VICTORIA FALLS – A Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) ecologist who was reported missing from the wreckage of a crashed light aircraft was located on Monday barely clinging to life
The man, whose age is unknown, set off on foot Saturday in a bid to get help after their Cessna 182 crashed on an escarpment in the Chewore area of the Lower Zambezi Valley game reserve on Friday.
ZimParks had deployed four light aircraft and helicopters, sniffer dogs and a party of 25 people to search for the missing man.
A South African national died in the accident while two other men – the Zimbabwean pilot and a South African wildlife expert – are reported to be battling for life in hospital.
ZimParks spokesman Tinashe Farawo said he was yet to make contact with the search team at the remote game park, but online tabloid ZimLive reported that the man had been found.
“He was fine but very dehydrated. He most probably couldn’t have survived another night in the heat surrounded by dangerous animals,” a member of the search party reportedly said, declining to be named.
The four men were conducting a game census when they failed to return to base. Officials at the base assumed they had landed the aircraft elsewhere when it was becoming dark, and put on hold searching for them until daybreak on Saturday.
“When they were not reachable on their phones on Saturday morning, the search began,” Farawo said.
The wreckage would not be located until Sunday, meaning the survivors had spent at least two days with a dead body.
Farawo said: “We understand the pilot made a heroic effort to save the aircraft. The particular area they were flying over is mountainous, and we understand the pilot battled to land the aircraft as best as he could on a gentler escarpment, possibly saving three lives.”
The aircraft was supplied to ZimParks by Rhino Force Trust, which is involved in wildlife conservation on the Zambezi.
Meanwhile, a ZimParks investigation into the incident – which is separate from a Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe accident investigation – has focussed on how the two South Africans ended up conducting a wildlife census in a Zimbabwean park.
Sources said that it was also very unusual for aircraft to take off on such a mission without a satellite communications unit, which if they had taken on the flight would have led rescuers to the crash site earlier.
“It’s probably insensitive to say because people are grieving, someone has lost their life, and others might be permanently disabled. But internally people are asking why South Africans were doing a wildlife census in one of our parks,” an insider said.
The census is believed to be funded through a US$11 million grant from the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environment Fund.
“Not only were the two South Africans brought in suspiciously, there is a Cambridge-trained ecologist at nearby Mana Pools and another at Marongora, but they were not involved. Someone was taken from a different station to work on this project. There is a strong suspicion of corruption,” the source added.
The census count is a time-consuming process which involves counting animal species and their number in a particular game reserve. The many turns, take offs and landings can test even experienced pilots.