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The family of a British pilot who was shot dead by elephant poachers in Tanzania have said they want to “make some good come from tragedy” as they spearhead an appeal to raise £1m to help tackle the African ivory trade.
Roger Gower, 37, was tracking criminals who had killed three elephants near the Serengeti national park when a poacher opened fire with an AK-47 rifle on 29 January last year.
Despite his fatal injuries the former accountant, from Birmingham, managed to save the life of his best friend and safari guide, Nicky Bester, by crash-landing the stricken helicopter into a tree to prevent it exploding.
Roger’s family have marked the one-year anniversary of his death by launching a charity, called Born to Fly, aimed at promoting education and conservation in Africa to help curb elephant poaching across the continent.
Roger’s brother, Max Gower, said: “We were left with a big void and feeling of senselessness when Roger died. It was just a pointless death, it didn’t achieve anything, so we wanted to try and get some good to come out of that.”
A memorial fund set up after Roger’s death raised £250,000, which is being put towards building basic amenities including the only toilets for a school of 200 pupils in Kipsing, Kenya.
The family now hope to raise close to £1m to build a new secondary school in Manyara, Tanzania, whose nearest school is 16 miles away.
Gower, 43, said the work would “make Roger proud” because he was passionate about conservation and educating underprivileged children. “It’s been a terrific focus for all of us, even my parents who were a bit reticent about committing to anything in the first place,” he said.
“I think they have now found that the void is still there and there’s nothing to fill it but to have the charity and be able to make some good come out of what was such a tragic event has been uplifting for them too.”
Conservationists estimate that more than 20,000 elephants were killed for their ivory last year in Africa, with similar tolls in previous years. The WWF campaign group says 415,000 of the animals remain.
Elephants’ ivory is prized for jewellery and decorative objects and much of it is smuggled to China, where many increasingly wealthy shoppers are buying ivory trinkets as a sign of financial success.
In December China pledged to ban all domestic ivory trade and processing by the end of this year in a move hailed by activists as a gamechanger for Africa’s elephants. Yet conservationists have warned that Hong Kong could become the preferred market for ivory traffickers unless the Chinese territory brings forward a ban to end its ivory trade by 2021.
“Up to 100 elephants are killed every day in Africa,” Max Gower said. Estimations vary but at the current rate, there could be no elephants left in Africa by 2030. That death toll is principally driven by the ivory trade.
“The possibility of such a beautiful species being wiped out for such a pointless reason is not only tragic in itself but it says something very worrying about the value that humanity places on the amazing world we live in and the wonders that it holds.”
Roger’s brother and their 71-year-old parents last year visited the desolate corner of Tanzania where he lost his life. The letter R had been carved into the tree where he crash-landed his bullet-ridden aircraft, Gower said.
“It was in the middle of nowhere and we stood around thinking the only thing you could hear was the wind in the trees,” he said. “It was really, really desolate and very sad to think that’s where he spent his last moments, but comforted that he was at least with a friend when it happened.”
Nine Tanzanians were charged in connection with Roger’s murder, including four for murder, and they are believed to be awaiting trial.