Gael Le Martin: Anti-Poaching, Conservation, and Communication in Remote Africa
A computer engineer turned conservation pilot - Gael Le Martin is a real-life dream chaser. In his short flying career, he already has a wealth of knowledge and flying experiences under his belt, and has found his absolute passion. We’re excited to share his incredible story—one of doing what you love, and, doing it for the prosperity of the planet.
Preparation and the Pathway
Gaël’s career didn’t originate or follow the traditional path of a pilot. Most would already be licensed pilots by the age he decided to chase his dream. At 25, he was a qualified computer engineer, and only at this stage, decided to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. He started looking for opportunities in France, then extended his research to schools in Europe and New Zealand, and eventually got his start in Cape Town, South Africa.
After completing his training and getting his license, Gaël started building his flight hours; initially, as a charter pilot, flying around Table Mountain, and moving on to do Emergency Medical Services (EMS) work in Durban. Shortly after this, he relocated to Africa to work as a freelancer/contractor, and almost 10 years later - he’s still there!
Gael initially started contracting with Wild Dog Helicopters (Now called Skyhorse Helicopters), where he traveled the remote areas of Africa to fly low level magnetic surveys - pure geophysics. Then the long line slinging jobs caught his attention, being a real challenge for any pilot. This enticed him to discover the jungle, flying for BAC Helicopters. The service was a critical time-saver, as some of the researcher’s surveying locations were so remote, it would have taken them a month to drive there.
Just imagine that walk!
He remembers this experience vividly.
“We would camp in the jungle and stay on-site with the helicopter, then once a week, fly to the closest town, get some fresh food and fly back, and fly people in and out. Throughout the day, we would drop the geologists off on the ground so they could do soil sampling [and other research], so yeah, it was fascinating work.”
After roughly five years, Gaël moved into doing Search and Rescue (SAR) missions for the military, but discovered his passion lay with nature and conservation.
Painting the Picture
Equipped with a Bell 407, Gaël is currently based in Chinko Nature Reserve, located in the Central African Republic, covering a modest land area of 17,600 km². The reserve is part of the African Parks Network. Founded in 2000, their efforts span across 11 countries and manage 17 parks - tallying a combined land area of over 13 million hectares. This non-profit organisation works with governments and local residents to ensure parks are ecologically, socially, and financially sustainable, and collectively working towards protecting them and their wildlife.
Conservation efforts and flying in some of the world’s most remote locations is not for everyone.
“Some people enjoy it, some people try it, and right away, you’ll know whether you liked it or not,” Gaël notes. “You have to enjoy camping, that’s a first, and you have to be quite independent - you can’t always rely on having an engineer next to you, and having the confidence and ability to assess the situation(s) safely over a satellite phone if there’s a helicopter problem - things like that.”
All forms of communication in these parts of the world rely on satellite networks - there is no cellular reception at all. As a precaution, Gaël carries two satellite phones; one operates as a fully functional telephone, and the other is a Push To Talk (PTT) device, which is used as a backup in case something goes wrong, and he tests them both every time before taking off. Spidertracks also transmits data using satellite connectivity, so people on the ground know where his aircraft is at all times, as well as pilots flying fixed-wing aircraft.
“If they’re stuck somewhere, and something has happened, whether they land somewhere remote or the engine doesn’t start or something, we can check where the planes are accurately and quickly. Other services are just you know too slow or not in real-time, so that’s great”, says Gaël.
Roaming the Reserve
Anti-poaching efforts are not like in the movies. “I just want to clarify a point,” says Gaël, “People have a twisted idea of what it is; we don’t go out all guns blazing and shoot people. We don’t do that!”
It is, in fact, the complete opposite - communication is vital.
Gaël talks us through their process and explains the different levels of protection. There’s sensitisation, which is conducted by perimeter protectors, on foot; their job is making sure people are educated and know the limits of the park. Then, there are Eco rangers, who go out and speak to poachers some more. If that fails, the Rangers are transported by helicopter to arrest the poachers and hand them over to the government, which, we’re told, doesn’t happen very often, as most people walk out on their own accord.
Temperatures can reach 35-40ºC during the day, so Gaël’s flights are usually undertaken in the mornings when it’s cooler. He starts his day around 5:30 am with a cup of coffee and a pre-flight check. They’re generally airborne by 7 am, where trips can take at least an hour, and that’s cruising along at a casual 120-130knots…!
The measurement of the success and efforts of the team is seeing wildlife returning to the reserve. “It’s such a long term thing that sometimes it can feel discouraging - you’re doing the same thing every day and not seeing quick results. We’ve just got to let nature do its thing. We can’t be in too much of a rush; it’s hard to tell, but we believe they’re coming back slowly.”
“I just really enjoy nature, and am very much aware of what we’ve been doing to the planet, and see the changes myself. So, basically, I just wanted to do my bit. I really believe in what we’re doing here, and if there could be more of it everywhere in the world, it’s definitely something I support - living a more sustainable lifestyle.”