By Jane Okoth
Always calm and composed in his demeanor, Daniel Zuma is not your regular character. As a gyrocopter pilot at Wildlife Works, the 26 year old is living his dream and even more impressively, is dedicated to inspiring his community.
Being the first born in a family of five, Daniel Zuma has come a long way. He was not born in a wildlife friendly household – in fact, his father was a poacher, who was tragically killed by a buffalo. Daniel came to realize the importance of wild animals, and he wanted to take care of them rather than destroying them. “If I had decided to follow in my father’s footsteps like many do out of lack of livelihood options here, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he says.
Daniel’s relationship with Wildlife Works began back in 2007 when he was still in high school. He was sponsored through Wildlife Works by the Kilimu Trust, an organization headed by Alice Owen, which sponsored bright children from poor backgrounds throughout secondary education.
After completing his education, Daniel was employed by Wildlife Works in the workshop as an Assistant Mechanic in 2010. Though his job involved fixing cars, Daniel’s passion for flying began when a new gyrocopter was bought for the project and his dream to become a pilot was born. He was filled with joy when he was hand picked by Rob Dodson, the late VP of African Field Operations, to help out in the hangar.
“My work was to clean the hanger and the gyrocopter, filling potholes on the airstrip and sometimes flying with Rob around the project area to help in conservation issues,” he explains. This was a turning point for him because it further sparked wildlife and environment conservation interests in him. “Flying with Rob made me change my passion from becoming a commercial pilot to a gyrocopter pilot,” he says.
In 2014, Mr Dodson offered to sponsor Daniel for three years to study for a Diploma in Aeronautical Engineering at Eldoret Aviation Training Institute. Two years down the line, he did an attachment with a company at Wilson airport in Nairobi for 8 months where he continued to grow his experience in aeronautical engineering.
“During my holidays I would spend time at the hangar, helping out and servicing the gyrocopter with other engineers. During my three years of training, I was also sponsored by Rob to do a Rotax line maintenance course.”
When Rob passed away suddenly in early 2017, the initial plan to sponsor Daniel to go to South Africa to learn how to fly was put on hold. However, Rob had spoken to Alice Owen, who previously worked for Wildlife Works, about Daniel’s ambition to become a pilot. This was when the idea of crowd funding came about. After Rob’s death, Alice then helped to raise enough funds through the support of crowd funding to cater for Daniel’s flights to the United Kingdom as well as his training costs.
Daniel is particularly grateful for the immense support he received from Rob’s brother, James Dodson, and his family during his stay in the United Kingdom. “Upon arrival at the UK to do my training in August 2017, James, his wife Emma, and their children picked me up from the airport,” he says. They then invited him to spend time with them on weekends and also showed me around the United Kingdom. James then volunteered to drive him from Leicester to York for his training.
The Gyrocopter Experience, a training school in the UK offered to give Daniel 10 free hours of flying as part of a bigger package to get him fully trained. He received tremendous support from Chief Instructor at The Gyrocopter Experience, Mr Phil Harwood, and his wife Kati Hedger. They made sure Daniel’s training went on smoothly and gave him support where needed.
Today Daniel Zuma is among the very few trained gyrocopter pilots in Kenya. Since retuning from his training, he is now working as a co-pilot in the Wildlife Works project area whilst building up his solo hours. “For my solo flying sessions, I usually check on the weather first thing in the morning. If conditions are favorable, I can be up in the sky as early as 6am” he says. On a normal day, he helps keep track of the elephant population, notes any rare species’ sighting, takes the GPS coordinates and then sends it to the rangers or to the Biodiversity Monitoring Team.
“Looking back, my dream has come true thanks to Wildlife Works. I now want to positively impact the community and my generation for the better,” he says. “Thanks to Wildlife Works, the environment is being protected from overgrazing, charcoal burning and poaching, and the wildlife populations are intact”. Daniel would also like to express how grateful he is for the huge support he has received from everyone, from those who contributed to the crowd funding campaign, to The Gryocopter Experience and to all those who have helped him along the way.
Wildlife Works is very honored to be part of Daniel’s amazing journey and we hope he continues to inspire others to pursue their dreams.