Meet the adventurer: ‘human swan’ Sacha Dench on tracing bird migration paths from Siberia to South Africa

Nicknamed ‘the human swan’, the Australian biologist and conservationist explores the threats facing migratory bird species by replicating their journey across the sky by using a powered paragilder.

Sacha Dench's next big project is Flight of the Osprey, which follows the bird on a 6,000-mile autumn migration from Scotland to West Africa.

Photograph by Conservation Without Borders
By Angela Locatelli
Published 23 Aug 2022, 15:00 BST

Where does your passion for adventure come from?

I grew up predominantly on a homestead in the Australian bush. We didn’t have power, running water or a television, but what we did have was access to vast amounts of wildlife and wild areas. That’s probably where my love of and connection with all things wild came from.

But I also moved around a lot. For a time, I stayed with my dad’s family in a large manor house in England, while my mother’s family lived in lovely places in Switzerland. I developed a passion for people — the different ways landscapes and conditions create characters and strengths.

You’re a UN ambassador for avian migratory species. What drew you to study these birds?

I’m driven by finding solutions to problems. In conservation, migratory species are particularly challenging because they rely on the health of habitats and people in lots of different countries. It’s complex and you have to be really creative. I saw a way I could make a difference.

But I also saw I had an affinity with these animals. I’ve lived in places with very different cultures, very different politics. When you’re trying to do conservation on this scale, you need to have a pretty good understanding of how to quickly relate to people. That’s a skill I’ve developed over time.

In 2016, you spent three months on a powered paraglider tracking the flyway of Bewick’s swans, from Siberia to the UK. What did the Flight of the Swans expedition teach you?

Adventure and science are easily combined. The use of a paramotor was a practical choice: landscapes make sense from above, and aerial images are important in order to show what the problems are and discuss solutions.

What’s more, as paramotors fly at similar speeds and altitudes to birds, they’re useful to get a real feeling for the conditions the birds experience. For example, during the autumn migration, when the sky is quite often covered in grey and low clouds, birds are forced to fly at about the same altitude as power lines. That’s one of the main threats we found through parts of Europe, but you wouldn’t know that if you weren’t trying to fly that route yourself.

There was definitely an added benefit in the paramotor being interesting and exciting. No matter where I landed, people wanted to ask questions. That tended to be the perfect intro to a conversation about migratory species, and it worked with everybody, from hunters in the Arctic to schools in the UK.

Do you have one memory that stands out?

There were many wonderful instances of people offering support, accommodation and resources, even when they had very little. There were magic moments when kids would run from miles away because they’d never seen anything like this. But the best thing was taking my helmet off and seeing young girls, potentially living in quite male-dominated societies, suddenly go: wow, girls can fly, too!

In August, you begin your next project, Flight of the Osprey, following this predatory bird on its 6,000-mile autumn migration from Scotland to West Africa. What inspired you?

The UK is in the middle of a flyway that goes from Russia, Iceland and Greenland down to Africa. I’ve done half of it through the Flight of the Swans expedition and I wanted to follow the rest of the journey. Many birds do it, but the osprey makes a fabulous icon. It’s been persecuted to extinction in many countries, and although it’s starting to make a comeback, it still suffers a lot of loss on the migration route: up to 70% of the young birds that leave Scotland never return.

From tracking data, we can tell where birds have disappeared, or where their tags have just stopped working. But nobody can really piece together the whole story of the flyway. That’s what I was keen to do — not only look at where birds have disappeared, but at what the threats are in each of those places, and then try to build up a big picture. By looking at what goes on for the osprey, we could be helping a load of other species that rely on the same habitats.

And this time, you’ll be exploring the role of the ocean beneath the flyway, too.

I free dive, and there are plenty of places where the underwater part of the story will be really interesting. For example, on the north coast of Morocco, which is home to the southernmost breeding population of osprey, they suffer due to dynamite fishing. In some places, we’ll look at how the increased murkiness of the water, caused by deforestation, is impacting seagrass beds, where the young fish grow that ospreys feed on. In other areas, it’s been reported that we’ll find ghost [discarded] nets.

What’s your proudest achievement?

Quite often, people will assume it’s the awards and titles. Actually, it’s the fact that the little girl from the Australian bush — who grew up with very little but had a passion for nature and for putting things right — could become a UN ambassador. I’ve managed to get to a point where I really feel I can influence our trajectory for the next 10 years.

Follow Sacha Dench’s new project, Flight of the Osprey, on her charity Conservation Without Borders.

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