This story was updated at 1:55 p.m. February 1, 2016 to include the latest information on the arrests made in connection with Gower's death.
When gunshots rang out in the Maswa Game Reserve, a protected area bordering Tanzania’s famous Serengeti National Park, on Thursday, January 28, a ground patrol unit from the Friedkin Conservation Fund was called to investigate. The team trekked through thick bush until the next morning, when they radioed for air support to help locate the suspected poachers.
Friedkin helicopter pilot Roger Gower, 37, and safari guide Nick Bester took off, and while flying over the reserve, they saw a fresh elephant carcass with its tusks still intact—a sure sign that the poachers were still around.
Flying low, Gower looped the chopper around the area to get a better look and spotted what looked like a pile of ivory balanced atop a small, rocky hill. Knowing they’d been discovered, poachers emerged from the bush and fired high-powered mark four rifles at the helicopter.
A colleague who was part of the operation said one of the bullets cut through the floor of the helicopter up through Gower’s seat, hitting his leg and piercing his shoulder, before tearing through the roof.
Gower somehow managed to maneuver the aircraft down. Bester jumped out and hid in a bush until the ground patrols arrived, but Gower succumbed to his injuries before the team could rescue him.
Since Gower was killed, Tanzanian authorities have arrested four people in connection with his death, according to Pratik Patel of the Friedkin Conservation Fund. He said the authorities have coordinated a massive manhunt to track down the poachers and believe to know the names of three others involved in the shooting.
Tanzania's former Wildlife minister, Lazaro Nyalandu, vowed that all efforts would be taken to bring the poachers to justice. "Those poachers who killed Capt Roger are coward, evil, and sad people," he wrote in a tweet. "A fine hearted individual gone too soon, and our hearts are broken."
Passionate About Making A Difference
Roger Gower, who was born and raised in the U.K., started out as an accountant. But friends said his sense of adventure led him to ditch that work and become a helicopter pilot. In 2009, he was offered a job at a luxury safari company in Tanzania, where he flew affluent clients and celebrities, including Bill Gates and Jessica Biel, around the country’s northern safari circuit and to private islands on the African “great lakes.”
Tom Lithgow, a friend and Gower’s former boss, said he was a superb pilot. “He was very reliable, never gung ho, and he was very by the book, always making sure the safety procedures were being followed.”
Last year, Gower took a job with the Friedkin Conservation Fund to fly clients around the company’s game reserves and to carry out aerial anti-poaching patrols.
Pratik Patel, a director at the Friedkin said Gower became dedicated to the cause. “He was totally passionate about working to make a difference in conservation and helping with this huge global fight [against poaching],” Patel said.
Gower’s brother Max told ITV News that he had always been passionate about animals and that moving to Tanzania was a way to be closer to nature.
Poaching Fight Heats Up
Until recently, Tanzania was the epicenter of Africa’s elephant poaching crisis. Census figures from the government suggest that the number of elephants in the country fell from 109,051 in 2009 to 43,330 in 2014.
But last year saw a turnaround. A new government task force made a series of high-profile arrests, and poaching has declined sharply.
Wayne Lotter, a director with the PAMS Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides anti-poaching support across Tanzania, said the crackdown has put increased pressure on poachers. “We’re at a point where there are more rangers out on the front lines, and that increases the risk of something like this happening.”
“The level of sophistication and the willingness to engage by these poachers has gone up,” said Patel. “The stakes are just that high at the moment.”
Friends and colleagues are asking that Gower’s life be honored by petitioning their governments for a global ban on ivory trading. A crowdfunding page set up by Max Gower aims to raise 50,000 pounds ($71,000) in his brother’s name.
Gower said that money raised will be donated toward anti-poaching efforts in Tanzania. He said he hoped “some good would come out of Roger's tragic death.”
Sophie Tremblay is a freelance journalist based in Arusha, Tanzania. Follow her on Twitter.