‘Human Swan’ embarks on first expedition less than a year after fatal collision

An Australian-born biologist is beginning a 10,000km journey following the osprey migration route from the Moray coast to Ghana.

31 July 2022

Conservationist Sacha Dench is beginning her first expedition since being involved in a mid-air collision which claimed the life of her cameraman.

She said her trip will be dedicated to her late colleague as much as it is for conservation.

Dan Burton, 54, died when the pair’s paramotors collided in the north west Highlands in September last year.

Ms Dench, who has been dubbed the “human swan” for flying some 7,000km (4,300 miles) on a paramotor across Russia and Europe in 2016 to track the Bewick’s swan, survived the crash but was left with life-changing injuries.

Now, only months out of hospital, the Australian-born biologist, who still has one of her legs in a metal brace and requires crutches to walk, is setting off on the Flight of the Osprey expedition on Monday.

Ospreys expedition
Tim Smit from the Eden Project, Sacha Dench, Ian Redmond, UN Ambassador Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals CMS, Dame Joanna Lumley, Colin Galbraith, UN CMS, at the launch of the expedition (Poul Bix/Conservation Without Borders/PA)

Run by Conservation Without Borders, which she founded, Dench is leading a team of nine people to follow the migration route of the bird of prey some 10,000km (6,213 miles) from the Moray coast to Ghana through 14 countries – a trip that will last about four months.

“We are doing this expedition for Dan just as much as we are doing it for the ospreys,” she told the PA news agency.

“I know he would be cheering me and the team on.

“He’ll be with us along the way.”

The crew are travelling in three vehicles, including a converted army ambulance which has been fitted with a shower and kitchen and painted white with a map of the route and ospreys on it.

“We don’t want any confusion over what we are doing when we are crossing borders in some of these countries,” Dench said.

The aim of the mission is to gather data and highlight the impacts of climate change and human activities on ospreys and other wildlife, after the original trip in 2020 was postponed due to Covid.

The converted army ambulance being painted ahead of the expedition (Jason Monteil/Conservation Without Borders/PA)

Ospreys migrate on their own, which means the young ones make the epic and often perilous feat of endurance without adults birds.

Dench said only 70% of juveniles return for breeding, and the team wants to know more about why.

The group will be tracking four tagged birds and talking to experts and local communities who they plan to meet along the way.

“As well as looking at the ospreys, we want to listen to the voices of people in these different countries who live around the critical sites for these birds, and involve them in conservation because they are notably absent at most of the planning and emergency discussions around saving migratory species,” she said.

With her body still in recovery, Dench said she will not be taking to the skies for this expedition.

Surgeons have told her the metal brace can be removed in about four weeks, which she can either do en route or return to the UK temporarily for surgery.

“I can’t say thoughts of flying aren’t on my mind, but for now I need to focus on getting stronger and walking comfortably.”

With the expedition taking place on land and at sea, Ms Dench said she hopes to be in the water as soon as possible where not only research but rehabilitation for her will take place.

“Part of the trip involves looking at the degradation of seagrass beds, which are a vital food source for ospreys.

“As soon as I can, I will be putting on my wetsuit and flippers and getting in the water for that.

“I will feel like myself again the day that happens. The water was always my comfort zone before flying.”

Speaking frankly about her mental health ahead of the trip, the conservationist said: “In the weeks following the accident, I would have probably chosen not to be here.

“I worked with a great NHS psychologist from November when she identified that I needed some help and mentally I am in a really good place.

“While an expedition might not be what most people would be prescribed at this stage of recovery, she and the surgeons realised I have never looked so excited, engaged and happy as when I am thinking about putting this together.

“Since coming up to Scotland with the whole team together, I have found a huge grin on my face that I can’t wipe off.”

The team have been involved in intense training at naturalist Nick Baker’s base in the Cairngorms, and are due to finish the expedition at the end of November.

Flight of the Osprey is a conservation project in collaboration with UN agencies, scientists, media and governments.

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