Dominique’s ‘hero’: 24 hours in the life of pilot Anthony Caere in the Congo

He hunts poachers and rebels every day in one of the most dangerous areas in the world: Virunga National Park in the border region between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. At daily risk to his own life, Anthony Caere searches for illegal activities from his plane. No day is ever the same, yet the adventurer wants to make an effort to give us an idea of ​​what goes on in that wonderful hotbed of violence. “There are many setbacks every day, but this is what I dreamed of as a child.”

5 in the morning

“I live here with the sun. Virunga National Park is right on the equator, which means the sun rises here at five o’clock and we live entirely according to the rhythm of the sun. So get up early. I start the day with a cup of coffee and a chocolate. From Dominiques chocolate factory in Virunga, of course, but we also make the coffee here entirely ourselves, completely sustainably and with the largest possible amount return for the local farmers. I live in a living tent, complete with bed, desk and even an Ikea recliner. (laughs) In our camp, there are also containers where we have set up a kind of breakfast bar. There I eat my egg, with a simple sandwich and some jam. With a view of the rising sun over the hills. After all those years in Africa, it will always be a special moment.”

07.28

“After breakfast, it’s time for the pilots’ briefing. I am in charge of the Virunga Air Wing, says the nature park’s air component. Meanwhile, I have trained a number of Congolese pilots here. They have completely completed their training, they only need to get a few flying hours to be admitted for the insurance to fly solo. They get a briefing at 7.30 about the missions we are going on in the morning, with which plane and with which instructor they are going. These missions are mainly patrol flights. We look for smoke trails because the poachers smoke the meat of the animals they shot at night. We also check where illegal farming takes place or where they dig peat to make charcoal. It’s a $35 million a year business. There are also logistical tasks: transporting staff, for example. Or we fly around with ours mappinginstruments to make razor-sharp maps of the area. Never a dull moment.”

One of the 17 airstrips in the huge national park. (girlfriend)

12.07 at

“Around noon, our seven planes land again for lunch. It is usually rice with beans. Or beans with rice. Or a variation of it. And plantains. Then I do some administration: paying fuel bills, paying staff, keeping logs. We also have 17 runways (small runways, LK) that must be maintained. Keeping track of all permits for pilots and aircraft is also a daily task. And arrange visas for all sorts of things because we have staff from all over the world and we also regularly need goods cleared be for transport. I’ve transported all the craziest things. I recently brought two baby chimpanzees to a shelter, but I already have exotic tortoises and marabou storks (a giant species of stork, LK) transported. Once on my flight there was even half a million dollars worth of ivory tusks that had been confiscated. And confiscated weapons and arrested rebels or poachers, I also transport them.”

2:34 p.m

“Back to the planes for new patrols. They can be quite dangerous sometimes. The M23 rebels (Movement of March 23, a military rebel group, ed.) sit here and make a lot of trouble. They kidnapped and ate my cat sometime at night. They left her neckband at the gate as a warning to threaten me. There are also regular bullet holes in our aircraft. On average, we lose eight park rangers a year. Murdered. Every month we have one or two medical evacuations. These are colleagues who have been shot and who need to go to hospital as soon as possible. I take care of those planes too. This is a war zone, isn’t it? Our airport has also been attacked with heavy mortars. One such projectile ended up in a school next to the airport. Four children died.”

Anthony (and the kitten Becca) among the heavily armed rangers.  (girlfriend)
Anthony (and the kitten Becca) among the heavily armed rangers. (girlfriend)

“And then there are the almost daily attacks from poachers. Unfortunately, that’s all part of it. You have to flip the switch here or you will be depressed. My boss Emmanuel (Prince de Merode, ed.) has a crack in it. He always sees the positive in things. I try to do that too. As a child I dreamed of flying and flying beast working. Here I can. As free as possible even. I fly at treetop height or sometimes with the wheels in the water. If you do it in Belgium, you will lose your driving license. I fly every day to one of the most beautiful places in the world. Despite all the setbacks – after a crash they once had to completely reconstruct my face – I just love being here.”

18.13

“The sun is setting, and it happens very quickly here. We make sure that we land no later than a quarter past six and then we do the inspection of the plane. A light that doesn’t light up, a sensor that doesn’t work, but also repair bullet holes. We do this in a hangar, where we fully outside the network working. Thanks to the solar panels we have here. When I hear what they pay for energy in Belgium these days, it’s a luxury. I don’t have to pay energy bills here. (laughing) I have fresh water and my own energy here every day. I don’t need any more. But danger lurks around every corner here. If it is not the poachers or the rebels that threaten you, you can also die from a plane crash, from one of the active volcanoes, from the gas bubbles under Lake Kivu, the dangerous runways where your landing must be perfect immediately, whether you have been there, because of the unpredictable weather or because of the wild animals. A few days ago I walked into my bathroom and there was a green mamba on my toilet bowl. Or actually stoodbecause the snake was already half a meter high, ready to attack. Not good.” (laughing)

Anthony regularly transports chimpanzee orphans to a shelter.  (girlfriend)
Anthony regularly transports chimpanzee orphans to a shelter. (girlfriend)

8 p.m

“Back in my tent, before I go to sleep, I check my social media on the internet and I also follow the Belgian news. So I still maintain ties to Belgium, even though I have been working here for nine years. Every year I take home for a month to visit my parents. It always scares me that I can ride my bike there without bodyguards or rangers around me. (laughing) When I leave Africa, I can’t see myself doing it anymore. I wanted to fall into a black hole. Of course I’m scared here sometimes. He who is not afraid is lying or reckless. Fear is a good counselor. This ensures that you do not take unnecessary risks. He who is not afraid now and then has a few screws lack. One day I would like to work with rhinos in South Africa. The rhino population is truly under acute threat. If you want to protect it, you must also fly at night. I would like to do that again. But only if it runs perfectly here in Virunga. I will leave my child alone if I am one hundred percent sure that he is in good hands and can run completely independently.”

Anthony Caere in brief

The 41-year-old pilot Anthony Caere comes from Oostkerke near Damme. After working at Ostend Airport for ten years, in 2014 he got the opportunity to work for the VRT program Flying doctors to fly to the Congo with three doctors in training. Caere stayed there and was offered a job in Virunga National Park by Belgian Prince Emmanuel de Merode. There he built as chief pilot further out in the park’s air department, he provided additional aircraft and trained pilots. In 2017, Anthony suffered a serious crash on take-off in his Cessna. After several operations in Africa and Europe, during which his entire face had to be reconstructed, he returned to the Congo to continue his work. In 2016, together with Emmanuel de Merode, he received the Albert Schweizer Prize, a recognition for the risky work the duo carries out in one of the most beautiful but also dangerous areas on the planet. (LK)

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