HeliOps Magazine – Issue 127 (Kia Kaha Media) Pg 59-70, September 2020