The Angola Field Group looks forward to bringing you the latest developments from Cangandala National Park and Luando Special Reserve with monthly updates and photos, on what’s happening with Angola’s national symbol, the Palanca Negra Gigante or Giant Sable. Pedro Vaz Pinto, the man who re-discovered the Palanca Negra Gigante after Angola’s 30 decades of civil war, heads up the Conservation Program to protect this animal which is on the list of the world’s critically endangered animals. Pedro is a researcher for the Catholic University Centre for Scientific Studies and Research.
Scroll down or click on the links below to read the English and versão Portugêse versions of Pedro Vaz Pinto’s reports.
- 2014: Third Trimester 2014 Report, Second Trimester 2014 Report, First Trimester 2014 Report
- 2013: First Trimester 2013 Report, Second Trimester 2013 Report, Special Capture Operation Report – July, Third Trimester – Final 2013 Report
- 2012: Fourth Trimester 2012 Report, Angola Field Group Presentation Video & Notes, Third Trimester 2012 Report, Second Trimester 2012 Report, First Trimester 2012 Report
- 2011: Third Semester 2011 Report , Second Semester 2011 Report , First Semester 2011 Report, January 2011 Third Trimester Report
- 2010: October 2010 Third Trimester Report , July 2010 Second Trimester Report, November 2009 to April 2010 Trimester Report,
- 2009: September & October 2009 Report , July & August 2009 Report, June 2009 Report, May 2009 Report , March/April 2009 Report , February 2009 Report , January 2009 Report
- 2008: December 2008 Report, November 2008 Report, October 2008 Report, September 2008 Report , August 2008 Report, July 2008 Report , June 2008 Report , May 2008 Report
- Download a revised and updated e-book edition of A Certain Curve of Horn- written by journalist, conservationist and artist John Frederick Walker
- At the end of this page you can read a selection of recent articles about the Giant Sable
- Click on small map image below to see protected areas in Malange province, the only place in the world where the giant sable is found. The small red area is Cangandala park, the large red area is Luando Reserve:
- Third Trimester 2014 Report
The trimester started off with worrying news from Cangandala. Partially in response to our constant reporting of poaching, the municipal authorities organized with the local police a series of nocturnal operations placing checkpoints at various dirt roads around the park. And on one occasion detained a poacher which was carrying in his motor bike a roan antelope! It was a yearling female and he had chopped out its head, but still it is amazing how he was driving to Malanje with such a large antelope in his bike. He was duly arrested by the authorities, and at least for a while he stuck in jail while awaiting trial prosecution. It is unclear where the roan was shot, and it may have been outside the park’s boundaries, but of course it may be this case may be the tip of the iceberg
In spite of the generous rains in previous months, the dry season this year was fairly intense in Cangandala, and against our expectations the natural water holes and drainage lines dried up quite rapidly. This caused occasional shortage of water inside the sanctuary which in turn may have contributed to raise the stress on the animals. Probably of result of this there was quite a lot of animal activity and testing along the fence, and unfortunately it was even brought down a few times as some antelopes violated the perimeter. It wasn’t clear to us which animals broke through the fence. In a couple occasions it may have involved roan, but at least once it was suspected that some sable escaped the sanctuary.
Ground observations and the trap camera record proved that the old females and at least most of the hybrids are still contained in the sanctuary and therefore, our concern grew as we fear that part of the young group may have escaped. Unfortunately none of those sable visited the salt licks in recent months, further raising our suspicions. Tracking the animals on the ground allowed us to locate one young group inside the sanctuary, which included the only two functioning collars in young females. This group comprised six females (ages 2, 4 and 5), two yearlings, five calves and it was escorted by Eolo, a young 2-year old male (third in Cangandala-born lineage, after Mercury and Apollo). Eolo is a handsome young boy, yet to turn black but already with an impressive presence.
We were in fact able to approach them several times and get them habituated to our presence, allowing for plenty of nice close-range photos. The composition of this subgroup demonstrates that the initial young herd has split in two, also considering that Mercury had long broken through the fence, the other group likely will be guarded by Apollo and might include five other females and four or five yearlings, plus a few calves. During my visits I could not find the second group, and witness accounts from the rangers are inconsistent (they claim to have seen the group both outside and inside the fence, with irreconcilable numbers and dates). This is a mystery hopefully to be solved during next trimester. Of course the possibility that half of our best breeding sable might be outside the fenced camp, can have major implications on the whole program and force us to propose exceptional response measures. For the time being and until proven otherwise, we will assume the worst case scenario and plan accordingly.
Outside the sanctuary the trap cameras recorded once again our good old friend Ivan the Terrible, patrolling his territory. He has clearly put on some weight and might be recovering some of his lost pride. But hopefully not too much of it. As for Mercury we couldn’t find him, and unconfirmed witness accounts place him patrolling a new territory on the opposite side of the sanctuary, far away from Ivan. I really miss this boy, and it would be a waste if we lose him as a breeding bull. Back inside the fenced camp and after months of frustrating delay it was finally possible to make a bore hole located in a scenic landscape right at the core of the sanctuary, which we will now make sure it will be operational at the onset of the next dry season.
A shocking development that we need to report in Cangandala relates, once more, to poaching activities. There is little doubt that we have at least one team of two armed poachers, who have been operating the area at least for the past three years. They know the area quite well, and mostly hunt at night with a spotlight near the sanctuary, but we know at least a couple times have ventured inside. They have been photographed by a Trap Camera back in 2012, and every now and then have manipulated, destroyed by fire or even stolen cameras. And they seem to have become progressively bolder in their actions. This time they completely destroyed one camera with an axe and took the memory card. Still, one of them was photographed a couple of weeks earlier on a different camera which they are unaware of. Unfortunately we obtained dark night photos, only useful to confirm we’re dealing with the same individuals but not good enough for precise IDs. We have now laid some traps with cameras hidden high up in trees, hoping to catch them in the act next time. This and more efforts are on the way to see if we can catch these guys.
Further south, the bridge across Luando River was finalized in July, and therefore we were able to drive the first car into the reserve in 27 years! We did a couple trips in this period to the reserve and each time spent several nights camping in the deep bush. Having the vehicle with us meant quite an improvement in terms of logistics and reach. But of course the bridge is also cause for concern as it facilitates the way for poachers and stimulates the greed for local natural resources. On the first trip we learnt that our old lion friend had returned to the region and created havoc among some locals, to the point that in certain villages people were strongly encouraged not to come out after dark. Another concern for the sable, although I remember thinking that if we’re lucky this could maybe deter or demoralize some poachers… who knows maybe the lion could even catch one poacher.
In Luando we also tried to approach the sable herds, but even tracking the VHF signals we had limited success. The region is very extensive and remote, and these animals are quite nervous, always on alert for poachers. Therefore the best we could achieve was very brief encounters, and for obvious reasons we decided not to push them further. Most of our time was used to patrol water holes and other hotspots previously identified from satellite imagery. Unfortunately it showed us once again that poaching is rampant in the reserve. We found plenty of poaching tracks, active and inactive traps, recently used cartridges, animal carcasses in traps, poacher’s camps, and even once we came across an armed poacher who got away before we could detain him. As this wasn’t enough the trap camera record were equally enlightening, as apart from roan and smaller antelope pictures, we obtained many photos of poachers, in five independent occasions! This fact was quite alarming.
Now I saved the best for last to end this report on less somber note (even if some might disagree): Before we left the reserve by the end of September we learnt the most amazing news. The lion did it!!! Our big boy caught, killed and had a poacher for supper. And he got away with it. According to the story as told at one local village by a very scared survivor, he and his friend were hunting at night with spotlights, and his companion was in front and carrying a shotgun, when he was ambushed by the big lion who gave him no chance to fight back. The second poacher run away as fast as he could and only stopped at the village, many kms further. He refused to go back to the meal site the following day and disappeared before long. Apparently no one could figure out where the poachers had come from, but were assumed to be diamond diggers operating along the Kwanza River. Now we hope the survivor to tell his tale, and spread it among his buddies.
I must admit that I am starting to see the lion under a different light now. A romantic person could be tempted to accept the lion as an active conservation agent fighting to hold his ground against competitors, while a cynical person could suggest that the lion is simply going for the most abundant prey: poachers! In any case, and however we choose to look at it, my respect for the Big Boy has increased exponentially!!!
More photos are available at the following link:
- Second Trimester 2014 Report
Although this rainy season wasn’t particularly wet, still the rains lasted for longer than the usual, with a lot of rain throughout April and well into May. This fact had several consequences, mostly positive for the animals but not necessarily facilitating our field work. During April and May, many drainage lines became waterlogged, so driving with the 4X4 inside the park was painstakingly slow and muddy, and as result we could only get glimpses of the animals inside the sanctuary.
In contrast when we returned in June, the soils in the park had pretty much dried up completely, but now there was an excess of overgrown grass everywhere. Most of the grass was dead but there was just enough moisture to prevent the start of prophylactic burnings. It felt like 2014 was one month delayed compared to standard years. And this period corresponds to the least attractive annual conditions, in the Cangandala bush, in my opinion. Rather give me rain, mud, wind, cold, heat, bees or fire anytime! But piles of dead grass with millions of tiny seeds getting everywhere and clogging the radiator are much more annoying. And of course it is a bad time to find and watch the sable. In June, and after a few frustrated attempts I eventually gave up on tracking them further.
More important is to recognize that the late rains at least reversed what until then had been a very dry wet season, and this is surely good news for the animals. As we have seen in previous years, good and late rains translate into shorter and less intense dry seasons, with a delay and reduction of bush fires, and more water available in water holes for longer time. And all this also means less poaching pressure and ultimately improved breeding success. This was particularly evident in Luando for the last couple years, when high mortality and low recruitment followed the very dry rainy season of 2011/2012, while the opposite happened last year after abundant rains.
Looking at the trap camera record it was a pleasure to confirm Ivan’s physical recovery. Even if it it is doubtful that he will ever be the same powerful unstoppable bull that was flown in from Luando Reserve in 2011. Most likely he will always carry a limp but how much this handicap will affect his proud and irascible nature remains to be seen. In any case it is reassuring to see that he has put on some weight and muscle and is back patrolling his old territory, even if his mane hasn’t yet regained the former pitch black coloration.
Inside the sanctuary we failed to locate Mercury and he also didn’t surface in any salt lick. This started as being annoying, and then developed into an uncomfortable feeling, but finally we were shocked to locate his radio signal outside the sanctuary! Somehow he managed to break through and subsequently couldn’t get back inside… and he probably tried as we found him close and his tracks suggested he had been patrolling along the fence trying to return. This is a major setback of course, and made particularly worse because we were forced to cancel a pre-scheduled 2014 aerial operation for July as result of institutional misunderstandings.
So in less than one year we lost the original old bull on a fight with Ivan, then the later got caught in a snare trap and now we lost, at least temporarily, our most important young bull! And we don’t have the means to put him back in the short term. His escape also explains why in April we found the main breeding herd accompanied by the very young Apolo, barely mature and one year younger than Mercury.
At least the girls are still escorted by one bull, who should be perfectly capable of breeding. And the even younger Eolo, at age two and next in the male lineage seems also to be precocious and is became independent. Basically, even if Mercury never returns, this isn’t necessarily a crisis and it is probably a good thing to have different bulls siring calves every year, but we can surely not afford losing more bulls in the next few months. And of course, we also fear now for Mercury’s future, as security outside the sanctuary is far from optimal and he might also challenge Ivan with uncertain results.
Other than that, we had plenty of photos of the two extraordinary old breeding Cangandala cows, Luisa and Teresa. And yes, they seem to be pregnant once again, while still attending for their 2013 calves, two males that we have named Mars and Jupiter.
In Luando the most relevant development is that the Provincial Government is building a new bridge that will allow access into the reserve with 4×4, which has not been possible for over two decades. This will be a huge contribution to our field work, but of course it is a double edged sword, as it might also facilitate poaching and other threats.
Photos can be viewed on Picasa Album through following link:
Pedro Vaz Pinto
- First Trimester 2014 Report
In the beginning of the year a short break in the rains allowed a 4X4 incursion into Cangandala NP, even though the road conditions had deteriorated substantially. It was a good opportunity to put to the test the new LandCruiser kindly donated by Toyota Angola, and sure enough there were plenty of good challenges for us to negotiate our way through the mud.
Things seem to be evolving naturally in the sanctuary, with the animals consistently split in two groups, one comprising the old cows and most of the hybrids, and a second herd with most of the young sables. Somewhat surprisingly this time the second group was not accompanied by the bull Mercury, but by his younger sibling Apolo, who at age two is still very inexperienced. More worrying is the fact that Mercury didn’t show up at the trap cameras, nor could we picks up his radio signal anywhere. Maybe he’s been spending some time on his own and it was by chance that he’s gone undetected, but it is a bit suspicious… With Duarte and Ivan out of the picture, and the hybrid bulls castrated, he should be enjoying a comfortable dominance without competition inside the sanctuary, and I can’t think of any reason why he would leave his girls unattended… something to be followed up in future visits.
We were not able to confirm the number of sable calves, as the long grass, soft terrain and thick vegetation typical of the late rainy season, made it very hard to approach the herds.
The herds were generously photographed in the trap cameras, but not simultaneously and similar aged calves are hardly distinguishable individually. In any case, we believe most calves have survived, and the animals look happy and healthy. Once again we could confirm the presence of several intruder roan bulls inside the sanctuary, but no females.
On the other hand, the roan herds out of the sanctuary have been producing lots of calves, consistently recorded in the cameras. One curious event revealed by the trap cameras was seeing that one old female – Paula, broke her left horn. Females often interact aggressively as they establish their hierarchical positions within the herd, and sometimes it can result in traumatic lesions. The broken horn however hasn’t reached live tissue and should bring no consequences to Paula, apart from hindering her dominance ambitions. And on the other hand it will make her much easier to be identified from now on.
The trap cameras however also brought us a sweet-sour surprise. Remarkably, out most popular character – crazy Ivan “The Terrible” resurfaced! Following an absence that lasted for more than six months we had lost hope to locate him alive and assumed he had probably been another casualty of poachers. Well, he is alive yes, but unfortunately we weren’t that much off target in our fears. He did fell victim of a poaching incident, having been caught in one of the many infamous snare traps that are constantly being mounted in the park and neighboring areas. He has become a shadow of the Ivan we knew, and if it wasn’t for the white ear tags and VHF collar I would find it hard to accept that he is the same individual that now appeared in photos since January 3rd. Our old Ivan, strong and proud, mighty and threatening, undefeated… is gone. He is now a poor masculine figure, humble and skinny, feeble and frightened, beaten. Ivan has lost weight and has even lost his shiny black coat, having turned brown, almost female-colored. He is certainly not the same imposing bull, and on his left front leg carries a nasty ring-shaped scar, evidence of the cable snare that almost took his life. The incident must have happened many months ago and he must have gone through hell before finally attempting an hesitant return to his territorial duties. It is likely that the worst has passed and he will survive, but it is hard to predict if he will make a full recovery. This was yet another shocking proof that the poaching curse is far from resolved, even in Cangandala. It is highly frustrating that in spite of all the effort put into the project by the various stakeholders and the very significant successes obtained over the past few years, still we don’t seem to be winning the war against poaching and the recovery and survival of this magnificent and iconic species hangs by a thread.
More photos can be viewed on Picasa Album through the following Link: https://plus.google.com/photos/113384424565470443034/albums/5998067063642775489?authkey=CPbNurKwo66wuQE
- Third Trimester – Final 2013 Report: August to December
Following the July capture operation things stabilized in Cangandala NP. This year rains started early in September and as result of heavy works being done in the park by Government, to put bungalows and bringing new fencing materials, the access roads soon became so damaged, that from October onwards it became impossible to drive across the boundary into the park. For this reason we could only monitor the animals until September and after that we had to rely exclusively on the trap camera records. Inside the sanctuary and by the end of the dry season, a new well and water tank were being finalized and an elevated viewpoint was constructed over the Cazela river drainage.
In late September the animals seemed to be doing very well, with young Mercury proudly assuming his role as the new master bull of Cangandala. The sables are consistently split in two herds, the younger group closely watched by Mercury and the old females lumped with the hybrids and apparently without permanent presence of any bull. In the latter case it still remains unclear if one of the castrated hybrid bulls has any deterrent effect on the pure males, but apparently the much younger Apollo at age 2 is now gravitating around the old cows.
Most importantly we were able to confirm eight new calves born in 2013, the mothers being the six young females brought from Luando in 2011, and from Louise and Teresa, the two very old fertile cows that can’t stop breeding. And we still hope for a ninth calf that may have been produced by Venus, the first female born in the sanctuary back in 2010. Overall, and if we exclude the four problematic and old cows that have lost their breeding potential and never calved, then for the remaining cows the fertility is outstanding and pretty much at 100% since we started the breeding program. This is just one part of the equation as female sable are always expected to be very fertile, while it is the calf mortality during first year of age that often becomes a limiting factor for population growth.
Unfortunately we couldn’t drive into the sanctuary after September and the herds went few times to the salt licks for family photos, and so we couldn’t track properly calf development and success. By the end of the year it also seemed clear that we have permanently lost the two older bulls that had been the main protagonists in Cangandala for the past few years. Duarte was very old anyway and had done his part producing the first pure offspring produced in this park in over a decade. It seems logical that the terrible fight with Ivan back in March was his last. As for our most popular character, crazy Ivan the Terrible, unfortunately he seems to be out of the picture too. In May, Ivan was photographed, healthy and majestic, but in June he had disappeared while his collar was not emitting signal, and this was confirmed in subsequent months. There is no other large bull in the region and no serious wild predators in Cangandala, not to mention that Ivan was the strongest sable we have ever dealt with, so I’m afraid that we have to conclude that he was poached. Either shot by poachers or caught in a snare trap, and then the collar must have been intentionally destroyed.
The rainy season is when the fence is most vulnerable, because of frequent storms with trees and branches falling over. This has been cause for concern, and in addition it became apparent during the last few months that the fence has been challenged several times with animals breaking through. And of course there is no more Ivan to blame. So far it seems that no sable has escaped, but on the other hand at least two new roan bulls have invaded and established inside the sanctuary. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the roan population has apparently increased significantly in Cangandala or at least approaching the sanctuary, as proven by our remarkable trap camera record. Under such circumstances it is only normal that young roan males are naturally dispersing from their herds and finding good shelter inside the neighboring sanctuary. And our fence is clearly not a sufficient deterrent to stop a young roan bull on a mission. We confirmed in the photographs a young mature bull and also a lonely yearling, in two different salt licks. The latter is yet another animal that, miraculously given his age and smaller size, has survived a snare trap, showing an ugly scarred front leg. The unfortunate incident probably explains why he got astray at so tender age. When caught in the snare he must have suffered for a while, then panicked and got lost, before breaking into the sanctuary. Lost and lonely he was now recorded attempting to approach an old sable cow, probably a desperate attempt to find company.
In 2012 and concerned with continuing hybridization risks, we castrated the young and only roan male (Freddy) inside the sanctuary as he had joined the sable cows and we suspected they were poorly attended by old Duarte.
Now the situation has changed slightly and it is not realistic to keep tackling in such radical fashion every new roan invader. Especially because they will probably keep coming and more importantly the sable herds seem now properly supervised by young sable bulls. But we’ll keep watching… On the other hand and even if Ivan’s fate remains open to debate, the injuries on the new young roan prove that poaching with snares is still a major issue even in Cangandala NP, so a lot still remains to be done.
In Luando Reserve the fifteen sable equipped with GPS collars are being tracked permanently and apparently are all safe for now. It seems clear that the most serious threat pending over the last surviving giant sable herds in Luando, are the snare traps planted around the majority of water holes, mainly concentrated between June and August, and aiming to capture by the leg any medium to large ungulate that attempts to approach the site to drink. This infamous technique, often targeting the largest antelopes (mostly sable and roan) seems to be causing huge and unsustainable annual mortality on giant sable. Particularly affected are the most vulnerable, such as breeding cows and young animals, and this is supported by our demographic data. Pregnant and recently calved cows are probably the most dependent on a constant water supply, while yearlings are trusting, adventurous and inexperienced, and many times lack the strength to escape a snare. Old bulls are more weary creatures, less dependent on water and much stronger. This may explain why the bull population in Luando seems to be in better shape than the females and respective herds, and why so many females have serious leg injuries, and also why there seems to be an abnormally low annual recruitment of young animals into adult age, and contrasting with healthy numbers of calves.
In an effort to counteract the rampant dry season poaching we have devised and successfully tested a new strategy, and which we expect will start producing results next season. Firstly we have acquired high resolution satellite imagery, and as result we were able to pinpoint an accurate water network for the whole reserve. Secondly, all water points were provisionally classified according to their nature, size and proximity to known sable territories or home ranges. One interesting surprise was finding that the water network was a lot more prolific than expected or at least perceived from our earlier ground experience… there is a lot more water available than we suspected, and this could be picked up from satellite! Then we conducted a quad bike expedition in September for ground trothing, and fine tuning and further detailed classification of the most important water holes, especially the ones closest to our already defined hotspots.
By the time we did the expedition, most water holes had dried out, while we experienced the first showers announcing the new rainy season. For this reason herds were not visiting the sites for drinking, and snare traps had already been removed. In any case, we were still in good time to evaluate the pre-identified water holes and to determine their importance and levels of threat. Over a few days and quad-biking in cross-country we visited 9 sites (of which only one was previously known by us), less than half than what we expected but we faced some contingency problems that forced us not to continue. Still, results were very promising and above expectations, and proving that we were on the right track. Two water holes, as also suggested by the sat imagery, had limited water retaining capacity and were downscaled as unimportant. Of the remaining seven sites, six (86%) had recent to not-too-old giant sable tracks. And four of those sites (57%) had serious and clear poaching signs. In three water holes we found large poles that had been used during the last dry season, for snares targeting sable and other large antelope. In one of these sites there was a skeleton of a reedbuck that had died maybe a month ago and in the meantime had been consumed by vultures and bushpigs.
In the last site visited the shock was even bigger when we burst into the scene and surprised a poacher calmly drying up meat around the fire on a camp situated less than 200mts from the water hole. He was alone as his other two mates had gone out to poach with shotguns. There were a few freshly killed duikers from the previous day, but we were even more alarmed to find that the two absent poachers had gone in pursuit of a giant sable bull that had visited the site during the night and left unaware of the poachers’ presence. This was easily concluded by the fresh tracks and spoor on the scene. The poacher was arrested and delivered to the local authorities, and his bounty burned. Upon interrogation he confessed that he lives in a village situated more than 100kms away, and they were a team of three and came in two bikes. The plan was shooting antelopes for a few days, drying up the meat, and then take the product to Malanje and sell it in the market.
This incident and some mechanical difficulties forced us abort the mission, as it would be too risky to try to reach some of the more remote sites. But the main objective had been achieved. We now hope to establish network surveillance next dry season, cleaning up and securing all major water holes in the key areas. And this may, hopefully and for the first time in many years, help to start turning the tables in our favor in the fight against poaching. Unfortunately and much to our shock and disappointment, we learned later, that our poacher escaped detention within 24 hours of being arrested and delivered…
Another key milestone on this struggle may have been the renewed commitment from the FAA – Angolan Military Forces (army and air forces), who during October conducted a serious ground and aerial operation in Luando, aiming to serve as deterrent to poaching. For a few days they deployed teams patrolling the reserve, making local villagers aware of the importance to protect the giant sable, and sending the message that from now on, the military will be watchful to protect the national symbol. We collaborated with their initiative, and some awareness flyers and posters were produced and used to Luando. At the end of the operation no poachers had been caught but a clear statement was made.
Nevertheless, a few weeks later we received worrying reports that many armed poachers were still active in Luando, and as compelling evidence the shepherds found a freshly killed roan carcass. It was a yearling male and had been shot by poachers near the diamond areas along the Kwanza River. And yet another worrying report was learning from the shepherds that the big lion was back in business, patrolling and hunting inside giant sable sensitive areas. After the helicopter incident in July he had left the scene for a few months, but finally returned.
To finalize on a positive note, by the end of year we received wonderful news that Toyota – Angola would be donating us a brand new Land Cruiser HZJ … in good time indeed!
Photos can be seen through the following link:
- Special Report – July 2013
Versão PortuguêsDear friends,
Although the third annual report wasn’t supposed to be released before October, I felt July deserved a special newsletter to report on the 2013 Capture Operation, and hope you’ll enjoy it. This capture operation wasn’t intended to translocate any animals, as it was agreed that the Cangandala population has finally picked up and is breeding well following a slow start. The main objectives set in Cangandala, were: first of all (and if possible…) finding crazy “Ivan the Terrible” to replace his collar and maybe cut off the tip of his horns to make him less lethal; to track down old Duarte to confirm (or not) his death; to place a few new collars on pure sable including at least on the young bull Mercury; and if possible to dart some of the old 4-5 non-breeding cows, check her condition and maybe give them an hormonal boost to see if we can induce a late estrus.For Luando, the main objectives were to place as many new tracking collars as possible; track down known herds and animals collared in previous years while trying to find new groups; and very importantly, to get fresh information on the population trends, poaching activities and other threats. For this operation we counted with the same top-team as in 2009 and 2011, which proved to be as professional and efficient as always, namely the veterinary Pete Morkel and pilot Barney O’Hara and his chopper Hughes 500. They make their amazingly difficult and specialized skills to look easy. It is a privilege to work with them, and as in previous exercises, this operation was a complete success!A lot of logistics had to be put in place weeks in advance. Fuel was deployed to Cangandala NP and to Luando by military truck and by an Air Force Allouette respectively. The collaboration with Administration of Cangandala Municipality and Provincial Government of Malanje was very relevant, and as always the support from Angolan military forces proved instrumental. In preparation, we started by tracking the animals on the ground and checking the trap camera records, but results weren’t very encouraging. We were facing very atypical veld conditions, as the unusually moist and prolonged wet season had delayed the grass decay and seasonal burnings. This was probably good for the animals, providing more cover, graze and water availability well into the dry season, but made our job at finding and observing sable much harder of course. In addition few sable used the salt licks in June, one of the few exceptions being some of the young females brought from Luando in 2011, who were photographed very heavy on their second pregnancy. Surely this to be credited to young Mercury! As for Ivan he simply did not show up on any salt lick. This wasn’t promising as we wanted to have a good feel on his whereabouts before tracking him from the air, but as long as his collars was active we would find him sooner or later…
A lot of logistics had to be put in place weeks in advance. Fuel was deployed to Cangandala National Park and to Luando by military truck and by an Air Force Allouette respectively. The collaboration with Administration of Cangandala Municipality and Provincial Government of Malanje was very relevant, and as always the support from Angolan military forces proved instrumental.
In preparation, we started by tracking the animals on the ground and checking the trap camera records, but results weren’t very encouraging. We were facing very atypical veld conditions, as the unusually moist and prolonged wet season had delayed the grass decay and seasonal burnings. This was probably good for the animals, providing more cover, graze and water availability well into the dry season, but made our job at finding and observing sable much harder of course. In addition few sable used the salt licks in June, one of the few exceptions being some of the young females brought from Luando in 2011, who were photographed very heavy on their second pregnancy. Surely this to be credited to young Mercury! As for Ivan he simply did not show up on any salt lick. This wasn’t promising as we wanted to have a good feel on his whereabouts before tracking him from the air, but as long as his collars was active we would find him sooner or later…
As you probably guessed, Ivan would prove to be as unmanageable as ever, and for the two-week period that the operation lasted he simply vanished like a ghost. His collar wasn’t active anymore (must have ceased to function shortly before the exercise…), and the several hours spent flying over his territory produced no results. Disappointing, although not completely surprising… I suppose his legend continues, but let’s hope Mercury learns to keep away from this maniac! Similarly Duarte wasn’t to be found anywhere, as his collar also wasn’t active, probably result of the serious fight with Ivan that must have taken his life as well.
Other than this, everything else was very successful in Cangandala. We managed to dart and collar young Mercury, and we could confirm “in hand” that he is truly a superb specimen at his tender age – He has just turned three, and while his horns still haven’t curved much and don’t look impressive, nevertheless they are over 40 inches long.
The three young females that had been photographed very pregnant a month earlier, now all had three beautiful young babies, and for obvious reasons we didn’t disturb them any further. On the older group we found the two old breeding cows pregnant, and we managed to dart and collar the four remaining cows (the fifth, named Katia hadn’t been seen for almost one year and must have passed away by now). The non-breeding condition of these 4 old cows was confirmed by Dr. Morkel and so he gave them a hormonal injection. It’s probably too late for them to breed, having wasted a significant part of their lives with roan and hybrids, but we have nothing to lose. Finally and on the last day of flying, we were able to dart young Venus, the second sable born in the sanctuary, in 2010. She is a beautiful girl and probably on her first pregnancy!
The bulk of this operation however happened in Luando Reserve. It didn’t take us long to locate the main herd, known since 2011, as it was still on the same area and remarkably even watched closely by the same territorial bull, which had been the first sable found in Luando back in 2009 in that same spot! In subsequent days we relocated a second known herd, and eventually found a new herd, which we had long suspected. However, we couldn’t find two “old” groups, although one is suspected to have been poached out. Various females were darted and collared on each herd, and several territorial bulls were also found, darted and collared. In total, ten females and ten males were darted in Luando, from different groups and different age classes. Several sable bulls were very impressive, and, the seven adult bulls darted, measured between 52 and 58 inches.
On the second day of flying in Luando, happened one of the most extraordinary scenes I will ever witness. We had found the main herd on a large “anhara”, and after a very short chase, Pete placed a dart on a young female; as she was part of a large group and they were entering the woodland, we decided to chase them from close distance – to make sure we wouldn’t lose the darted animal if the herd split under tree cover. So far so good, but then, as Barney maneuvered the chopper over the tail of the herd, and as “our” female slightly started to slow down… a huge black-mane lion came out of nowhere, jumping from under the grass to the back of the female and quickly knocked her to the ground! We could not believe our eyes! There was a lion in Luando, and it had attacked a sable right underneath the chopper!!! We were in shock and totally unprepared for that… Everyone was screaming inside the chopper; I was in overdrive taking as many photos as I could, while trying to get rid of the seat belts to find a better observation angle and shouting at the same time. Barney lowered the chopper close over the battle scene while blowing the chopper siren continuously, and eventually the lion must have decided he couldn’t challenge this giant and noisy metal yellow bird, and moved away… The whole scene didn’t take longer than a few seconds, but it was an unforgettable experience. Amidst the battle there was one specific moment we will never forget, and I only regret not having been able to photograph it although is frozen in my mind – when we got down real close on them, the lion twisted on his embrace around the sable’s neck and looked up straight into our eyes, while his dark mane was being blown backwards by the wind projected from the chopper blades. It was a grotesque, creepy and unique sighting. Crazy stuff…
Under the effect of M99 drug and being knocked down by a monster cat, the female was prostrated and wasn’t going anywhere. As soon as the lion fled the scene we landed the chopper next to the sable cow and urged to assist her on the ground. We trusted the lion had been sufficiently disturbed and spooked, not to come back and reclaim his prey. Fortunately the big boy didn’t return! It was our chance to inspect the adventurous female, who we named Carina. She was a beautiful young girl, three years of age and well advanced on her first pregnancy! Surprisingly she had suffered only minor injuries, only scratches on the back and neck, and a superficial wound on the belly. There were no bite wounds, and the sable skin had proved to be quite resistant to the lion claws on his first wave of the assault. A few more seconds and it would have been too late for her… The belly wound was bleeding slightly but Pete was concerned that infection could spread quickly and in deadly fashion, as lion claws can be full of bacteria. The wound was abundantly cleaned with water, disinfected and treated with antibiotics. The female was then marked, collared and released.
But she was still in grave danger, as the lion could well return to track her down. To improve her survival chances, after waking up we chased her a couple kms away from the scene. Then we returned and for a while we looked for the lion but we could never find him again. Not surprising, as the long grass makes a perfect cover for a lion. That’s when we started to realize the gravity of the situation, of having an active sable predator on the loose around our most important herd! We may have played the herd into his claws that morning, but there’s little doubt that he must have been there tracking down the sable for a meal. And chances are he’s done it before and will do it again. This can be a real problem. Our numbers are so desperate, that all it takes is one lion killing one sable every few weeks, to compromise the population’s recovery. In retrospect, maybe we should have left the female anesthetized on the ground and focused instead on the lion before he got away… but during those frantic moments all we could think was rescuing the poor girl! At least in subsequent days we confirmed that Carina recovered completely, and in 48 hours had rejoined the herd.
But as dramatic as this scene was, the lion is not our biggest concern. The main predator in Luando walks on two legs, and during the operation we were confronted with new evidence on a daily basis. And as in previous years some of the poaching examples recorded are quite shocking. The fact that the previous season was very wet meant that the poachers had to delay somewhat their dry season snaring activities, as they usually place the traps around strategically burnt grass patches, and water holes. In spite of this, we found plenty of areas trapped, including one given water hole, located deep inside a herd’s territory, and with huge snare traps clearly targeting the sable.
In Cangandala, south of the sanctuary, we found a live duiker caught in a snare, which we were able to release, while in Luando we found two dead duikers that had died snared and left to the vultures. In comparison with 2011 we found less traps and poaching camps, but this may well have been because this operation was done earlier and the dry season is delayed this year. More worrying is the fact that in previous occasions we found most of the snares to be made of nylon and the minority made of cable, but this time the vast majority of 60 snares collected, were made of steel cable, therefore much more lethal.
Just as if finding all those snares wasn’t enough, we had to face several vivid examples of their effects on sable. Two darted females had horrible injuries in the form of amputated legs. One was a poor four year old female with the right front leg amputated below the knee. The accident had probably happened 1-2 years ago and the injury had healed remarkably, but of course she has a serious limp, and has never produced a calf. The other was an older female which had the left hind leg amputated. None of these females will ever breed, and for the sable population they have been wasted. They’re as good as dead… In addition two of the bulls found were limping, and after being darted and inspected, they revealed serious injuries on their right hind legs, also clearly caused by snare traps. Maybe because of their stronger built, or simply because they were luckier, they managed to recover without leg amputations, but they still carry nasty scars resulting in deformed and less functioning legs. It is unclear just how much they are affected but their breeding abilities might well be compromised.
In total, a staggering rate of 20% of all darted animals (males and females) had serious snare injuries. Considering that this might be the tip of the iceberg, representing just the ones that survived, we can have a good idea on the magnitude of this problem. Surely this level of poaching pressure translates into completely unsustainable harvesting. As far as we could tell, some poaching originated in the local villages. But the more organized and most worrying type of poaching, targeting the larger antelopes such as sable, seems to be fueled by a constant demand for meat to supply the diamond outfits established along the Kwanza River.
We now have a very good picture on the real situation on the ground, numbers and location of herds, and the level of threats. Compared to 2011, the sable population doesn’t seem to have decreased further, but it hasn’t increased either. Rather, it seems to have stabilized around low and dangerous figures: there aren’t more than a hundred giant sables left! Over the next few months we expect to implement a series of anti-poaching activities in collaboration with the military.
You’re welcomed to enjoy the photos on this link.
Second Trimester 2103 Report
- Versao Portuguese
The second trimester usually marks the transition from the wet to the dry season. It has hardly been a favorite of mine, as April tends to be too wet and waterlogged, while in May and June the dead grass takes over and the bush fires start, making field work uncomfortable and not very productive. It is never a good time of the year to observe the animals as our mobility is reduced and they have plenty of cover. If this wasn’t enough, the abundant rains of the ending rainy season delayed the normal sequence of events at least one month.
Even throughout June, we struggled to drive across the floodplain that defines the western boundary of Cangandala National Park.
And not surprisingly, we had very few sable observations to report. The most we could do, was approaching a few times the young herd, now proudly supervised permanently by magnificent Mercury (the first born of our “new” Cangandala). Attempts to approach the larger herd, comprising old females and hybrids, were not very successful because of the elusive nature of hybrids, dense cover and made worse by the conspicuous absence of ol’ Duarte. In spite our efforts we could not track his radio signal anywhere. Considering the fight reported on the fence in the end of March, we do fear that we may not see the old bull again… A pity, as he had made a miraculous recovery after last year’s challenge, but he was getting too old anyway.
On the other hand Ivan, as the trap cameras confirmed, looks as strong as ever and unscratched. What worries us, is that Mercury will be next in the succession line under Ivan’s radar, and sooner or later might be challenged for battle… and we cannot afford to lose young Mercury!
The biggest surprise in the sanctuary was finding a pair of reedbuck. Over the past two decades reedbuck were almost wiped out in Cangandala (although in Luando they are still common today), and the last sighting had been in 2009 in a floodplain further south. We certainly didn’t expect any reedbuck to had been caught inside the fence perimeter, where the habitat is not the most attractive for this species. Reedbuck in the region generally prefers more extensive open areas associated with drainage lines. However a careful look at the photo record, gave us some hints on how they had ended up here. Being an adult female and a very young male, suggests they are mother and son. A likely scenario would be the female moving into the woodland to give birth, precisely when the fence was being expanded and as result she ended up imprisoned inside the sanctuary with her calf. Even if the habitat is not their most preferred, they will be safe inside the camp, and now bear the responsibility to repopulate the area!
In Luando reserve, rains had also been generous, but the most worrying factor were insisting reports of poaching, brought to us by the shepherds. Poaching does seem to be closely linked with several diamond operations established along the Kwanza river, as they create an increasing demand for bushmeat, and this remains unchallenged. And of course, well armed poachers, not only are a permanent threat to the animals, but they put the lives of our shepherds in danger. Some steps are being taken to tackle this crisis, and I’m hopeful it may produce results soon.
Next trimester we expect to make a new aerial survey and place up to 20 collars on sable in Cangandala and Luando.
Photos can be seen as usual on a picasa web album, through this link.
__________________________________________________________________________________ First Trimester 2103 Report
- Versao Portuguese
Rains this year have been plenty and generous, and I can’t remember such an extreme wet season in Cangandala at least since the 2005/2006 season. This fact has several consequences that, one way or the other, affect our work. The first and most obvious result was over flooding the rivers, which reduced considerably our mobility inside the park. Actually, and as soon as the rains grew in intensity around mid-January, the park main road was cut-off, and we had to walk across with water above our knees to get in. Approaching the animals in these conditions turned out to be almost impossible, and the only exception was a brief observation and photographs taken still in January.
Nevertheless, the abundant rains might be a blessing, especially following several very dry seasons in a row. It reduces considerably the risk of intense drought, it should also replenish underground water resources and the soils should keep moisture for longer into the dry season; and the lush development of the vegetation should provide lots of grazing material. On the other hand, the constant rains didn’t allow for strategically placed small out-of-season burnings, which in previous years had contributed for a balanced veld management and food provision for the animals. Another concern is that the overgrown grass this year will turn into a huge amount of dead grass – combustible material, thus increasing enormously the risks of hot fires in the dry season, inside the sanctuary. So basically, the weather conditions this year might prove to be good in many respects, but will demand a more carefully planned and assertive management in the next few months.
As for the animals, as always there are new developments to report, and this time a huge surprise was registered. While observing a herd inside the sanctuary in January, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we spotted Joana among the group! This was a totally unexpected. Joana-the-mad-cow, had proved to be anti-social and escaped under the fence, soon after being captured in 2009. It had since remained outside the sanctuary, behaving in secretive fashion, declined to approach the hybrids when they were around in the first two years, and although we looked for her, we failed to find her during the 2011 capture exercise. And finally, even when having Ivan-the Terrible around, they didn’t seem to “connect”, as they were never recorded together, in spite clearly overlapping their roaming territories. Of course, neither of them seemed to be friendly characters, but we always had hope that they could get along somehow… or at least to meet on a special stormy night… On the other hand we still fear the day Ivan will break through the fence into the sanctuary, but the last thing we expected was Joan to decide to crawl under the fence after 4 years of deliberate isolation!
As the rainy season progressed, the animals did split into several smaller sub-herds, at one given time apparently into 4 groups, one group with old females and the old bull Duarte, a second group with young Mercury and many young females, a third group composed of a couple females a younger male and several calves, and a last group mostly comprising hybrids.
Other than this, we had to rely on the trap cameras to know what was going on. And here our expectations were fully met. Back in December we were convinced that Teresa, one of our two old breeding cows which had conceived calves in January and February (the other being Luisa), would produce a second calf before end of 2013. Well, not only we could confirm that, but somewhat surprisingly, both cows produced the second calf by turn of the year! That was fantastic, as both cows, in spite of their age, seem now to be well synchronized, and producing calves every 9 months. This brought us to a total 2013 production to 7 calves (where 2 old females alone produced 4 of these), of which 3 were females, 2 males, and the two youngest still undetermined (although at least one of the later seems to be a female). Truth be said, the second male calf born, hasn’t been seen in many months and may well have been killed. Some degree of calf mortality is unavoidable, but if confirmed it was the first casualty in 3 years, and in any case it is better to lose a male calf than a female.
By end of March, we received disturbing news, accounting for a new fight along the fence, between Ivan and, presumably, Duarte. Once again the fence got quite damaged, and there were clear signs of fighting and blood, but neither Ivan nor any other bull could be found nearby. We still don’t know for sure if any bull got seriously injured or if animals moved across the fence boundary, but apparently things are back to normal and are once again peaceful. For now…
Photos can be seen as usual on a picasa web album, through the following link here.
__________________________________________________________________________________ Fourth Trimester Report,
- Dear friends,The last trimester of 2012 marked the onset of the rainy season as predicted. In Cangandala and Luando, the rains started early and heavy this season, somewhat compensating for the severe drought that lasted for almost one year.
We had several good developments in Cangandala. Firstly, and quite unexpectedly, old Duarte not only survived but made a sensational recovery. Only a few weeks after we had left him in shocking condition, we found him in great shape and looking after his girls.
I must confess that I had been very pessimistic about his future, and I was quite convinced that he stand little chance of making it through the turn of the year. Fortunately I was completely wrong on this one! He no longer is limping markedly, seems to keep well the pace with the herd, looks alert and in good condition; the fur recovered the old shine and, quite remarkably, the ticks are now almost completely gone. Quite amazing how fast the ticks spread and took over his skin when he was beaten and ill, and how quickly they disappeared as soon as he got better… it’s as if ticks sense when an animal is debilitated, and/or somehow a healthy animal has the ability to repel most ticks and keep them under control.
But if ticks were under control, the tsetse flies were a nightmare, probably affecting all living mammals in the region, us included! This was not necessarily surprise, as every year after the first big set of rains, and for about a couple months until the woodland gets too wet even for them, the flies explode in numbers and come down hard mainly targeting the large social antelopes. I have the distinct feeling (I feel it in my veins) that this has become worse every year, which is probably a good sign… more sable mean more tsetse flies! To procure some relief from the relentless flies, every 15-20 minutes the sable herd would suddenly run for a couple hundred meters before resume grazing. It also seemed that the bulls were the most affected by flies (possibly attracted to the dark coloration), and in response they would sit down often inside thick bush.
At the end October the animals had temporarily split in two groups: the old females stayed with the hybrids, while the new females and young were joined by the bulls in a second herd. This worked very well in our favor, as the crazy hybrids are always nervous and almost impossible to approach. Therefore, we focused on the second group and were able to approach the animals several days, providing us not only to monitor closely the most important group, but also to get by far the best photographic sequences to date!
And most importantly, breeding turned out to be better than anticipated. It turns out that all the three young females brought in from Luando in 2011 at age 2, produced one calf each. This brings the total calves produced in 2012 to 5, but it is possible that the old champion breeder Teresa, may have calved again before end of the year (she could not be located). But at least we had 5 calves, of which 3 are females.
It was a pleasure to keep track of this prime herd, with several young beautiful girls, and many calves around.
In addition, Duarte’s successions seems to be guaranteed and in smooth fashion, as both Mercury and Apolo are growing up fast and strong, and so far are well integrated and tolerated by Duarte. They all seem to know their role and position within the hierarchy…But of course boys will be boys, and sooner or later, the youngest should get expelled.
Looking back, the first two years after the breeding program started have been very disappointing, and the breeding frustratingly slow. But now finally things are looking brighter, and for next year we expect an even better breeding performance, as we have now four other females which have just turned 2 year old, and could deliver their first calf in 2013. With two remarkable exceptions (Teresa and Luisa) the old Cangandala females haven’t been up to the challenge, and if it wasn’t for the 2011 operation bringing to the pot 6 new females from Luando, the giant sable population in Cangandala would not have survived! Now, at least we have a chance.
As for mad-Ivan, after almost beating Duarte to death, he has kept low profile, and been peacefully behaved. Of course I don’t trust him in the least, and possibly he is preparing a new surprise… He is still out of the fence and patrolling the boundaries regularly, but as usual we could never get within sight distance. And for the past few months he has even avoided the salt licks, except for one time in which he made a ghostly and brief appearance, as if to say “Beware of Ivan, I’m still around…”
The trap cameras gave us plenty of duiker, bushbuck and warthogs as usual and some roan, but the biggest surprise was a young male waterbuck, quite close to the fence line. These were known from the riverine floodplains in the south, and it was the first time recorded in the heart of the park. Also interesting were a few nocturnal sequences showing us a greater gaçlago and a white-tailed mongoose.
If things went smoothly in Cangandala, it was however very different in Luando where poaching seems to be rampant, and we were faced with a number of shocking cases to illustrate this, in spite of the desperate efforts from the rangers – the giant sable shepherds. Two shepherds on patrol were shot at by poachers (fortunately the poachers missed and no one got injured) and on a second occasion managed to apprehend a rifle, as the poacher escaped and left the weapon behind. Plenty of snare traps are being found and dismantled on a regular basis, but arguably the most shocking incident was when, during a routine patrol, the shepherds found a dead body of a freshly killed giant sable bull. The carcass was getting rotten, but still showed a round bullet on the neck.
With support from the Angolan Air Force we scooped the area on the following day after the incident was recorded, without relevant results, and only a couple weeks later we were able to make a ground expedition to the site, to gather additional information. It was a young healthy bull, at the prime of his life, and had no signs of infection or bone injuries, practically ruling out a snare injury or disease. The most likely scenario points to bull getting away after being shot in the neck by poachers.
We camped near the site for a couple nights, and on one of those nights we actually saw a spotlight in the distance and heard shots, just across a small river from us and about 500mts from where the carcass was! If there were ever any doubts of what killed the bull…
Compared to a few years ago, we now have a much better understanding of what is happening in Luando. We also have a basic monitoring network on the ground which is producing promising results, and some small steps are being implemented directly against these illegal activities. But we are still far away from tackling the crisis properly and reverse the trend. The situation is quite alarming, but I want to believe that 2013 will be year of change, when the table odds will be finally turned against the poachers and in the giant sable’s favor!
Photos from last trimester can be seen through this link:
- Angola Field Group Presentation: Biologist Pedro Vaz Pinto presented an update on Angola’s endangered giant sable (palanca negra gigante) to an audience of over 150 members of the Angola Field Group on October 25, 2012.
In the following video (part one of two) Pedro Vaz Pinto provides an overview of the giant sable including the history and place in Angola’s culture and environment today:
In the next video (part two of two) Pedro Vaz Pinto discusses the 2003 launch of the Giant Sable Project and Conservation Initiative in partnership with the Ministry of Environment – the project’s original objective was to locate the giant sable; the creation of the Shepherd Program in 2004; the publication in 2005 of the first photos of giant sable taken since 1982; information about the hybridaztion of the species that has taken place in Cangandala plus more Giant Sable project highlights up to 2008. Since 2009, the bulk of the project’s activities are being implemented by the Kissama Foundation and the main priority now is conservation of the giant sable.
2010: The first two calves were born in Cangandala and a new fenced camp of 2400 was created (in the process 10 hybrids were inadvertantedly caught inside).
2011: A new camp of 400 ha was built and a new capture operation was launched; hyrbids were confined in a third camp. The team managed to catch and bring 6 new young females from Luando reserve: three two-year olds and three one-year olds. Two new bulls were also brought in: a young male and one ‘at the prime of life’ named ‘Ivan the Terrible’ due to his uncontrollable nature. Ivan eventually killed the young male and broke through the fence. A third calf was produced.
2012: Two females died of old age; one female became pregnant again and the first calf born in 2010 is now preparing to take over the herd. Currently poaching is the main threat to the giant sable. Snares and pit traps are widely used causing severe trauma and death. A staggering 15% of adult animals captured or photographed had nasty leg injuries caued by traps. About 75% of the Luando reserve is devoid of sables and less than 80 are estimated to survive. The total number of giant sable left is less than one hundred animals making it one of the most critically endangered mammals in the world.
Plan for 2013: Up to twenty giant sable should be darted and released with VHF and GPS tracking devices for monitoring. Infrastructure should be built in Cangandala and the breeding program monitored. Ongoing genetic and ecological research will continue and be reinforced.
Third Trimester 2012 Report,
The third trimester tends to be the busiest in Cangandala/ Luando and this one was no exception. We started by making a series of improvements on the sanctuary fence, of which the most important was expanding the perimeter, adding 800ha of prime habitat to the sanctuary area. The fenced camp covers now approximately 4.000 hectares, which we believe, should be good enough for the next 5 years at least.
Also importantly, the new design is now more rounded and manageable, and we were able to include one of the best natural salt licks that used to be outside the perimeter and some good grazing areas. We also took the opportunity to build three water holes, two inside and one outside the camp.
Near the central waterhole we placed an elevated tank, to feed water by gravity to the other drinking spots. Before the end of the year, we expect to drill a borehole to supply the elevated tank.
In July we had expected to have the chopper and capture team with us, hopefully to dart some of the non-breeding old cows to give them some hormonal treatment, and also to do a survey and capture/marking exercise in Luando. Unfortunately, and due to last minute unexpected bureaucratic constraints in Botswana, the chopper couldn’t come and the operation had to be canceled. In any case we had Pete Morkel with us, and a vet team from the Huambo faculty, and we used the opportunity to monitor closely the herds while trying to dart one of the old cows. We did not get close enough to the old females, and the best we could achieve was to dart and mark the lonely young roan male that is still inside the camp.
If this was somewhat disappointing, at least everything else turned out much better than we had expected. The first good news was finding Duarte still alive. He definitely took a serious knock, but at least survived. As result of the fight with Ivan, he lost an ear tag and now carries a few scars and stab wounds.
Although finding Duarte was fantastic, we must now face the fact that he is beaten and his career as a breeding bull is over. He is limping from the hind legs, lost physical condition, his mane looks dry and dirty, and the ticks are taking over. He allowed us to get really close, but he can’t keep up the pace with the herd. In September his condition hadn’t improved, and I suspect that he won’t live through the next season. A very interesting observation, was noting that he was now feeding mostly on burnt “kinzole” (Diplorhynchus condylocarpon) leaves – we’ve seen healthy animals browsing on green “kinzole” leaves, but not on brown burnt leaves. It could be a result of his teeth wearing off, and therefore looking for less fibrous (but also less nutritious) food, but this is speculative of course.
But if Duarte seems to be finished, still the bull scenario looks to be under control. Not only Ivan is back out of the sanctuary and behaving well for the time being (just patrolling regularly the salt licks in his territory), but most importantly Mercury has, without any doubt, replaced Duarte as the breeding bull. In spite of his tender age (2 year old), he looks impressive and is clearly “the man in charge”. We saw him several times courting the females and trying to mount them, even in the presence of old Duarte, who ignored the scene and simply moved away.
But a much more important finding was realizing that our fears of Ivan having kidnapped a few females had been completely unfounded! We were able to observe and confirm inside the sanctuary, the 6 young females brought from Luando in 2011, and the remaining 6 old Cangandala cows (from the initial 9 cows, two have died of old age and one, Joana, escaped the sanctuary in 2009). So basically, the sanctuary holds pretty much the whole breeding potential. Outside the camp, only Ivan and Joana are established.
The trap camera mounted next to the carcass of the old sable cow, Neusa, who died in early June, produced some interesting sequences. As we suspected, and in the absence of large predators, bushpigs are the main scavengers, and for several weeks a large family of pigs would come to the site almost every night, until there was little left.
The new trap cameras have been taking dozens of thousands of photos, with few blanks or false events, making the job of cataloguing the camera record a very time consuming task, and storing the photos is becoming a nightmare. The usual species were photographed many times, plus a few unexpected customers, such as mongooses, hares and hornbills.
On the other hand, in July and August we had a few problems, which included several suspicious bush fires, one camera being handled by trespassers and one camera got stolen. It was the first camera stolen since we started in 2004. We have good reason to believe that poachers were behind these incidents and we are investigating the matter.
With the capture chopper grounded in Botswana, we were able to organize a couple of flights over Luando and Cangandala on a military Alloutte. The Angolan Air Force has always been an enthusiastic supporter, up to the challenge and should be an example to other institutions. And after all, the giant sable is a national symbol and well deserves the commitment! We then managed to track down and locate two of the Luando herds, and do a reccie, focusing on sensitive areas and known poaching hotspots, such as various water holes. Poaching is still clearly the biggest threat in Luando, and far from being controlled. What we can attest at this point is that the largest herd seems for now to be doing well, with about 75% recruitment rate of calves into the herd from 2011 to 2012. Or put in other words, we may have had around 25% mortality of calves last year, which is an acceptable result, within “normal” expected rates.
Still, the situation is so delicate, that all it takes is a couple poaching incidents, and everything goes down the drain, and beyond recovery.
Back in Cangandala, in September, we had more good news. First by finding another newborn! The mother is one of the young females, and the father may have been Duarte, but requiring confirmation.
And then surprisingly or maybe not, Teresa once again, is showing clear signs of pregnancy. What a wonderful cow! She will produce her fourth calf in little more than 3 years, in what is a remarkable breeding performance. It will be interesting to determine the father, as it may have been any of the three bulls present.
More photos can be found on this link:
- Second Trimester 2012 ReportVERSÃO PORTUGUÊS Dear friends,The second trimester marked the end of a very dry wet season, and the few showers experienced in April were too little too late. As result, we are now facing a serious drought this year. This fact made focus our attention on the need to provide water to the animals inside the sanctuary in consistence manner. Until now we have resorted to plastic containers filled manually twice a week during the dry season, but this of course is a poor system. We have now just concluded a geophysical and hydrological survey in Cangandala Park, and we hope to dig a borehole and install several water points this season.
On a short trip to Luando Reserve in May we were able to meet with all the shepherds, pay them the due subsidy, motivate them, and coordinate and distribute their tasks for the following months.
Back in Cangandala and as usual during May, it was tough to drive off-road and make progress because of the accumulation of dead grass.
In spite of this we were able to monitor the breeding herd a couple times, although briefly and not from close range. The old bull Duarte was escorting the mixed herd (pure females and hybrids) as usual, while the two old breeding cows had not yet rejoined. More importantly and as we hoped for, the trap cameras confirmed the two new calves! The two old cows Teresa and Luisa, had joined efforts and kept both newborns and their 2011 calves in a separate group, forming a crèche in what can be considered as typical behavior in sable. Keeping the calves together might be a good anti-predator strategy, until introducing them later into the herd.
Interestingly, the first calf born in the sanctuary, in 2010, the young male approaching 2 years old – Mercury, had split from both groups and joined the 4 young females brought in from Luando in 2011. Confirming his precocious nature, he was now in charge of his own herd, and possibly establishing a territory. In spite of his young age he must be already fertile, so this was excellent news indeed. And for a colorful touch, this young and promising group was also joined by one of the castrated hybrids.
Outside the sanctuary, we were able to localize Ivan the Terrible a couple times near the fence, but as usual he did not allow us visual contact.
In any case, things then seemed under control and of course we could not anticipate that hell was about to break loose… In the beginning of June, Ivan decided to break into the sanctuary and started creating havoc. We found clear signs of a fight near the fence and a blue ear tag was recovered from the ground. Ivan ear tags are white, but Duarte’s were blue. This could only mean one thing: Ivan had fought Duarte and, being younger and stronger, most likely had beaten him. Frustratingly, over several days we could not locate Duarte, as his radio signal couldn’t be picked up anywhere: presumably the collar got damaged during the fight. More worryingly, the main herd was left unattended, which means that Duarte probably got killed or is injured and recovering in a secluded place.
As this wasn’t enough, Ivan the Terrible found the two old breeding cows and their 4 offspring and broke through the fence once again. We only hope he didn’t take the party with him…
This was disappointing and a bit worrying, and Ivan proves to be a loose cannon. It is amazing the contrasting characters of these two bulls, and I don’t know if we were extremely lucky with the first one or very unlucky with the second. In hindsight it may now look questionable the decision of bringing Ivan… on the other hand we definitely needed new blood, and Duarte at age 13 was over his glory days and shouldn’t be expected to last much longer as a breeder anyway, so Ivan taking over must be seen as the culmination of a natural and needed process. And maybe Ivan will prove to be a much more efficient breeder than Duarte was?!
What is a shame is that it was Duarte’s gentle nature that allowed us to get close to the females, and with him gone the animals are less approachable. On the other hand, the fact that Ivan has brought to perfection the skills to break through the fence, making it into a nasty habit, means he is virtually uncontainable, forcing us to invest much more in fence management and security in Cangandala. However, and at this point, the situation is a bit uncertain, and it will be over the following months that we will know for sure what has really happened.
Yet, there were still more bad news to come. While looking in vain for Duarte, fortuitously we ended up finding the corpse of our older pure female, Neusa, who used to be the alpha-female on the main herd. She had been dead for only a few days, and we couldn’t find any injury or signs of predation. This female was at least 15 years old and had not been able to produce any offspring for the last few years, nor were we expecting that she could in the future given her advanced age. Sable are known to live up to 18 years in captivity, but they rarely surpass 15 in the wild, and the fecundity is expected to decrease as the females grow older. All things considered her death wasn’t unexpected and has no impact on the giant sable breeding potential in Cangandala, but nevertheless we all felt sad.
But the June wouldn’t end without a pleasant surprise, when trap camera records revealed a newborn on the young female’s herd! This was totally unexpected, as the group included 3 young girls brought in at age 2, plus one yearling from Luando last year. Females become fertile after two years of age, and these shouldn’t have had the opportunity to get pregnant. Or so we thought. As the calf was born at end of May and sable pregnancy is estimated at 8.5 months average, conception must have happened at the beginning of September 2011… and this coincides precisely with the few weeks in which Ivan stayed inside the sanctuary before breaking out for the first time! He was never seen near the 2.year old females and therefore we had assumed they never met. But evidently they did, as Duarte at the time was contained inside the smaller enclosure which was only opened in October.
This was excellent news indeed. Means that the young females are starting to breed and, not less importantly, it means that Ivan is not a bluffer! He is certainly not much of a gentleman, but as long as he keeps siring offspring I won’t complain.
First Trimester 2012 Report
- VERSÃO PORTUGUÊS Dear friends,The beginning of 2012 was as dry as I could remember. The rainy season usually reaches its peak by February/ March, often over flooding the wetlands and making the roads muddy and frequently impassable. The last few years had witnessed generous rains, isolating Cangandala park for weeks or months, generally between January and April. This rainy season however has been very atypical as most of the country experiences a severe drought, so when we scheduled our trip to Cangandala in March, and following insisting reports about the drought, we were confident that we would be able to enter the park and accompany the sable movements on the ground.
But, and as you have probably guessed by now, things wouldn’t be that easy. True that the landscape was shockingly dry, without mud or water in the temporary streams, while the grass was half-grown and already dry and moribund – the park hadn’t seen a drop of water in months! But just as we arrived in the evening and settled in the camp, and sat down for dinner, it started to rain. First just a drizzle, then more steady and heavily. We went to bed while it rained, and it rained all night without stop. And it rained. And it was still raining in the morning while we had coffee, and now things started to look not so good.
The rain only stopped half-morning, but we were already on-wheels and the damage was done anyway. Over the next couple days we were able to reach all the trap camera sites, to replace memory cards and batteries, but at the cost of slow progress and hard work. We got stuck countless times on the dirt roads inside and outside the sanctuary, and most salt licks had to be reached on foot. At least we were able to recover all the memory cards, but tracking the herds off-road was completely out of the question under those conditions.
So the trip turned out to be a half-disappointment, and this update report had to rely mostly on the various trap cameras’ photographic record.
Speaking of cameras, the new trap camera model we planted last December is performing exceptionally well, almost too well I may add. These have better image quality, are smaller and lighter, seem more reliable, and are much more energy-efficient with batteries lasting up to several months of continuing use. But they can also take literally thousands of photos per week, stored in 8GB cards, which is fantastic but also a curse in disguise. If we used to struggle with screening, managing and storing the photos, now this problem has been inflated several fold! This trip alone rendered dozens of thousands of photos, of which “only” a few thousand showed sable, roan or hybrids.
The main herd seems to have split in small groups, which is presumably a seasonal behavior during the rainy season, but may also result from specific social dynamics like females calving and young males dispersal. One interesting example was realizing how our best breeding female Teresa, just before calving, separated from the herd while taking with her the three young calves. By mid-December she was extremely pregnant, and surely her latest calf must have been born around Xmas. It’s only a pity we couldn’t see her since and she didn’t go back to the salt licks. In any case she is our main star, being the likely mother of three hybrids and having had now three pure calves just over two years of confinement – an exceptional performance! On the other hand, it also highlights just how poorly the others have performed (maybe Luisa had by now her second calf, but all the remaining 5 old females in the sanctuary have produced zero calves).
Very interesting to note that during her last days of pregnancy, Teresa became extremely dark in color, of a deep brown that almost resembles a bull. This is even more evident as she wasn’t a particularly dark female. Must be a physiological response resulting from hormonal changes, prior to calving. Also noteworthy the fact that the first calf, the young male Mercury, is now turning very dark in color, and at a very young age, under 2 years old. He seems to be very precocious, with impressive horns for a yearling, and already darker in color than most of the herd females. Maybe the lack of competition stimulates young males to develop faster?
Going in opposite direction are the castrated hybrid bulls, particularly the mature ones, which in a few months since castration have passed from an attractive dark golden-brown coloration, to a dominant pale-roanish color, mimicking now almost in perfection the color pattern of the female hybrids! Again, reflecting serious hormonal changes – testosterone has been proved to enhance the darker coloration on sable.
Outside of the sanctuary Ivan has been regularly visiting the salt licks, although mostly at night, while patrolling his new territory. And on January 1st he showed up accompanied by Joana (the old female that had escaped the fenced sanctuary in 2009), thus confirming our suspicions. On the other hand, we saw none of two young females that escaped the sanctuary following Ivan, and at this point it is unknown if they have teamed up with Joana, or wondered off on their own.
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Third Semester 2011 Report – Sept-Dec 2011
VERSAO PORTUGUESEDear friends,The last four months of the year had been greatly anticipated, as the giant sable breeding program in Cangandala NP was entering a new and more exciting stage. After all, and as result of the very successful capture operation that took place in July and August, we had now two breeding groups in two fenced camps. In spite of our high expectations, I’m afraid there is never a smooth ride in Cangandala, and over and over again we are forced to react to unexpected events and change route. At best, these last few months had been sour-sweet.The main culprit for our most recent headaches was Ivan “the Terrible”, that most impressive and aggressive giant sable bull that we had recently brought in from Luando Reserve. He had been released into the 2,800 ha camp with six young females and a 2-year old young male (“Miguel”), and within the first week they had all found each other.
The hybrid herd was also inside this camp but both groups didn’t mix. The two males were seen together a few times, but on the second week Ivan’s irascible nature became all too obvious when he chased down Miguel and killed him mercilessly. The young male was stabbed several times and at least twice in the chest… it must have been a very quick and brutal clash. This of course was a huge disappointment for everyone, as we had assumed the young male was still too young to be seen as a threat.
Territorial bulls are generally intolerant creatures, often fighting contenders, and deaths derived from fights are not uncommon. Maybe Miguel would have been tolerated by a different bull… but not by Ivan the Terrible. Anyway, and as cruel as this may sound, this young male was the least important animal and he had been brought strictly as a plan B, a replacement male in case something happened to the older and dominant bulls. Losing Miguel isn’t a crisis for the breeding program.
But Ivan wasn’t yet happy, and a couple weeks down the road he broke through the fence by brute force, opening a huge hole and escaping the sanctuary on its southernmost boundary. He took with him two of the yearling females, leaving behind a third yearling and the three 2-year old females. Why only two of the six females got away remains a mystery, although one is tempted to speculate that maybe the other didn’t approve Ivan’s manners. The escape of these animals was of course seen as a major blow to our plans. Especially as we immediately assumed that Ivan would either start migrating south in a suicidal attempt to find his old territory in Luando, or would at the very least go astray in unpredictable manner and cross the Park boundaries once and for all with the two young girls. But just as we had taken these grim scenarios for granted, that’s when Ivan started to surprise us on a positive way! It turns out that once free from captivity’s ball and chain, Ivan decided to calm down and established his new and wild territory right outside the fence. Over the last few months we have radio-tracked Ivan and he really appears settled and always within a few kms from the fence line. Unfortunately his elusive nature has kept him out of sight, and we also decided it would be wise not to push him anyway.
Although we couldn’t yet confirm, it seems Ivan has kept the two young girls with him. Just as importantly, it turns out that the area where he has based his new territory is precisely the area roamed by “Joana”, the old pure female that escaped under the fence in 2009, and since then she had been on her own.
I can’t help thinking that it is more than a coincidence that Ivan settled nearby Joanna… surely they must have found each other by now… and maybe her presence is what drove Ivan through the fence?! Now, that would be quite a twist in this story. If Joana manages to keep Ivan and his girls around, constituting a new breeding herd, even outside the relative safety of the sanctuary, it might even turn out as a better and more natural scenario!
Given what happened with Ivan, we decided to immediately open the smaller enclosure of 400ha, ending up now with one single large 3,200 fenced camp. It wouldn’t make sense to keep the first breeding group contained longer in a sub-optimal area, now that the second bull was out of the picture. Moreover, we had now a group of four young pure females desperately needing the company of a bull, preferably a gentle giant such as our older bull “Duarte”.
In the meantime, the castrated hybrid bull “Scar” had joined and been accepted into the pure herd. Not quite as “one of the girls”, but not quite as a stallion either… well, I’m not sure what one should expect from a castrated hybrid, but this one surely looks and behaves funny! He is now a very nervous and hesitant individual (I was tempted to say that he looks a bit hysterical at times…), but he seems quite harmless. Sometimes he is seen running on a brief chase after a pregnant or low ranking female, as if trying to establish his position within the female hierarchy. But more often than not he follows Duarte around, and enjoys climbing up the termite mounds as if to watch guard as the herd peacefully grazes.
It’s as if Scar wants to be Duarte’s personal assistant, but almost always he is completely ignored by the old bull, who certainly doesn’t see the castrated hybrid as a challenge worth wasting energy. On rare occasions we saw Scar gayly approaching the bull a bit too much, but when this happened the later, in his typical nonchalant manner, simply lowered his head showing the tip of his long horns and Scar immediately jumped and run off to a safer distance.
As expected, once the separating fence was removed, it didn’t take long for the breeding herd to take advantage of the larger camp, and the hybrid group was quickly absorbed. After all, the area was well known for the old females, and the hybrids were their own offspring. It wasn’t also a surprise realizing that the four young females from Luando weren’t accepted into the herd. Sable live in a matriarchal system, in which the herd is led by top ranking, usually older females, and “alien” females are seldom accepted into the group. Ironically, our old females feel more comfortable with a bunch of freak hybrid ugly beasts, than with these new beautiful looking young girls from Luando! I guess it doesn’t matter what people say, they will always be beautiful for their mothers!
Anyway, the fact that they didn’t all join in one single large group is not a problem, and may even be irrelevant. All we need is the bull, once and a while, to spend some “quality” time with the girls. And sure enough, Duarte was already seen leaving the larger herd and joining the four females.
As for the breeding performance of the original herd, it is still well below par and we have no new calves confirmed to announce. On the other hand and as we enter now the third year, a clear pattern is emerging. Out of the seven females, only three seems to be breeding. The star of the show has been the oldest (and also dominant) female “Neusa”, who following the natural giant sable breeding cycle has calved successfully in May (2010 and 1011, unfortunately for us males in both occasions). And sure enough, in last September/October she was again in oestrus and we could witness Duarte excitedly smelling her urine and even making a feeble attempt to mount. We only hope the breeding effort won’t be too much on her, as she was now a bit weak and limping.
Then we have two females “Louise” and “Teresa” who also are breeding, but on a 6-month off-cycle. They have entered oestrus late and showed off-season pregnancies. This is not too much of a crisis, as long as they keep reproducing. In fact, both females were heavily pregnant in 2010, although only Luisa produced a female calf. We assume Teresa’s calf must have died soon after been born. In 2011 they were again both obviously pregnant in October and November, and in December Luisa had left the herd (assumed calving), while Teresa was showing a nervous behavior and had a remarkably swollen udder so we expect her to have also calved by now.
All this would be fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that the remaining four females haven’t yet showed any clear sign of pregnancy, although they look well fed, healthy and relaxed. So, for the second year in a row, we have one well timed breeding female, two other females breeding off-cycle and four females not breeding at all! This can’t be a coincidence and I think it is clear now that we can’t also blame the bull or any other exogenous factors. Under normal circumstances, giant sable breeding should be pretty well synchronized (most females calving at the same time, around May/ June), and the fertility rate should be at least around 90%, so something has gone very wrong. We believe the explanation for this abnormal breeding rate, is almost surely a result of a decade of breeding hybrids or non-breeding at all. Not one of the females have had a normal and healthy “breeding history”, and the consequences become now painfully obvious, with more than half of the females not even going into oestrus cycle. If our suspicions are confirmed this needs to be tackled in 2012, possibly darting and administering hormones and thus hoping to induce oestrus on those four problematic females.
More photos can be seen on Picasa here.
Finally I must refer that the year of 2011 ended in the most tragic fashion, when unexpectedly our dear friend Kalunga Lima, passed away. He was a remarkable filmmaker and photographer who had just about finalized his documentary on the giant sable project. We had made several trips together in the bush, both in Cangandala and Luando, and I feel privileged to have shared those moments with Kalunga. If I lost a great and true friend, the giant sable lost one of its most enthusiastic and relevant supporters. And the country lost simply the best professional in his field, one that cannot be replaced in the foreseeable future.
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Second Semester 2011 Report
Again, I am following a bit behind on my reporting and for that I apologize. But I hope the nice photos and interesting contents can make up for the delay!
As anticipated these two months were the busiest in the year, during which we did the 2011 capture operation. Expectations were high and results didn’t come short. The core team was the same as in 2009, with Barney O’Hara and his Hughes 500, and Pete Morkel as leading vet. We also had our friends the Traguedo’s and local vet Ary Jeronimo to assist throughout the campaign. As in 2009, the Angolan Air Force proved to be a most reliable partner, and provided for heavy logistics including making available a heavy-duty military chopper MI-17. With the third fence completed in due time, just before the start of the operation, the last minute preparations included building temporary bomas and distributing drums of Jet A1 on different base camps in Cangandala and Luando.
In the first few days we erected a large funnel with plastic boma material, as we hoped to be able to chase with the chopper the hybrid herd through a 200mt gate into the third camp. However, chasing the hybrids inside the larger camp proved to be a much harder enterprise than we expected. First thing we realized was that as soon as we approached the herd the dominant hybrid bull would break away and take a different route. Catching the hybrids while leaving behind the bull would be highly unsatisfactory as the latter posed the most immediate threats to the pure sable. Therefore we decided to capture the bull first. This was done cleanly, and he turned out to be a superb specimen, even if of a non-existing species. With dark brown skin color, black face, hints of gold in the mane, 40’ long horns and powerfully built, he could be a worthy type representative of a new Hippotragus breed!
This bull was the younger of two half-brothers born in 2006 which we knew very well by now. We had named them Sherikan and Scar respectively, as all our hybrids were named after Disney villains. They had been raised together within the sable mixed group till late 2008 when the older Scar became dominant and chased away Sherikan. The later wasn’t seen for quite a while, but earlier this year he had broke through the fence and invaded the larger camp and subsequently fought and replaced Scar as dominant bull in the hybrid herd. This was a surprise as we had assumed Scar to be still in command, although if we had checked the photos carefully we would have picked up the swap before (they are very similar but have a slightly different facial mask). But what had happened to Scar? He could have been killed by Sherikan, or chased out of the camps through the fence… or he could even be somewhere inside the big camp, although we hadn’t picked him in the photos for quite a while.
In any case, we dealt with Sherikan according to plan: castration. Relieving of his masculinity should quickly transform his mind set, making him more docile and unwilling to fight other bulls, not to mention that sterility is from now on physically enforced and guaranteed. We then released him with a VHF collar and as final touch we painted his ear tags of pink color (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
In the meantime flights in Luando had begun very well, and following the on-the-ground info gathered by our trackers in previous weeks, we quickly located what is likely the largest surviving giant sable herd, numbering over 20 animals, including a dominant bull, breeding females, calves and some young animals. Over the following weeks we did dozens of operational hours over Luando, covering the best terrain and areas where we had reasons to believe there could be giant sable groups. We located a few other, smaller herds and we darted in total 18 different individuals. On the other hand, huge areas of prime habitat in Luando where giant sable used to be common are now empty of sable, but small herds of roan still persist. We reached this conclusion following long operational flights, in conjunction with ground information and witness reports. Roan antelope somehow seems to have resisted to the last decades of uncontrolled poaching and are now slowly recovering in the reserve.
As result of the last few months’ efforts we know now much better than ever before, the real situation on the ground. I believe we know how many herds there are left, exactly where they are all located, how many animals in each herd, and even the detailed population structure. There must be no doubt that this magnificent creature is in desperate condition, on the verge of extinction.
For security reasons I will rather not divulge much more information about the giant sable in Luando, other than we have few herds left, totaling less than 100 animals. We do have a fair number of animals being permanently monitored, and with assistance from the military forces we are implementing action against poaching but also preventive measures against animal theft attempts. For obvious reasons, details about these operations must remain confidential.
What does come across very clearly is that not only was excessive poaching that reduced the giant sable population to the current condition, but also it is still very active at the moment and has been impacting the population very severely during the last few years. The most widespread technique is the use of leg snare traps laid around natural water holes and fresh grazing spots. The snares are made using nylon ropes or steel cables, attached to long wood poles cut from trees. In 2009 virtually all the water holes were trapped and the animals were dispersed and under enormous pressure. Since then the situation improved slightly in the areas within the influence of the local shepherds, but not much elsewhere. This year we still found quite a lot of snares, but even more alarming was finding several mature females with leg injuries, some in shocking condition, like one we photographed very weak and with the lower leg in advance stage of necrosis with an obvious snare scar – she had just survived a snare encounter but she wouldn’t live much longer. As sad as it sounds, there wasn’t anything at all we could do to save her.
The observed population structure is also very informative to help us understand what has been going on. The structure shows a time glass type, with a lot of old animals, a good number of young calves but very few animals in intermediate age classes. This shows that in recent years very few young animals have been recruited annually into the herd. This exaggerated young mortality rate is almost certainly resulting from the poaching pressure as calves and yearlings are the most vulnerable to snare trapping.
On a positive note, it seems that, unlike 2009, this time the climate has worked in our favor. Turns out that in 2011 the rainy season extended well beyond average, with the last rains coming as late as June, just after the calving period. During the operation there was still lots of water available and the seasonal burnings and associated poaching were just about starting. In late July most of the calves were about two months old and not yet cornered by poachers. As result of all this and with the emergency measures we’re setting on the ground, I believe we came just in time to save the 2011 annual production. If we sustain this for the next few years we might have fair chances of saving the species.
Back in Cangandala we successfully replaced the non-functioning VHF collar on the old breeding bull “Duarte” with minimum distress. We manage to approach the pure herd and dart the bull from the car without him even realizing he had been hit by a syringe. We only had to wait for him to go down and we quickly replaced the collar.
Next we carried out tackling the hybrids. These bastards persisted being very wild, stubborn and of unpredictable nature making the chopper chases a risky business. When it comes to running and avoiding the chopper pursuit the hybrids are much more roan-like than sable-like, and after a few frustrated attempts we gave up on the plan of chasing them all to camp 3, and instead we decided to tackle them individually and sterilize them. In the meantime and while focusing on the large camp we had assumed Scar would probably be out of the scenario, but in an incredible twist he made a huge mistake when he literally came into the picture! We had left one camera monitoring the sable herd in the smaller breeding camp and while doing a routine check of photos during the operation we were shocked to find Scar! After being defeated by Sherikan he had broke through the fence into camp 1 and was now sniffing around the pure group – precisely what we feared the most! He only passed in front of the camera for a few seconds and it were just two lousy photos at night, but was enough: Scar was alive and well, and inside camp 1. He had to be caught! It took us several hours for several days to find him, but we finally did and he was also castrated.
Eventually all 9 hybrids were darted and marked. We believe there are no more hybrids left in Cangandala, with the possible exception of a yearling which hasn’t been seen for several months now (may well be dead).
The other critical phase of the operation was to constitute a new breeding group in Cangandala. This required us to catch sable in Luando and bring them to the fenced camp in Cangandala. To do this we built one plastic boma site for release of the animals in Cangandala, and decided to build another one as temporary holding pen in a very wild and remote location in Luando reserve, but reasonably equidistant to several herds. The idea was to catch a few animals and put them in the holding pen until we could prepare the trip for the military chopper, which could then bring 2-3 animals on each trip. It would be the safest and more efficient method.
Following the first weeks of flights we knew already which animals and from which herds could be caught. It soon became clear that we shouldn’t try to catch adult females. Most of them were very mature or of old age and either rearing a young calf or heavily pregnant. Ideally we should then try to catch 2-year old females, as these still haven’t bred and will soon enter their first estrus. Unfortunately, and as result of the very unbalanced population structure there were only three such females available which we then caught. We also identified four yearling females of which we caught three. In the process we decided to also bring in a young 2-year old male as future replacement bull. And finally we needed to bring in the new big boy.
During the surveys we had found three solitary bulls (these were the ones seen alone and not accompanied by the breeding herds), one being a recapture from 2009. The other two were truly remarkable specimens. One (Hugo) was a estimated 12- year old bull with 55’ horns, while the other (Ivan) was a 7/8 – year old, with 54’ horns but everyone agreed was the most powerfully built animal we have seen so far. It was well covered with muscles and the neck was so thick that for the first time we struggled to get the VHF collar around its girth – it ended up being a very tight fit high in the neck and using the very last hole. This one was a sable on steroids! He also seemed to be full of testosterone, with his body carrying recent scars from fighting with other bulls.
We then decided that the new bull to bring should be “Ivan the Terrible”. Mostly because his relatively young age should make him an ideal replacement for Duarte as the later grows older. On the other hand we thought that Ivan being of a much wilder nature might be a good thing to stimulate Duarte and some of the old females of Cangandala.
First we started by catching and releasing 4 females and the younger male in Cangandala, and on a second stage we had two last yearling females waiting for the big boy to be also released together. Between the military chopper landing site and the releasing boma, the animals were transported on a pick-up truck. However, and as the pick-up wasn’t available on the first run, as plan B we ended up putting two 2 – year old females and one male inside the back of my hardtop Land Cruiser… wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t been there, and I have now a couple holes in the roof as reminder!
Bringing in Ivan was quite a task. After a tricky chase he eventually went down in a well wooded area and 300 meters from the nearest clearing. Considering its enormous size and difficult terrain it wouldn’t be possible for Barney to lift him with his Hughes 500. The alternative was bringing in the military chopper to land in the clearing with a support team. It took us 10 men and an enormous effort to carry that beast on a stretcher across 300 meters of tall dead grass, hidden termite mounds and fallen wood. It’s a shame we couldn’t weigh the bull but most guys agreed he may weigh well over 300kg!
Once inside the release boma next to the two yearling females, we had hoped to keep him for 24 hours minimum, maybe up to 48 hours if he was well relaxed… Well, Ivan soon started breaking the wood walls of the inside cover and opened a hole in through the first plastic curtain door. As it became clear we wouldn’t be able to keep him for longer, we were forced to open the gate and let him out with the girls just a few hours upon arrival. What a piece of work, Ivan the Terrible! We started then wondering if he was indeed the best choice of bull…
In any case, the operation was a huge success. We managed to establish a new breeding group in Cangandala, including a new bull and six young females. Although three of these females are still too young to breed and cannot have their first calf before mid-2013, their tender age should ensure a quick and satisfactory adaptation and we should expect a long productive breeding life ahead of them. They are probably the ideal complement the current aged and not so well productive herd.
In terms of other wildlife seen, the first mention goes to roan antelope. We did find quite a few herds, notably one with 26 animals in Luando and one herd of 18 in Cangandala. These are large groups as roan are generally less sociable than sable. Contrasting with the giant sable, the roan herds seemed to be much better balanced with plenty of animals of different young age classes.
We darted and collared two roan yearlings. The plan was subsequently catch a small group of young roan and translocate them to Kissama NP, where this species used to be abundant but eventually became extinct. The animals were to be driven to Kissama on a military truck and a special container had been donated and customized for this task. Unfortunately this part of the operation was temporarily blocked due to miscommunication between Governmental agencies, and by the time we received the green light it was simply too late to start over. This was a disappointment, but we may still do it in the future, who knows next year. At least we know we have plenty of roan and where to find them.
We failed to find buffalo or eland, but on the other hand it was rewarding to see and photograph red lechwe and oribi – two species I hadn’t yet seen in Luando.
And I was also able to take nice photos of the elusive yellow-backed duiker.
A final mention to the fact that the team that had to spend a few nights camped in the bush guarding the sable in Luando next to the temporary boma, had to face lions roaring around the camp for several nights. Ary in particular had a couple sleepless nights but came back with a few stories to tell!
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First Semester 2011 Report
I must start apologizing for lack of comms for so long. This rainy season was particularly wet in Cangandala, over flooding the rivers and cutting road access to the park, and as a result I spent several months without visiting the park. In addition, the first trip was a bit disappointing and I thought it made more sense to include a couple more trips and make a semester report. To compensate for the loss, I decided to spend a little more time preparing the photographic package, which is now made available as a Picasa web photo album.
Hope this works better… CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE WEB PHOTO ALBUM.
The first trip was indeed frustrating. We were hoping to spend a few days watching the bull, his eight old ladies (we hoped the injured female to be still alive, and the ninth female had disappeared for over a year now), and his progeny. And maybe new calves?
Locating the herd shouldn’t be a problem, with three animals collared… However, Luisa – mother of second calf, had a VHF/GSM collar and these are suppose to last half of the standard VHF kind (2 years instead of 4) so sure enough, the batteries were dead by May. Second collar was working fine but it was on Quitéria, the injured female, but in this case she was the one dead! The collar led us straight to the skeleton and this of course was a sad moment, even if not completely unexpected. She had died at least one month earlier. There was no obvious cause of death, but I guess it is safe to assume it was related to the injury that made her limp for so long.
As if that wasn’t enough, over following days we could not pick up the signal on the last VHF collar, the one on the dominant bull. This was totally unexpected as this collar should be at least half way through the batteries’ life. On top of this, and as it is usually the case at the onset of the dry season, the bushes and grass are overgrown, making it impossible to drive cross country and realistically find the animals. It made us wonder if the bull couldn’t have gone under the fence and escaped the sanctuary… there were plenty of fresh tracks inside and the bull wouldn’t leave his girls, would he? But still, how could we be sure? We located a good spot and planted a trap camera there, but we would have to wait a few weeks for an answer…
On the second fenced camp we located the hybrid herd, or at least the female “Judah” as her VHF collar was still functioning fine, but the collar on Ursula, a GSM/VHF was not active anymore. Visual contact with the hybrids wasn’t possible due to long grass, but there was no reason to push things anyway.
The trap camera record since mid December 2010 showed lots of interesting stuff, and confirmed that the hybrid group was in good condition and stood together. But the real surprise came from outside the fences, where one isolated pure sable female showed up. It wasn’t clear when she first appeared in December, but subsequently it became obvious that she was the lost female, Joana. She had managed to escape from Sanctuary 1 a year ago without a trace?! At least she wasn’t dead. She must have crawled under the fence, breaking away from the rest of the group… Interesting to note that she had been the first female caught in 2009 because even then, she was the first to break from the herd when we started capturing, and she is also a confirmed mother of hybrid (DNA proved that she fostered “Judas” in 2004). So she’s always been a rebel! A romantic soul might be tempted to believe that she went back in search of her true and only love… the roan bull!!! Surely not… but let’s hope we don’t find her soon raising a new bastard!
In June we started building a third fenced enclosure with 450 hectares and this is where soon we expect to move all the hybrids to.
In later trips we managed to track down and see the pure herd, and thus confirm that the sable bull was as tame as ever and looking strong and healthy, and the radio collar was indeed dead.
But the best news came from the trap camera placed inside the sanctuary: we had a third calf. The previous two were growing healthy, and it was now possible to determine the sex of the calves. They were male – female – male, on this order. Three calves (and only one female born) in one and a half years of breeding is no doubt a poor result, but 2011 is still going and once we enlarge the sanctuary we expect the breeding success to improve significantly.
And on the second enclosure we rechecked the hybrid herd a few times, and once even got a few lousy photos as the group fled.
On a brief visit to Luando, we met with the shepherds and planned for the crucially important next couple months. So far, news are encouraging. A day spent at the river provided for great birding and to enjoy and explore the area a little bit and we were even shown a group of five hippos.
Next month will be quite busy, pulling a new ambitious capture operation. We expect to move all the hybrids to the third enclosure, constitute a new breeding group in Cangandala with sable caught in Luando, make a survey on some of the more remote areas in the reserve, to mark up to twenty animals with collars, maybe capture other wildlife and make some anti-poaching interventions. And even more strongly than in 2009 the National Air Force will play a major role in the operation.
Well, enough for now, hopefully next report will be a juicy one.
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- January 2011- Fourth Trimester Report
2011 Trimester 1Dear friends,2010 wouldn’t end before we received more good news. In late October, one of the two females that looked very pregnant in September (Luisa – nº12) started behaving differently than usual, much more wary and nervous (she used to be one of the most relaxed females), and abandoning the herd often. These we immediately interpreted as probable signs of calving. And because Luisa is one of the females carrying a VHF collar, we were able to track her down occasionally, when she was away from the herd, and not surprisingly her signal led us to the thickest clump of forest inside the sanctuary. We decided it was best not to disturb her then, so we had to wait a few more weeks, till mid-December, to confirm and see the second calf born in Cangandala.
So far it wasn’t possible to determine the sex, as the calf is very small and the vegetation is now too lush too allow us reasonable observations. Until the sex becomes obvious we decided to treat it as a she – positive thinking! In several photos we can see her standing next to her proud and protective mother and older half-brother.
Not only the older calf is healthy and developing fast…
but somewhat surprisingly, the seriously limping female made an impressive recovery. She is still limping, but she put on some weight, the coat looked shinier than a couple months earlier, and she seems better accepted within the herd. When in September she appeared to be in a desperate condition. Possibly the recovery is simply due to the change of season, with more and better quality of food available to the animals these days, and this affecting primarily the injured female, but in any case it was a bit of a relief. As for the bull, he also looks as strong and healthy as ever.
On a less positive note, the female that disappeared in July is still missing, and we must face that she is probably a casualty on our breeding program. She either managed to crawl under the fence, or more likely, she died discretely. The fact that she was the oldest female in the herd can’t also be seen as encouraging… We’ll keep an eye open for her, but until proven otherwise we’re down to eight potentially breeding females.
As for the calving success, and in spite of the joy of facing the second newborn, it was disappointing not to have had more calves in the sanctuary in 2010. Females that at one point seemed to show pregnancy signs ended up not delivering the goods. All in all and concluded the first year, we were left with a bitter-sweet taste… there was breeding but below expectations. Or maybe we set the standards too high, as a first year of breeding of wild antelopes held in semi-captivity is always risky and unpredictable. Anyway, we are focusing in the new year, and now that they are fully adapted, the animals should have a much better breeding in 2012.
We have now established an ambitious plan for 2011, which includes building a third enclosure where all the hybrids could temporarily be relocated to, and then bring more sable, females and males, from Luando, so that we can establish at least two breeding herds in Cangandala. Still early days, as the activities are still being discussed among the various stakeholders. In any case, 2011 will probably witness a lot of action and constitute another landmark for the species’ conservation.
The trap cameras in Cangandala are still located in natural salt licks, both inside the larger enclosure (Sanctuary 2 – where we have the hybrid herd) and outside the fences, where we know to have roan but need to keep an eye for any surprise. Well, the record from the last trimester gave us some nice photographic sequences, but these simply confirmed what we already knew. In the referred enclosure we only found hybrids, in a total of ten individuals…
These include one dominant bull…
… and the two young males born in 2009 and 2010.
The rest are females of different ages, and two of them carry VHF collars.
We still can’t say who is the father of the younger calf and why he looks so sable-ish, but it is really interesting to note the contrast with the other young male as the later looks very roan-ish indeed! Surely sooner or later our study on the genetics, will shed some light on this subject. At least now we are pretty sure that we have a hybrid herd inside the enclosure that totals probably ten animals (maybe up to eleven or twelve maximum), and we still couldn’t find any evidence of something else, like a roan bull. This is important data to assist us in the planning to sort out the problem later this year. Outside the enclosures we also only obtained photos of roan, as this roan bull sharing a salt lick with a bushbuck.
We still have no evidence of hybrids or sable outside the fences. It really looks like somehow we managed to fully and perfectly separate and fence-off the three “species” in Cangandala! The pure sable in sanctuary 1, the robles in Sanctuary 2 and the roan outside. Truly amazing indeed. The remaining photographs showed the usual customers, such as duikers…
… bushbucks …
… and warthogs …
and for last a surprising newcomer – a white-headed vulture.
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October 2010 – Second Trimester Report
Years of hard work and recent months of expectations finally paid off when, in July 27th (precisely one year since we caught the first giant sable – bull in Luando), we were shown by the proud herd in the sanctuary, a little calf! The first pure calf in years to be born in Cangandala NP, and reason for renewed hope. It is a motivating milestone, and living proof that we are on the right track. A nice young male. In truth what we need right now are female calves to maximize future breeding, but he was nevertheless much welcomed.
As the dry season progressed, and in spite being joined by the little one and its mother (the dominant female, Neusa nº10), the group got grew more relaxed, and we managed to get them used to our regular presence from close distance. The early burning in the drainage line allowed for crucial fresh grazing throughout the season, bringing the sable daily out of the woodland in the afternoons to graze in the open, and thus giving us plenty of opportunities for nice photos. This of course will not last, as the approaching rainy season will soon send the animals back into the thick bush.
For at least a couple months while we have been following the group, the most striking aspect has been the conspicuous absence of one female. She (nº10) was a healthy animal so we can only guess that she might be calving or rearing a young calf. So we hope she will soon rejoin with company… As for the remaining herd, most animals look healthy enough and two females in particular (nº12 and nº20) clearly seemed to be pregnant when we visited them last, in late August (in the meantime, bureaucratic constraints have interrupted the regular monitoring – but are expected to be resumed very soon).
On a sad note however, the limping female (nº17) seems to be getting considerably worse, showing a very swollen hock, and as she struggles to keep pace with the rest of the group, her physical condition has been plummeting fast. Some sort of intervention seems inevitable, and options are being discussed now.
A very important task that was concluded successfully (although not quite as planned), was the expanding of the enclosure. We intended to build a second fence perimeter, 16km linking to the sanctuary and in similar fashion, and then, once finished, we would open the dividing fence. This would step up the sanctuary from 400 to 2,900 hectares, improving enormously the habitat conditions for the animals. Everything went more or less smoothly till the last few days of fence-building, when a poaching incident (a few shots were fired) southeast of the fence line induced the whole hybrid group to cross into the perimeter, jumping the fence where it was still laid down.
By the time the work was finished, we realized that we had involuntarily managed to catch the hybrid group! We had been a bit concerned about the possibility of catching an odd roan, but grabbing the hybrid herd looked like a very long shot… Needless to say that if we tried to pull out such a trick on purpose, we would never succeed. But as result of this stunt, we are, yet again, forced to devise a new plan, and hopefully making the most of the ever-more-bizarre circumstances. But opening the devising fence now, is obviously not an option.
Among several options being considered, an interesting plan could be building yet a third enclosure in 2011, and then proceed to translocate all the hybrids (while sterilizing the males) from the current enclosure to the new one; simultaneously we would try to bring a couple more bulls and a few females from Luando, and manage carefully the first two enclosures for separate breeding. The third enclosure could be temporarily used to contain not only the hybrids but also the non-breeding pure bulls, and this could be developed for tourism, while keeping the breeding enclosures protected and quiet. Still early days, but it seems clear that 2011 will see a lot of action once more.
As for the hybrid herd itself, I can only guess that the group is complete, but at this stage we cannot rule out the possibility that it includes a roan or, unlikely but not impossible, a lost pure sable female. We tried a few times to get close, but the area is relatively large and the animals are very nervous, so the most we could get were short glimpses. In any case we could confirm that the herd comprises of at least 10 animals (maybe more). As we estimate the hybrid numbers to be between 10 and 12, that wasn’t totally unexpected.
We were very curious to check the trap camera record, especially hoping to have a better look on one of the suspected second-generation hybrid calves. One camera was lost as result of the seasonal fires, taking some impressive shots just a few seconds before being consumed by flames. We had struggled to keep the fires under control this year, and it even slowed down the fence building when a pile of new wooden poles also disappeared up in smoke.
The hybrid herd was photographed a couple times …
… and yes, we did record a calf! But only one photo, and didn’t look anything like what we expected. Again a surprise. We were guessing it would be a very ugly beast, probably an F2 with crazy phenotype combination between both species – maybe a freak having barely managed to survive through gestation and just lucky to be alive. Or maybe it would resemble a roan, if it was a backcross hybrid X roan… But instead, this calf in fact resembles a pure sable calf!!! It’s a shame we only got one usable photo. The head does look like perfect giant sable calf, if anything maybe the legs are a bit too long?…
In any case this was a shocker and as I see it, we have three ways of explaining this:
1) It’s a backcross between one of the hybrid females and the lone young giant sable bull that we know should be around somewhere, although not seen recently or ever near the hybrids. We would be facing a calf that is 75% sable and 25% roan, and this would be the worst case scenario in terms of the species conservation.
2) It’s a crazy F2 (hybrid female X hybrid male). After all, who knows how an F2 should look like in the first place? Could result in an ugly freak, but I suppose it could as well resemble in phenotype any of the original species…
3) It would be a pure giant sable. This of course would only be possible if we still had at least one pure cow among the hybrid herd, and somehow she had managed to find the lonely pure bull and produce offspring. We can’t rule out this possibility, but as much as we would love to believe it, so far we have found no evidence to support it. It’s a one in a million shot, but we won’t rest until we have all the individuals singled out and identified.
As for the rest of the camera record, we obtained the usual species such as roan, duiker, bushbuck, porcupine and warthog. Interesting to see on one occasion, were one duiker and bushbuck females eating soil simultaneously.
In the reserve, our focus has been strengthening the still very modest law enforcement system, while trying to monitor the giant sable group already localized and attempting to find more animals. We traveled to Luando, taking with us a couple shepherds from Cangandala who are more experienced and better trained, to assist the shepherds in Luando reserve.
We also took the opportunity to deploy two new bikes for the senior shepherds (two other bikes had already been placed in Cangandala), and these are expected to make a huge improvement on the law enforcement activities in the reserve. While there and during a routine patrol, we were able to detain a poacher and apprehend his shotgun.
In Quimbango, we have been recuperating Estes’ old house by the beautiful Quimbango stream. It is a tribute to the great scientist, but it will also become the central research base, while providing support for law enforcement in the mean time.
The trap camera record in Luando was as frustrating as ever. Cameras placed in new salt lick locations spread out over hundreds of kilometers produced similar results: a lot of roan and no sable! We obtained about twenty independent roan records and not one single sable event! This of course can’t be a good sign. A modest consolation was obtaining some really interesting behavioral sequences, including scent marking by a bull in one day, and then being picked up by a young male a few days later.
Other wildlife included warthogs, bushpigs, duikers, reedbuck and waterbuck.
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- July 2010 – Second Trimester Report
The second trimester marks the end of the rains and beginning of the dry season. If I could choose this is clearly the least appealing of periods in the palanca woodlands. In April the climate is hot and moist, the rivers are over-flooding, the soils waterlogged and the fast growing grass is often impenetrable.
All this makes the process of moving around across the region, a very painful exercise at best. Then the weather changes sharply as we enter May, when the rains come to a sudden halt. And throughout May and June, the most annoying factor is, no doubt, the long and hard dry grass. The dead grass blocks visibility, hiding tracks and roads while clotting the car’s radiators and its sharp edges cut easily through human skin when we’re on foot.
In any case we were entering a crucial phase in Cangandala, as the cows in the sanctuary completed the first 9 months of confinement in the company of our master bull, so from now on anything was possible… meaning calving of course! In the best case scenario they could calve in May, but I suppose that would be wishful thinking and it just hasn’t happened yet. The animals must require some extra time to adjust to their new condition in semi-captivity and I’m confident that we will have our first pure calves in the next trimester.
In spite of this, there are some very promising signs that we registered on several visits. The first thing to note is that the females, although still packed together, seemed to be more sensitive and not allowing our approach as before.
In sharp contrast, the bull seems very relaxed while protecting the herd. Every time we approached the group, the bull would calmly stand in between us and the females while allowing them to quickly vanish into the thick forest.
While providing us with some nice views of the bull, this became a very frustrating exercise as we were focusing on getting a clear view of the females. We did however obtained glimpses, and the overall impression was that they did look shiny, healthy and curvy… and on a few photos they do seem to be pregnant …
On the other hand, the routine monitoring of hybrids in the remaining park through the trap camera, revealed a big surprise: the hybrids may be capable of breeding after all!
This was quite unexpected as we detected no evidence of it for the past few years. The first troubling record was a photograph of Anastacia (the first hybrid caught – also known as our Judas as she was the one who betrayed the herd during the capture operation), alone at one salina and showing a clearly swollen udder.
It is still unclear if she did calve, but it strongly suggested breeding behavior and pregnancy (either successful or not). But the shocker wouldn’t take long, when a sequence showing the remaining hybrid group, in which one of the older females was joined by a small two month calf.
And as if to clarify any doubts we might had still, they clearly interacted, behaving like every mother and calf do.
It’s a fact: the hybrids are capable of breeding!
The immediate obvious question, to which I still don’t have an answer, is: who the hell is the father of that little calf? Or, in other words, what sort of new hybrid do we have now? So far all hybrids were presumed to be F1’s (the product of a cross sable X roan), but now we must have something else, either a F2 (hybridF1 X hybridF1), or a backcross (hybrid F1 X roan or sable). The later of course would result on an animal which will be 75% one species and 25% the other species. The implications of being one or the other type of hybrid can be relevant. While an F2 proves the hybrids can, at least occasionally, breed among themselves, a backcross poses an immediate and real threat of contamination into one of the parent species.
My gut feeling is that we’re dealing with F2’s, mainly because the hybrid group has been consistently seen escorted by an impressive hybrid bull.
In the past, the herd was lacking a mature “resident” bull, and this is what must have led the pure sable females to seduce roan bulls, but since last year this young hybrid bull grabbed the empty seat as dominant male. We shouldn’t however rule out just yet, the possibility of having a backcross with a roan bull (or even with the stray sable bull – this seems a remote possibility but it is also the most worrying one).
All this makes it obvious and unavoidable the need for a serious genetic study, to clarify all these issues, and assist us to manage the recovery of the giant sable breeding group while controlling (and understanding) what is happening with the hybrids.
The following months should be interesting…
November 2009 – April 2010 (Trimester Report)
2009 ended on a positive note. It had been a year of great achievements, and the introduced bull in Cangandala seems to have adjusted extremely well to the new environment and, above all, to semi-captivity in the company of our 9 pure females!
The removal of the nine dominant pure females caused initially some understandable disturbance on the behavior of the remaining herd (hybrids) as they dispersed, before ended up reuniting to form what is arguably one of the most bizarre group of mammals ever recorded! Without pure individuals, we have now a herd of at least seven first generation (F1) sterile hybrids including one dominant bull, three adult cows and several young of different
ages. One would be tempted to see a nice healthy herd of… an undescribed new species of *Hippotragus*!!! However as a “breed” they constitute a dead end, doomed to grow old and disappear, one by one, without reproduction.
A totally unexpected but welcomed surprise, was recording one of the three young pure males that had dispersed and last photographed on Christmas Eve 2007, then at age 2 and a half. He had now turned into a nice 4.5 year adult bull and had lost the company of his half brothers… he is now solitary and possibly on the look out to establish his own territory. Somehow, it might not be a coincidence that he showed up only after we removed the pure females, as interestingly, the photographic record at the existing Salinas do suggested some changes on the pre-existing territories, herd movements and structure.
Not only the now full hybrid group readjusted, but the roan herds seem to have done some changes, including one group that has now moved into the main core area. Of course this is very speculative, but these changes may have triggered a response on our not yet well established solitary bull.
It was a great joy to record in the park this now mature bull, following years of frustrations without any. It will be fantastic to keep him in the park, and have him establishing a territory. However, the role we expect from him, in terms of assisting the recovery of the Cangandala sable populations is very modest, or even null. The giant sable in Cangandala constitute an extreme population, that was reduced to less than a dozen breeding animals for quite a while and must therefore be severely inbred. Also because of this it was important to bring a giant sable bull from Luando, to restore the breeding vigor. This Cangandala male was fostered by one of the existing cows and by a related bull (we believe his father was a young male, also fostered by one of the old cows, themselves likely strongly related). So the inbreeding rate must be huge among these animals, and it would be foolish to allow this young bull now to have contact with the herd, as the reproductive success rate would almost surely suffer.
Unless we come across an opportunity to bring some females from Luando (hardly justifiable at this point), this male will be destined to become a territorial bull without competition, or females. It will be interesting though, to see if he challenges the hybrid bulls for the company of the hybrid cows. Aside the sable male, roan and hybrid herds, the trap camera record in Cangandala also provided us with plenty of other stuff including some featuring our Judas female hybrid and the usual customers, duiker, bushbuck and warthog.
The generous seasonal rains have made significantly more difficult to access Cangandala, but this has also allowed the vegetation to recover, and the park is now dominated by different shades of green. As the woodland presents itself lush and moist, there is plenty of food for our herd inside the 400ha sanctuary. The animals seem to graze happily, and not being forced to move much every day inside the fenced area. The nine females keep together as a group and always diligently led by the bull. Whenever we approach he will watch and stare at us while the females stay relaxed.
So far so good. It is a very good sign, that up until early March, no female has shown signs of advanced pregnancy or calving. If that was the case, it would have meant that they would produce a hybrid calf, as there wasn’t enough time to blame it on the new bull! All we have to do now is wait a bit longer, as before June we don’t expect any calves.
The herd’s movements is also being remotely monitored, as our female n12 is equipped with a GPS/GSM collar, recording twice a day its coordinates which are sent by SMS through Unitel network.
The present abundance of food could however lead us to a false sense of security. The ecosystem will change sharply after May, as the dry season steps in, as water will disappear, the grass will turn thick, dry and unpalatable, and the burnings will temporarily remove further vegetation, not to mention the trees stating to lose the leaves and canopy cover. It is a real concern that the 400 hectares enclosure can in fact be too small for the group in the dry season, which may then be subjected to sudden changes in food and water availability and by fire, in such a way that will affect the breeding success, or even the animals’ survival – it is crucial to provide more space to the animals. Therefore we are planning to expand the current enclosure as soon as possible, but it will only be finished by the end of the dry season (a sponsorship by Statoil and Block 15). In the meantime, a few complementary measures need to be implemented.
One of the measures is burning small patches of grass as soon they become combustible. These strategically located early burnings allow for the fresh regrowth to appear and develop at different stages inside the enclosure. Simultaneously they serve as safe zones and fire breaks, in case of uncontrolled and undesired burnings that could burn the whole area in one sweep and even corner the animals against the fence. A couple of unusually dry weeks in February, allowed us to burn a couple of hectares near the fence main gate.
In March we made an aerial survey with an *Alloutte*, on a joint operation with the FANA – the Military Air Force and who, as always, proved to be a reliable, competent and enthusiastic partner. An MI-8 previously took a few drums of jet fuel to a village in the reserve, where we then refueled the *Alloutte* in the following days.
Although this time of the year is hardly the best to spot animals from the air, considering the long grass and thick canopies, it was important to try to locate some of the collared animals. In Cangandala we located the collared female pacassa (forest buffalo) in a thicket near a river, and she had moved out of the park, and more than 30km away from where it had been captured in August. Then we located and flew over the hybrid herd, confirming that the two collared hybrid cows stick together.
In Luando we located the female and one bull collared, but we were unable to see them because of thick forest. They were relatively close to where they had been initially darted.
A huge surprise however, was finding an eland! It was an old cow, apparently alone, but this was totally unexpected. Eland were never common in the reserve, and were by now presumed extinct! It shows how resilient nature can be at times, but I doubt there are enough to constitute a viable population… we’ll see.
The people in the village benefited from the fuel spoils and we were received by the elder (sobas – local chiefs), to whom we expressed our concerns about continuing poaching records. They in turn, mentioned that a lion had moved close to the village and could be heard every other night.
The trap camera record in Luando was modest in number and quality of photos, but included some really exciting ones. We got a glimpse of one of the marked territorial bulls, in which it is just possible to see an ear tag. But the biggest surprise here, was recording an old female with a newborn calf on November 7th! Under normal circumstances, calving on sable should be pretty much finished by September, although very late calving is not unheard of. In any case, and even being a poor quality photo, it is our first photographed pure giant sable calf!
Remaining photos included some duiker, bushpig and even an always welcomed ground hornbill.
On the way back to Cangandala we flew over a nice group of seven roan in a fairly open savannah, which provided for some excitement and nice photographic sequence.
September & October 2009
Cangandala National Park: Resulting from the successful capture operation, the routine has changed dramatically in Cangandala, as our effort is now focused in keeping the animals under surveillance within the fenced area. The shepherds keep a daily watch around the fence making sure it remains in good condition and unchallenged by the animals. Keeping the water basins filled is no longer an issue, as the rains have been increasing and following the first two weeks of confinement when the animals used the water basins daily, they have now totally given up on them. It rains now almost every second day, and there is plenty of moisture available.
The females don’t look as fat as they used to when they were captured, but this no reason for concern, as it may be a more natural condition now. Pete Morkel thought they looked unusually fat when we handle them, probably a result of several years of almost no breeding stress. The animals had shiny coats, and looked alert and healthy.
More importantly, as probably what everyone wants to know, the bull seems to be a competent master. He is always near the females, leading them in the daily routines, but securing the back and guarding the herd from intruders. The females seem to submit to his guidance naturally and joyfully. They’re in love, and no, I don’t know if they are pregnant yet – we’ll have to wait a few more months!
Approaching the herd with our 4×4 is now possible, tracking their radio signal, as several animals in Cangandala are wearing a VHF collar. However, considering the thick woodland in the area, the minimum and maximum distance for a sighting is 100-150 mt, and this makes the observations done in poor light and difficult to identify and record individuals. Even so, following several trips and various days of continuous approaches and observations, we are getting the animals increasingly accustomed to our presence, allowing sometimes for more than one hour observations.
What really came across in a very obvious manner watching their behavior was the vulnerability of males to poachers, making it easier to understand (although we suspected it) how we ended up in such a desperate situation, with one group left of females and no male available. It doesn’t mean the poachers were targeting males, but it wasn’t also a lucky draw – it happens that they are much easier to kill! In fact, their black figure stands out in the forest quite prominently, and most of the times when we approached the herd, it’s the bull we see first. Besides, he tends to be patrolling around the herd. Even worst, when the herd feels uncomfortable or suspicious, they tend to walk away but the bull will stay behind and often he even walks towards the intruder, thus challenging a potential predator. This happened a few times when we approached the herd. It is surely what caused the male poaching to be more effective, and led an isolated herd to be left without a breeding bulls.
The trap cameras located in the old Salinas produced no sable or hybrid photos, but this wasn’t surprising. We were hoping for some hybrid shots to check on them, as we assume there are no pure sables left in Cangandala. Instead we got some roan photos, plus the usual other mammals such as bushbuck, duiker, warthog and porcupine.
We realize that as result of the capture operation and the removal of all the pure (and oldest) females, the social implications must have been huge, so it would be interesting to determine if the hybrids have rejoined as group. In one occasion we got close to the two collared hybrid cows, tracking them on foot, and at least these two were together.
Luando NSR: In October we did another trip to Luando reserve which as usual proved to be a logistical challenge but was also an extremely exciting and rewarding trip, even if producing modest results in terms of sable records.
We drove for 400km with the quad bikes inside the reserve, most of the time cross-country and navigating with GPS. This took us through magnificent pristine landscape, and we fly-camped in the most remote locations. The highlight of the trip was probably driving the quads along beautiful drainage lines with small herds of reedbuck running in front of us in their typical undulating fashion.
The area where a sable herd had been located earlier in the year is of course our main focus and it is being monitored regularly. This group of animals in Luando is apparently the last stronghold of the subspecies, and requires full and unconditional protection. Security is a serious issue, and we are setting on the ground the necessary elements to ensure the animals are not threatened by poachers or others. The local shepherds feel motivated and we are including the local civil and traditional authorities, police and military in a network specifically aimed at ensuring the main sable herd is kept safe.
As important as securing the only naturally occurring giant sable group known is trying to find a new herd. If there are any other groups left somewhere in the reserve we must find them before it’s too late. Of course by now, we have a pretty good idea of the most likely and least likely areas to find sable, and we have now 14 digital trap cameras monitoring different salt licks and hotspots. In spite of this effort, the results were disappointing. The fact that the cameras are distributed over more than two hundred kilometers of remote wilderness, makes it impossible for me to keep a regular on-site maintenance of the cameras. Because of it, some cameras are under-performing for a number of reasons, from poor choice of placement to battery failure, etc.
One camera placed in the area where we have the sable herd located, produced just a few photos of a nice mature bull plus a few roan shots.
This wasn’t a surprise and it was nice to get for the first time some trap camera shots of a mature bull, after years in Cangandala of females, calves and… hybrids. The remaining cameras scattered all over the reserve produced only roan, in ten occasions and six different sites.
This was hugely frustrating. Unless there is some unknown reason that makes sable less dependent on Salinas in the reserve, we must accept that their population has crashed in Luando and somehow roan has coped better with poaching pressure.
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July & August 2009
Months of preparations finally culminated on the crucially needed capture operation, and the results were staggering and above expectations. A huge success! In the last couple of weeks before the operation, we made necessary improvements on the 8 km fence (delimiting the 400 hectare sanctuary) and dealt with all the red tape issues and logistics. The seasonal burnings had arrived later than in previous years, but the woodland seemed in good condition to meet our requirements – good aerial visibility with the trees mostly leafless, and the area almost cleared of grass. In the meantime we had Luis Veríssimo, based in US, monitoring the daily burnings in Cangandala and Luando through the MODIS satellite, and producing weekly maps showing the progress of burnings in both reserves. The latest trap camera shots recorded the sable/hybrid herd in mid-July, and with little surprise they were at S3C, usually their favorite salina in the dry season. Furthermore, lab results on mtDNA from dung pellets collected on a certain anhara in Luando reserve the previous month, confirmed what we suspected and hoped for: they were of Hippotragus niger variani – Giant Sable!
By the end of the month everything was ready, and the operation officially started on July 24th, with the arrival in Malanje of Barney O’Hara on his well equipped Helicopter Hughes 500, from Botswana. Pete Morkel was with us once more, as the leading vet, and had arrived a few days earlier. Later on, Jeremy Andersen and Richard Estes, also spent a few days in Cangandala to kindly assist us with their outstanding expertise on these animals. The capture operation was sponsored by a Block 15 (Sonangol as concessionary, Esso as operator, and other associated companies) grant, but a special mention is due to several people who kindly assisted with logistics on the ground such as Henriette Koning, as to the company Oceaneering and the Angolan military FAA, who facilitated the fuel acquisition and transport to the park. The operation was fully recorded on HD video for documentary, by our friend Kalunga Lima from the local producing company LS Produções, and he did obtain some really spectacular footage. And the local television TPA also kept a team on the ground for a couple of weeks and was able to obtain great informative footage that was subsequently broadcasted nationally and generated great enthusiasm.
During the three and a half weeks that the operation lasted we were based in Cangandala NP and doing morning chopper flights every day. The main objective was of course to find and capture as many of the last pure cows in Cangandala as possible, and transport them into the 400ha breeding enclosure. Secondly and more ambitiously, we wished to locate some sable in Luando and, if we’re lucky, to dart and bring a bull to Cangandala. One of the crucial preparations during the first week of the operation was, under the demanding and perfectionist supervision by Morkel, building a temporary holding pen, a sort of quarantine site where we would keep the females adjusting under close monitoring for a few days, before definitive release.
Typically, we would start flying as soon as the weather allowed, which would be between 6h30 and 8h30, depending on the morning mists, and each daily flight would last from 2 to 4 hours, sometimes with a quick stop for refueling, and often having to land to handle animals or check things on the ground. On every flight, Barney would be skillfully piloting his chopper on the front seat and I would be seating on his right and carrying the maps; Pete, being left-handed, was positioned directly behind Barney, from where he would aim and shoot to dart the animals. Occasionally a fourth passenger would seat next to Pete.
Whenever an animal was spotted and we decided he should be darted, we would keep the visual contact from a distance for a couple of minutes, while Pete would “make” is dart – basically preparing the cocktail of drugs and put them into the dart. When the dart was ready, Barney would gently lead the animal into a nearby open area (generally an “anhara”), and the next stage would be a vertiginous chase culminating with Pete darting from a few meters above the animal. The chase itself most of the times lasted less than a minute, but was always an adrenaline-full ride, showing the pilot’s amazing skills in spectacular fashion.
Once the animal was darted (and very few shots were missed by Pete), we would back-off immediately and monitor the animal from a safe distance while waiting for the drug to produce its effects. The animal would go down between 3 to 7 minutes. Then the chopper would land as close as possible, so that we could rush to the site, where the animal would be handled quickly. The standard procedure was to check the animal’s condition, remove the dart and treat the wound, check for ticks and treat the skin with insecticide, plus inject general antibiotic and de-worm medication. The teeth would be checked to estimate age, and females would be checked for any signs of breeding. The horns in bulls were measured, and on the females that were to be relocated into the sanctuary area, the horn tips were removed to avoid injuries during social interaction in the quarantine area. On the darted animals in Luando we sprayed the horn tips with red paint to make them more easily identified in subsequent flights. All the darted animals were marked with color ear brinks, and some animals were released with VHF and/or GPS/GSM tracking collars.
Handling would last just a few minutes, after which the animal was ready for the last stage: release or transport into the holding pen. The release was a very straightforward process, injecting the antidote, and literally within seconds the animal would recover fully and move off, confused but probably feeling nothing more than a mild hangover.
Translocating the animals was a different story altogether and quite an exciting exercise. The sable would be flown a few kilometers suspended by their legs 30mt below the helicopter, to a drop-off area where other participants and visitors would be waiting. Here, the animal would be landed on top of a stretcher, and then driven in the back of a pick-up truck into the quarantine area, where the antidote would be finally given. During the whole process, the animal would be drugged, blindfolded and with ears blocked with cotton, so it would be totally unaware of all the commotion surrounding.
On the first day of flights we headed towards the prime area in Cangandala, and five minutes into the flight we saw the dominant roan bull (yes, the shameless liberal bull, that has been messing around with our sable females for so long!), but after a split second hesitation, we decided not to dart him (to be castrated) just yet, thus saving his masculinity. Although we didn’t see him again, that proved to be the right decision, as a couple hundred meters ahead we headed into the main herd. The group was larger than anticipated, totaling 16-17 animals between sable cows and hybrids. We chose a hybrid female which was cleanly darted and quickly released back with a VHF tracking collar. Sticking to our main plan, the idea was to use her in a few days, to lead us to the pure females, one by one.
This hybrid was of course a well known beast; she was in fact one of the oldest hybrids and the same female that had been caught in a snare trap back in December 2007, and which we knew to had barely survived. The wound had healed by now, but the animal kept a nasty scar and her right hind leg was still clearly swollen
In any case, and over the following weeks, this poor hybrid proved to be a very competent Judas and crucial to the success of the operation, leading us every odd day to all the pure females. We identified in total 9 pure sable females in the group, and we managed to capture them all! This was a result clearly above our conservative expectations. We were quite sure there were less than 10 pure sable in Cangandala, but suspected there could be as few as 4 or 5, so finding more and getting them all was superlative. We can’t exclude completely the possibility of existing one or two more pure sable females somewhere in the park, but this seems highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the trap cameras will keep the area under surveillance, as always.
It was no surprise to learn that all the females were relatively old with estimated ages between 8 and 14 years, and the youngest cows being born in 2001.
Although being old, all the females were in excellent physical condition, healthy fat, with shiny coats and showing no ticks. This is probably result of the abnormal present circumstances in Cangandala, with low predation pressure, low levels of competition, and bizarrely low breeding rates. Only one female had a bit of an udder and had produced a calf (hybrid of course) a few months back. The remaining cows showed no sign of pregnancy either.
In spite of their relatively old age, Pete estimates that even the older females should give us at least 2-3 years of breeding before their teeth wear out to the point where she will starve to death (thus dying of old age). The early success in Cangandala set the tone for even more exciting surprises in Luando, where we focused while Judas was left undisturbed for a few days to rejoin the group.
Like in Cangandala we were right on the money, and as we flown the first time to where we had collected the giant sable dung back in June, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw at the edge of the anhara, the unmistakable dark silhouette – a giant sable bull! He was cleanly darted and handled on the ground, and of course it was a very special moment to grab and feel those massive and spectacular horns for the first time. It was no longer a creature of myth – it was there, bones, flesh and horns. And what a fine specimen it was!
Half an hour later and not far, we also darted an adult female. She was also apparently alone, but a full udder indicated that she had recently calved, so a small calf was probably hidden somewhere nearby. Subsequently we witnessed as the cow was joined by the calf after a few days, a week later with another female with calf, and a couple of weeks later with another female, a couple yearlings and a territorial bull. This is normal behavior in July/ August as the females have recently calved on their own, and slowly start to regroup and reestablish the social bonds. Again, in marked contrast with the situation in Cangandala, where all the females (and hybrids) were found together, during what should have been their breeding season.
In the following weeks our lucky strike continued, not only with the referred fêmeas in Cangandala, but ending up finding and darting in Luando a total of seven territorial bulls, plus one other found in a group of 7 bachelor males (bachelor herds are a classic sable social unit, formed by bulls who don’t own a territory, usually young males recently expelled from the female herd).
Not in our wildest dreams we would have expected such extraordinary results! If anything, we were just a bit surprised to find so many bulls and very few females in Luando (only the ones referred in the previous paragraph), but this was probably caused by a combination of seasonal elusive behavior due to calving, and their less conspicuous color and posture.
None of the bulls darted could be considered as a remarkable specimen but they were all good examples of the “giant sable type”. The horn lengths were somewhat disappointing, and of course it would have been nicer to dart a really big bull with 60+ inch horns but it wasn’t to be. Six of the bulls were mature with pitch-black coats, with ages estimated between 8 and 12 years, and their horn lengths ranged between 50 and 54 inches. The remaining two were young bulls and still brown-colored, a 4 year old with 43’’ horns, and a 6 year old 49 incher. They may have been pretty average for a giant sable, but still more than enough to embarrass sable from elsewhere in Africa. Going through the record book of Rowland Ward one can verify that the record trophy for a non-Angolan (non-giant) sable was a 55 incher shot in 1898, while only eight specimens ever measured over 51 inches, and none was in the past 30 years!
With the pure females being darted and translocated into the holding pen in Cangandala, the next obvious thing to do was bringing a bull from Luando. It was decided that bringing more than one bull would almost surely lead to confrontation between them which could be disastrous – better to bring one and let him focus on the pretty, even if not terribly young, cows. To bring a bull and being more than 100km away from Cangandala seemed an insurmountable problem in terms of logistics, so we resorted to the Angolan military Air Force and their participation was outstanding – very professional, competent and enthusiastic. As in other occasions when we searched for the giant sable, they were one of the key partners, and this time Genl Hanga (chief of staff of air force) even spent a few days assisting us in the field.
One bull, chosen because he was caught relatively closer to an intermediate landing site (village), had been released with a VHF transmitter, so when the time came, he was recaptured and airlifted by the Hughes 500, as was done with the females.
Then he was off-landed in the village, where a military Russian-build MI-8 was on standby. He was then loaded onto the MI-8 and flown to Cangandala, where the pick-up awaited to take the bull to the pen.
The whole exercise lasted less than two hours and went flawlessly. Catching a bull and bringing him to Cangandala was of course a major accomplishment, and understandably led to huge excitement among all the participants, including local villagers, officials and represented authorities. The national TV obtained excellent and unprecedented footage, which opened all the news reports the following day and featured in major newspapers.
The females (and bull) were being regularly introduced into the holding pen, sometimes one-a-day, or every two days but on three occasions we were able to catch two in a row on the same day. During the 9 days we had animals inside the pen, we managed to get them to drink water in good quantity in plastic water basins buried in the ground, but providing them with fresh graze and browse proved to be a much more challenging task. We struggled to gather significant amounts of fresh palatable grass every day, and the animals seemed to eat just a small portion. Not that this was unexpected, given the artificial conditions inflicted upon these until now totally wild antelopes, but forced us to release them soon after the ninth and last female had been captured. The holding pen serves various purposes. Firstly, allows us to monitor the animals to make sure they have recovered fully from the capture exercise, or identify any abnormal behavior or condition; secondly it forces them to make or reestablish crucial social bonds, reducing stress levels and allowing them to be released all together as one group; lastly is may make them a bit more used to captivity and human presence, like getting them to feed and drink on artificial containers. All this had been achieved, and from early observations it was clear that the females had accepted and naturally submitted to the male dominance, following him everywhere he went inside the pen.
One extra benefit of keeping the animals inside the holding pen, was being able to show them, in a very controlled way of course, to dozens of people who visited the park during that week, including the media. More importantly, the Minister of Environment herself Excellency Dr. Fátima Jardim made sure to be present with the Governor of Malanje Excellency Dr. Boaventura Cardoso, plus their most notable deputies.
Finally on the afternoon of the ninth day, we opened the door and left quietly. We later learned from a video camera left rolling near the pen door that the bull was the first to come out, closely followed by the females in order of hierarchy.
Over the following days the animals were radio-tracked from a safe distance, confirming that they were all together in one group including the bull. They patrolled the fence and got habituated to its presence, while they have been browsing and drinking water in good quantity everyday from plastic basins, strategically placed near the fence, and refilled daily. In the last few days of operation we went for the hybrids, but only managed to dart a second hybrid female. By then we had caused too much disturbance and the herd without the old females had completely lost the cohesion. The hybrids were now all over the place and our Judas finally did not join with other animals.
In total we darted nine pure females and two hybrids in Cangandala, plus one female and eight bulls in Luando. A totally unexpected bonus was a female pacassa (Angolan form of the forest buffalo), darted and collared in Cangandala.
Over more than 60 hours of operational flights, other wildlife seen included several herds of roan in both reserves; one herd of waterbuck in Luando; some sitatunga, reedbuck and yellow-backed duikers (surprising quite a few of these) in Luando; a lot of bushpigs in Luando, but warthogs mostly in Cangandala; a few bushbucks and hundreds of common duikers everywhere. A highlight was flying over a leopard out in the open in broad day light in Luando – a really spectacular view. Species like lechwe, and eland were not seen, but in any case they are presumed extinct as result of war. This is particularly sad in the case of red lechwe as there used to be easily seen in thousands on the Luando floodplain.
In spite of the moderate numbers of wildlife seen, we also saw plenty of poaching signs, which included dozens of snare-lines and several poaching camps, some of them active. On occasions we landed near such camps in Luando, where we would find sometimes dozens of animal’s carcasses, drying skins and smoked meat, traps and shotgun cartridge shells. In one camp we collected 170 snare traps! The remains that we could identify were of duiker, bushbuck, reedbuck, bushpig and warthog, rabbit and various birds. No traces of sable in the camps, but for obvious reasons when a sable is killed, the evidence must be eliminated. In any case the snare traps don’t make distinction among prey, and most of the natural water holes we visited were totally trapped, surrounded by trap lines, some of which using 6mt long poles, clearly design to catch large antelopes (sable or roan).
Some of the poaching in Luando seems to be well organized, and we still managed to set on fire some of those poaching camps. Although this was alarming, we have since been in close consultation with the military, and some actions are already being prepared with them to tackle this situation.
By any standards the operation was an utter success. We found, darted, handled and transported more animals than we had hoped for; there was not one single animal seen that we wanted to dart and ended up failing to; all the animals we wanted to translocate we did; there was not one single injury on people or animals to report; there is not one single decision made during those three weeks, that I regret; nothing went wrong – it was simply the perfect job! Of course that for this remarkable outcome all participants and partners contributed somehow, but notably the much impressive piloting skills of Barney O’Hara and the remarkable veterinarian expertise of Pete Morkel, they both proved to be the right people for the job – a winning team no doubt.
The funding for this operation was made possible by a grant from Block 15 (Esso – operator, Sonangol – concessionaire, and partners), although it had been prepared since 2007 and started then with a grant from TUSK Trust. We must now prepare for a new level of responsibility, as the animals in Cangandala now require a much more demanding and intense management, and the same applies to Luando. The Government is also now becoming ever more active, and we expect management structures to be appointed and deployed to both reserves soon.
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In June we did a couple of trips to Cangandala and one expedition to Luando. It was time to make up for the long rainy season. In both reserves the seasonal fires ignited the woodland but, especially in Cangandala, on a slower pace than in previous years, surely result of the late rains that kept the grass moister throughout May and early June.
In Cangandala we just about finalized building a 2X2 Km fence that will be used as secure breeding enclosure. The idea is to capture and contain inside the fenced area the last remaining pure sable females that occur in this park and thus separating them from the intruder bulls. Of course, a pure male will have to be found and captured, to join the party. All of this will be attempted during July and August on a very ambitious capture operation that will be pioneering in Angola, and which we hope will be a landmark for rescuing the giant sable antelope from imminent extinction.
The cameras in Cangandala continued producing thousands of photos, and as usual no surprises came out of it. If anything, roan seems to come more often to the salt licks, compared to sable, but this wasn’t unexpected and must reflect the differential fertility rate of these two species. Roan herds are healthier and on the increase, while the sable group is genetically polluted and struggling to survive.
Most recorded Hippotragus were well known individuals, but some photos were quite enjoyable, including lots of bushbuck and duiker shots, and quite a few roan and the usual hybrids.
Especially impressive was one of our older pure females hesitantly arriving at one salina, before allowing her two-year old hybrid offspring to join (photo below).
In mid June the new Governor of Malanje visited the park for the first time, and the cameras registered the arrival of the delegation to salina (salt lick) 2.
In spite of all the disturbance caused, the animals soon retuned to the site and a couple of weeks later we recorded there one of the old pure sable females (photo below).
I couldn’t wait to get back in Luando strict reserve, following months of isolation for most of the rainy season when the flooding kept it effectively out of our reach. A week long expedition was arranged, and we prepared to reach and explore new regions in the reserve. We wished to head further south well into the Mulundo region but also, most importantly, to reach the northern section for the first time and where a lot of anecdotal evidence promised we could find there at least one sable herd. We were in for some 300 km of off-road quad biking.
In the first couple of days we serviced the quads in Quimbango and gathered the 15 shepherds based in the central-southern areas in the reserve. The memory cards for the past few months from all the remote cameras had been brought in for download and replacement. A few new natural salt licks had been located and the cameras had been moved around accordingly. Needless to say, we had high hopes of obtaining the first sable photos from Luando, although moderate given the previous record. The season wasn’t also ideal, as the past few months coincided with the maximum vegetation growth, thus often interfering with the camera’s performance (long grass tends to trick the camera’s sensors into wasting the photos and recording mostly blanks). The fact that the cameras had to be left unsupervised for so long only made it worse.
Indeed, the 8 cameras produced thousands of blanks and little else. The exception being a few porcupine, bushbuck, bushpig photos and… more roan on three occasions.
Frustratingly the only kind of Hippotragus we keep finding is roan antelope, instead of sable. We are now forced to recognize that this can hardly be a coincidence, and a proper explanation is required. One possibility is that we have been focusing our effort in areas more suitable for roan, but this goes pretty much against the historical record; another alternative would be to consider that, at least in this region, sable need or use less the natural salt licks when compared to roan, but again and until now our comprehensive data from Cangandala has never suggested any sort of differential use of salt licks among these two species; a third explanation that we cannot ignore, is that roan may simply be a much more resilient species when subjected to hunting, and over the past twenty years they may have simply coped better with the severe poaching pressure to the point that they may now clearly outnumber sable in the reserve. If the last scenario is true, the situation can be much worse than anticipated, and the sable population may have been reduced to a few isolated and cornered pockets. A comprehensive census for the reserve is urgently needed, and we are looking into establishing an intensive survey program based on non-invasive methods (such as analyzing the mtDNA from faeces to differentiate species), but a few technical details must be resolved in the meantime.
On the other hand, exploring the northern section of the reserve gave us new renewed hopes on our quest. We met with the first time with the local shepherds, and two of them proved to be arguably our best elements. One of them, Manuel Sacaia, a young man then, used to work a cook to Richard Estes in Quimbango in 1970, before becoming a ranger. Unlike most other shepherds we have in both reserves, they seemed to be quite experienced and comfortable about differentiating roan from sable. Most importantly, they had reportedly located a large sable herd last year and had even subsequently been able to show the animals to a few other people who confirmed. This year, they still hadn’t seen the sable but were monitoring the area and recording animal’s movements based on signs and spoor. They made an early May controlled burning in the most promising anhara, and we were able to visit the site and camp there. Up to a week old Hippotragus spoor was visible around the area, and we managed to place a trap camera near a moderate-used salt lick. This will be our new focus area. Also, because the relative proximity to Cangandala may allow us to translocate a bull from here in the future, if a herd is located.
These shepherds also proved to be a valuable source of information to help us trace back the history in Luando for the past couple of decades. When in the early eighties Unita troops took control of the region that included Luando reserve, Manuel Sacaia as a Governmental ranger was arrested, but later managed to escape his captors and spent weeks in the bush and swom across the Luando river before reaching safety. Over the years he was kept well informed and returned as soon as the war ended. He described the troubling scenario that endured the war years. In spite of the Unita command giving instructions not to kill the giant sable, these were poorly enforced on the ground and had little effect. More so, the routine procedure was having the troops quarteled in camps, which would be supplied of fresh and dried meet, by professional hunters recruited from the local villages. These hunters would poach anything that moved and making little distinction among species. This quickly led to the almost complete dissapearence of hippos and lechwe on the Luando river, while eland, puku and big predators driven to extinction in the woodlands. All other antelope species’ populations plummeted, and the giant sable went in for the ride. Just like everything else, they were just meat on hooves… lets’s hope we can still revert the situation.
A couple of trips to Cangandala in May reflected a sharp change in the landscape as the rainy season ended and abruptly gave way to the dry season “cacimbo”. In the first week of May we still experienced one last stubborn sower and the park was hot, lush and humid. Most of the time we had to battle our way through overgown thick grass, and occasionally overcome wooden bridges in disrepair. In contrast at the end of May, the grass and land had dried throughout and the first smoke columns indicating the seasonal bush fires were visible in the distance, cloudening the afternoon skies.
As the remote cameras had been left unattended for more than two months, we had plenty of photos to process and interpret. Even considering the less than optimal conditions between February and April (the fast growing grass, which especially in windy days, tends to interfere with the remote movement sensors, triggering the cameras and producing hundreds of “blank” photos), we still obtained a few hundred photos of Hippotragus in eight independent events from six different salt licks.
We feel the situation in Cangandala is so well understood by now, that we expected no surprises, and sure enough we obtained none. The four trap cameras located in the core area gave us four events with the “main” group, showing pure adult females and hybrids; and two events with roan antelopes, reinforcing the presence of these newcomers as they seem to be taking over the last stronghold of the giant sable in Cangandala.
A closer look at the photographic record allows us to identify 7 hybrid individuals and to count 4 pure females. This probably amounts to ¾ of the total sable/hybrid population in Cangandala NP these days! The younger animal being the hybrid yearling born in August ’08. In sad contrast the roan group mostly showed calves and young animals, reflecting a healthy growing herd.
The two trap cameras placed at marginal areas (where we keep an increasingly smaller hope of finding one day stray pure sables), gave us roan in both sites.
The rest was the usual bushbuck, duiker, warthog and porcupine sequences.
Later we received in the park two new quad bikes donated by GTZ , and the fencing material finally arrived imported from Namibia, and was inspected on site. We will now focus on getting the 2X2km sanctuary (fenced enclosure) built over the next couple of months, and before we start with the capture operation schedule for the end of July. The fence was arranged by the Ministry of Environment and the capture operation is being mainly sponspored by the Block 15 (Sonangol, Esso and oil exploration partners).
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- Following a hesitant beginning, the rainy season this year continued on a crescendo and ended up in style, at least in Malanje province. So much so, that during March and April it became impossible to reach Cangandala NP with a 4×4 vehicle. Although the region has an average rainfall of around 1,400 mm, it tends to be relatively well absorbed by the dominant sandy soils. The tends to be negotiating the rivers and floodplains, especially in wet years such as 2009. As result, and for the first time in the last five years, we simply couldn’t cross the overflooded Maúbe River.I suppose this will allow production of good and abundant grass later on, and availability of water for a longer period than usual, so animals will be satisfied. Still, it was a bit disappointing for us, not being able to get in the park, not to mention that for the capture operation scheduled for dry season we would prefer to have the animals concentrated in a small area, rather than dispersed over several good grazing sites. In the end of the day it’s just another variable we’ll have to manage.If Cangandala was off limits, one could well imagine the situation in Luando Reserve to be much worse. Indeed people coming from the later area reported that the Luando floodplain was totally inundated across a stretch of nearly 5km at our main crossing site, where the villagers took now several hours on a rudimentary canoe to reach the other margin! Even our barge had now disappeared under the water.Even so, we were able to collect from the local administrator of Quimbango, all the memory cards in use on the trap cameras since December. We have 7 cameras mounted in salt licks, scattered over more than 100 km of woodland, and the shepherds had been instructed to check the batteries and replace the memory cards regularly. The first disappointment was realizing that the external batteries had failed to perform, having lasted on average 2 months operational, when we were expecting 4 months. Comparing with the 45 days we get with commercial type C alkaline batteries, that’s not much of an improvement. And for now we decided to revert back to alkalines, and enough of these were sent to the reserve.We had high hopes about getting our first sable photos in Luando, but no, it wouldn’t be that easy, not with the giant sable… this mysterious creature seems to be always more elusive than expected, as if teasing us all… so it wasn’t this time, but we’ll get them sooner or later! The really annoying result was that, while not finding the sable, once again we did obtain photos of their cousins the roan antelope. Photos revealed two new groups of roan, quite far apart from each other and from the first roan site we had found in December. One sequence gave us some nice close-up shots of a lactating female, evident from the pink swollen nipples.
The second sequence allowed us to distinguish at least four young animals, including two female calves, one yearling female and one young male nearing 2-years old.
I must say that the third consecutive and independent record of roan against zero sable, is disturbing and not expected. It has always been assumed that the sable population in Luando, if anything, should be larger than roan… Of course, a sample of 3 is ridiculously small for us to draw any conclusions, but again, one can’t help wondering if we’re just being unlucky or what? Over the next few months we will definitely gather a lot more information on this.
As for the rest, at least we obtained quite a few interesting and sometimes not expected sequences of other animals, including some species we had not yet photographed. We had some of the regular customers such as warthogs (an impressive male) and a common duiker (one female was recorded on a funny sequence when she climbed on top of the termite mound and then hesitated for a while before getting down again).
Also some porcupine and a group of vervet monkeys which in some photos were clearly seen eating the soil directly from the mound (this was the first time we saw evidence that the monkeys also feed on these salt licks).
On the more forested salina, we failed again in getting photos of forest buffalo, but we did get lots of bushpig …
… and, for the first time, of yellow-backed duiker. This elusive creature, a huge forest duiker the size of a bushbuck, is seldom seen, much less photographed so we were excited about recording it.
One sequence even showed a mother visiting the site with a very young calf (bottom right in photo).
Also worth mentioning some unexpected sequences and visitors such as groups of fruit bats eating soil at the mound walls. We had photographed bats before at the Salinas, but had never “caught them in the act”.
Also interesting was recording occasional flocks of birds, mainly seed-eaters such as these yellow-fronted canaries, and they kept perching on the termite wall, an indication that they should be eating soil just as everyone else.
The surprise newcomer was a slender mongoose, although he most likely must have been stalking a prey or just exploring. Still, this was our first predator! Maybe not the most impressive or the largest of carnivores, but definitely one of the most successful and bravest of our predator fauna.
The following few months will be busy and may also be decisive for the future of our conservation efforts.
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As the wet season approached the zenith, the storms become more frequent and intense. The generous rains made several rivers and streams to over flood and of course our movements in the park are now more restricted.
With limited access to extensive areas of the park, we had not only to focus on monitoring the trap cameras but also prepare for the dry season and the important activities we are scheduling.
As we are planning to erect a fenced sanctuary in Cangandala, so we took the necessary time to study the design and details of the fence, and walk the full perimeter.
Although we had now a couple new Salinas trapped with digital cameras, we didn’t expect anything new, or at least no new pure sables. Over the past months we have grown skeptical about the prospect of finding new sables in Cangandala, and the camera record once more were pretty much in line with our modest expectations.
Of course we got the usual customers such as porcupines, warthogs, bushbucks and duikers. The only novelty being a one-eye-blind common duiker sharing a salt lick with a male bushbuck. We already had a bushbuck female with a blind left eye, and now we also have a duiker with a blind right eye. This sort of occurrence seems to be more frequent than we would ever expect…
We obtained no photos of roan this time, but we did get on five independent events, sequences partially showing our remnant groups of sable cows and hybrid offspring, including some occasions in which adult female hybrids or pure sable came isolated to feed on the natural salt lick. In total, only two pure sable and five hybrids were recorded and identified. Once again, just a tiny sample of well known individuals, and yet the hybrid/pure ratio is anything but encouraging.
The older of two hybrid males born in 2005, at the age of 3.5 years old is turning into an impressive bull even if from a freakish genealogy and probably being sterile.
Much more rewarding was observing a remarkable sequence of a pure female that couldn’t resist being as curious as to inspect the camera at close range. She ended up sniffing and looking right into the lens for a while, who knows if puzzled by its own reflection? I guess one could be tempted to wonder instead if she wasn’t trying to look us in the eye on her desperate plight for this population’s survival – Hello, Is There Anybody Out There?
As result we obtained what may well stand as the ultimate close-up photographs ever taken of a sable antelope in the wild! Again, the giant sable story proves to be fertile in irony… just as the pure sable population dwindles dangerously in Cangandala, becoming more elusive and mysterious than ever and yet we get one of the last pure female, extreme full frame, and at closer distance than any other animal else we’ve seen…
As for the rest the situation has remained calm in the park, without new poaching incidents.
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A new year brings new hope.
The rains in December and early January were generous and the park presented itself in lush green colors. The rain demanded the most of our 4x4s and driving skills, but we couldn’t avoid getting stuck once and a while. Traditionally the end of the year is the most sensitive time regarding poaching, as the demand for bush meat increases during the festivities of Christmas and New Year. However and maybe as result of the poaching incident that involved the Police in November, the situation remained calm, particularly in the core area of the park.
As for the animal populations present, we have them better monitored than ever before. We now have seven digital trap cameras operational and have extended the network to a few Salinas recently discovered which are proving to be excellent sites. With more than 5,000 new photos, we had plenty of information to digest.
A significant part of the photographic record showed reliable customers such as bushbucks (including “old friends” like the one-eye-blind female), duikers (including the one that carries a severe skin disease) and of course the warthogs.
As for the giant sable population in Cangandala, the situation seems to show no improvement what so ever, but it is not at all surprising giving the recent trends. We counted 3 pure sables in three different occasions, all of them adult females as expected.
One female was accompanied by the youngest hybrid calf- until proven otherwise the only calf born in 2008.
The hybrids are all well identified, and we recorded seven individuals in total, including the five youngest – two males born in 2006, two females born in 2007 and the calf – and two adult hybrid females, apparently now isolated. Even with such a small sample, getting a 1:2 ratio in terms of pure sable/ hybrids is depressing.
As the sable population struggles, ironically, the roan population seems now to be exploding. Until now we knew of a few isolated individuals. Initially we had a young female and an adventurous bull mating with the sable; more recently a few more individuals, male and female appeared, but irregularly and still isolated. But this time, and apart from the isolated individuals, we got one full herd of roan. Contrasting sharply with the sable herd, this herd seems to be a very healthy group, with a mature bull, several adult females, several yearlings and three young calves. These animals must have originated from neighboring areas adjacent to the park and may be filling in the void left by the sable absence, while benefiting from the protection we are providing in the core area.
What a disappointing trend: we started off with a few sable and almost no roan, and we are now in the process of having the later totally replacing the former in Cangandala. It’s as if the first roan bull acted as the Trojan Horse, introduced in the vital area of the sable where it replaced the sable bull, and via his poisoned love he totally contaminated the sable herd which was left sterile and helpless, so the time was now finally ripe for his original roan family to move in and take over the territory!
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Before the end of 2008 we had to go back to Luando Reserve. As the rainy season progresses the access routes become more precarious, and soon the region will be off limits for a conventional (on the ground) approach. I took Miguel Gullander, Bebeca and the three Luando shepherds who had just finished a training program organized by GTZ in Kissama National Park. As in previous times, we camped the first night near the broken bridge at Luando River, where we left the Land Cruiser.
The region had witnessed little rain the previous week, but the Luando River was already rising noticeably, and the current was steadily picking up speed, compared with our last visit. Our barge was still operational, although the main rope linking the margins was half submerged under the river’s murky waters. We loaded the barge with most of our gear including all the hi-tech gadgets, and I jumped in with Miguel and Nicolau, the shepherd from Camitungo. We clearly underestimated the current force and the fact that the rope was blocked by wooden debris in mid-river. We also forgot to tie in a back-up security rope, and the combination of these factors resulted in us momentarily losing grip with the main rope, and being left helplessly drifting down river while hoping to keep our precious cargo aboard and dry! Not the start we hoped for… We then used our hands and a machete (of all things) to slowly paddle our way until reaching the other margin 300 meters down.
The exercise slowed us down a few hours, but in the end no harm was done and eventually we carried on as planned. We then crossed the Luando floodplain and grabbed the two diesel quad bikes at Capunda. Our three shepherds based at Capunda gave us very vague information about animal movements in the area, and still hadn’t located Salinas, so we decided to move on southwards.Resulting from a few consecutive rainless days over these well drained soils, riding the bikes was easier than expected, especially considering this was December. This allowed for quick progress, but I confess I felt a bit disappointed. No waterlogged valleys, no muddy sections, no need for serious 4×4 skills, no adrenaline punch… I wonder when we’ll be able to really test these machines?!
When we got to Quimbango we recovered the Yamaha quad after repairing the flat tire, but ended up leaving behind one of the diesel Arctic Cat with a clogged fuel filter… I suspect someone adulterated one of our diesel drums… we’ll service it next time.
We set our base camp at Quimbango River as planned, enjoying a nice river swim every day in the evening, and being spoiled by “Dona São” who cooked dinner for us every night at the Administrator’s place!
Over the following days we explored the area with our shepherds, riding a total of 300km with quads and tracking a bit on foot as well. We replaced memory cards and visited new Salinas. We also brought in three new digital trap cameras and external 12V batteries to supply power in a more efficient fashion. Hopefully these external batteries will last for at least 4 months, thus relieving us from the burden of having to replace internal batteries every month. This may be especially relevant now that we likely won’t be able to access the reserve until June. Having the shepherds to just replace memory cards every 45 days makes it for a much easier task.
We had high hopes about the four cameras we had left in the reserve, placed more than 20km apart from each other. I was hoping to get sable photographs, and maybe, just maybe, our first giant sable bull photo… but again, these beasts proved to be a lot harder to get! One of the cameras didn’t perform well for some reason and filled the memory with false events; a second camera gave us photos of duiker, warthogs, birds, and even a mongoose, but no larger customers; the third camera recorded duikers and (a first timer) a family of bush pigs.
The remaining camera was the one we kept higher expectations as the shepherds insisted there had been a sable herd feeding on the spot… but the result was… roan antelope?! Some of the photos were very nice and included an impressive bull but it was a huge disappointment! It proved we all (shepherds included) can be mistaking roan tracks for sable, which also means that the sable population in Luando can be smaller than we predicted earlier when assuming most tracks were sable and roan was scarce in the reserve.
On a new site we visited to mount a new camera, on a salina at the edge of a large anhara, we were shown plenty of spoor and tracks, allegedly from sable, but a closer look convinced me otherwise… given the size and shape I’m pretty sure it’s also roan spoor. The shepherds weren’t convinced so we made a bet – next time we’ll check the photographic record and see who wins. They also showed us a poaching camp that the shepherds had recently dismantled a couple of weeks earlier, and it was interesting to discover that the roan (sable?) herd had subsequently been visiting regularly the abandoned camping site.
We were back at square one in the reserve, but I guess it’s just a matter of persistence until we hit the right spot. We may have been extremely unlucky, but most likely this may indicate that the sable have become more elusive than roan, or maybe it is more vulnerable to poaching? And it might be a combination of factors…
It was hard to say goodbye to this magnificent piece of territory, knowing that it will be out of reach for the next six months… Although the weather remained surprisingly benign during our stay, with only a couple of showers recorded, on our return we were emphatically reminded of just how misleading this drainage can be during the rainy season. When tracking on foot back to the car site we found the floodplain beginning to fill with water over flooding from the Luando River.
Our last two kilometers were done walking on water, over muddy ground and sometimes with the water line reaching our waist, while we desperately tried to keep our belongings dry (I must confess that I performed quite poorly in this regard). In January this region will be filled with water five kilometers across and 200 kilometers long, making the Luando River one of the most spectacular wetlands in Africa !
- Back in the car we were shocked to realize that the car had been broken in, as someone had smashed a back window and took some of our gear, a mattress, sleeping bag, clothes and a cooler box with food. We informed the police at the village of Rimba who were very professional and eager to help. Bebeca suspected of an unfamiliar face he has seen on the first day near the river, and on our way back from Rimba he actually recognized the character and detained him, while the burglar was naively carrying my swiss knife stolen from the car! He soon confessed and we recovered most of the goods with the help of the police and Administrator. If it wasn’t for the broken window it would have made for a funny episode!Enjoy Xmas and all the best for the new coming year!Pedro
November was time for another attempt to capture the first sable and mark it with a GPS collar. Once again we had Peter Morkel with us to be in charge of all the necessary veterinary procedures. Jeremy Andersen also joined for the trip and assisted on evaluating the park’s needs in terms of management and future fencing. Nito Rocha and Miguel Gullander completed the group. We stayed for 10 days in Cangandala Park, over which we did all in our power to dart the first sable. The rains had been generous so far, allowing the annual resurgence of mushrooms and the first few days were quite wet and muddy, but in the last few days the rain stopped completely and the land quickly dried out. It was still possible for us to drive throughout the park, but just.
In spite of our effort, and Pete’s effort in particular, once again the sable proved to be too elusive and unpredictable and we failed once more. After all, these animals are the last surviving individuals of a cornered breed, subjected to long years of intense and ruthless poaching. The first few days were consumed locating the sable/hybrid herd, sending a couple of shepherd teams on different directions. Once this was achieved, we then spent 6 consecutive days tracking down the herd, always following more or less fresh spoor. Every morning we would pick up the spoor from the previous day and track all day long, sometimes but not necessarily interrupted by a quick brunch break. Every day the main tracking team would be the “assault team”, composed by Pete Morkel and two of our best shepherd trackers.
The support team would be me, Miguel and a couple more shepherds. The support team joined for a few full trails, but often we stayed behind to make sure the car would be deployed to a more convenient location at the end of the journey. Communications were ensured with satellite phones, and we also assessed their location through the VHF collar. The plan was to make sure that every time we got within very fresh spoor, only Pete and one of the trackers would continue. At one stage we also tried to play back a sable calf distress call taped in South Africa, but we ended up giving up on this as we weren’t sure if we were arousing the animal’s curiosity or simply alerting them… this can be an interesting tool and certainly requires some more trials.
The average daily tracking would be more 20km, usually following a very tortuous line of progress, often zig-zagging and even forcing us to cross our own earlier path and in one occasion making an almost perfect “8”. The fact that the herd was moving so much, in such an unpredictable fashion allied to frustrating ever-changing winds, made the final approach to the animals almost impossible without alerting them to our presence. The best chance possibly came on our first day of serious tracking when in the heat of the day we got quite close to their resting spot in the shade. We had been tracking for a few hours, and although we knew we were getting closer, still we underestimated just how close we were. When the shepherds saw the animals resting, it all happened to quickly, and while Pete tried the approach, hidden behind termite mounds, a sudden twist on the wind direction blew us the whistle, and the herd was gone in seconds. On the first two days of tracking the herd, the occasional rains kept the soil moist and following the spoor was relatively easier. As the tracking progressed without rain, it became harder to read the signs and the animals started moving greater distances, making us struggle to catch up with the daily movements. As result of this, Pete saw the animals on four occasions on the first two days of tracking, but not since, and never got within darting distance (70 meters). I had a glimpse of the herd on day 1, but an unexpected encounter was reserved for day 4.
On the fourth day of trail-tracking, after a quick lunch break we left the assault team to resume the tracking, and decided to move the LandCruisers to a different location. We then parked the car on the edge of an anhara as it seemed to be a nice spot to wait for a while and keep track of the guys. Well, soon after we got out of the cars we had the sable group, 5 to 6 animals, running from us not more than 100 mt away among the trees. The horns and general shape were clearly distinguishable and at least the last two seemed to me to be pure adult females. It wasn’t a first sighting for me or Bebeca and much less for the shepherds, but Miguel could barely believe his eyes… as by that stage he had interiorized that his chances of actually seeing a giant sable on his first trip were little more than zero! Jeremy wasn’t as lucky as he was too slow to come around his side of the LandCruiser, and Nito had already left to Luanda on the previous day – he’s been in Cangandala more than a handful of times and still he hasn’t seen one sable!
We later determined that the herd must have been calmly watching us as we drove passed the group at less than 40mt, and they only decided to flee when we stopped and got out of the vehicles!
If anything, this operation taught us a lot about the sable behavior in Cangandala, and it became evident that they move quite a lot throughout their home range (the area used by the herd). We were not only able to confirm their assumed home range but actually extended it slightly on the southwestern boundary. In total the sable herd seems to roam over an area of about 10.000 hectares. Somewhat surprising was to verify that at least some of the animals moved around the whole territory in less than one week.
Analyzing the trap-camera record we also discovered that on the third day of tracking, the herd split in two subgroups, and while we followed one, the second subgroup took a different route and ended up showing at Salina 3C – less than 24 hours since we had returned there to check if any sable were present!
This subgroup included most of the hybrids and our youngest member – a young hybrid calf born earlier this year around August. She hadn’t been picked up before because she was probably too young to be with the herd. This was neither unexpected nor good news.
The salinas produced hundreds of good quality photos, particularly of the sable/hybrid herd.
In total we can clearly identify ten animals, six of them being hybrids, and only four pure adult female sables. As for other species, we obtained photos of roans and also of a nice waterbuck herd including an impressive looking bull. The rest included the usual customers, like bushbucks, warthogs, duiker and porcupine.
Another positive result of our intense tracking was finding 7 (!) new salt licks, this way confirming that there must be dozens of undiscovered salinas in the park. A couple of cameras were moved to new salinas.
Before we left the park some very disturbing news came to our knowledge, as the word quickly spread through the local villagers. While we were in the park, a couple of poachers entered the north of the park near Culamagia (as usual the most severely impacted area by the poachers), and somehow mistaking him for an antelope , one of the poachers managed to shoot his partner with a Mouser rifle! The unfortunate poacher had to be transported to the Hospital at Cangandala town, and was later transferred to Malanje given the severity of his wound (the bullet entered his back and ended up on his thigh. This could not be ignored and the shooter was immediately arrested (more for having shot someone than for poaching inside the park I’m afraid).
However, this story became even spicier, as the shepherds inquired and Bebeca could later confirm interviewing the injured poacher. It turns out that it was the police chief of Culamagia who supplied first an AK-47 for the poachers to collect some fresh meat in the park.
Apparently the weapon wasn’t performing well,
so the poachers eventually got back to the police chief and then swapped the gun for a mouser rifle. This situation is even more serious considering that these weapons have been recently confiscated from locals, on a laudable effort, still ongoing, conduced by the authorities to collect weaponry held by civilians throughout the country.
Last I heard from Malanje the police chief had a bike accident and later was missing… I hope that an example can be made out of this incident, but still fear this can be hushed.
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In October we did only a short trip to Cangandala National Park. It was mostly a routine visit to monitor the cameras and supervise the shepherd’s work, in preparation for the next couple of months when we expect to increase our field activities. The rain had intensified as expected but the weather remained mercifully dry during our stay. However the roads had become muddy and even before entering the park we had to rescue a 4×4 belonging to the company building the communications tower. Small ponds could be found easily, particularly on the “Salinas”.
Arriving in the park, different sort of news awaited us. Firstly, we were delighted to see that the 40 meter physical structure for the communications tower was now finalized.
It was now only waiting for the technical teams to install the solar panels and repeater to distribute the UNITEL cell signal over most of the park. This will allow us to keep track on the animal’s movements by satellite, once we succeed in capturing and collaring the first sables. Moreover, we will be able to install a VHF repeater to ensure radio communications within the whole park. This will surely boost the ranger’s moral and their efficiency on anti-poaching operations!
However our good mood wouldn’t last long, as the shepherds reported a disturbing poaching incident on the previous week. While on patrol in the northwest region of the park (usually the area more exposed to poachers and where sable and roan have already been wiped out completely), the shepherds came across three poachers. One was imitating the call of a baby antelope and the other two were on standby armed with AK-47’s. When discovered, a short pursuit followed and several shots were made from both sides. Eventually the poachers managed to escape, but not before one had stumbled and left behind his weapon that was therefore retrieved.
A closer look revealed that the gun was hit twice; one shot perforated the magazine and the other split the wooden handle. It is unlikely that the poacher might have escaped unharmed, and confirming this assumption a few drops of blood were found on the handcrafted wooden stock. We knew that one day this sort of fighting could happen, and fortunately it was the poacher to get hit. Hopefully this incident will send a strong message that the giant sable shepherd’s mean business!
A few days earlier and on a routine operation not far from “salina one” (S1,) the shepherds came across the skull and bone remains of a sable. As evidence the shepherds brought back the skull, still with one horn attached.
Looking at the skull, horn size and structure, one can tell the unfortunate animal was a mature giant sable female. The teeth were well worn (see photo at end of paragraph) but this individual should have been at its prime, still under ten years of age. It is not easy to determine when it died and for how long it has been there. My first impulse was to give it 1-2 years, but often I’ve been surprised with how fast the decomposing process takes place in this region, possibly resulting from the generous rains. For example, when a jackal died near S8 last year, in three months all the bones had vanished (except for the skull that I had already retrieved). Interestingly, we had recorded vultures soaring over this region back in March, so this could be more than a coincidence. We’ll get more details next month, when we intend to perform a sort of CSI on site. Until then, there is nothing we can say about the likely cause of death…
The trap cameras record this month was very disappointing, but also reserved a new surprise. At S2 and for the first time in many months, there were no records of sables, just the usual bushbucks and duikers and warthogs.
At S4B, as in the previous month we recorded the visit of the three roan calves and once again without showing the adults.
Finally at S3C we also didn’t get any sable or even hybrids. The first to be recorded was our well known territorial roan bull.
But then quite unexpectedly we obtained two sequences of a small roan group! It included one mature female and three calves, being one of very tender age.
These animals had never been recorded before and we suspect they may be newcomers, having moved in recently from a neighboring area. At least having roan females present should keep the territorial roan bull more focused in its own kind, and less prone to mess around with our sable females…
Next month we’ll have another attempt at capturing the first sable in Cangandala. Time is running short, and we need to start tackling the hybrid crisis as soon s possible. Hopefully, we’ll have better luck this time.
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In September we were able to visit both Cangandala and Luando. Eddy Brock came with me and this time Bebeca couldn’t join us as went instead to Mozambique for a training program. Three shepherds from Cangandala were also sent for training in Kissama NP.
Cangandala National Park
The park had just been exposed to the first seasonal rains when we arrived. This didn’t bother us and in fact was a pleasure to witness the ecosystem awakening to the new spring. The trees were now mostly covered with fresh leaves; the soil was soft and aromatic; the flowers and insects were omnipresent.
This is arguably the most enjoyable time of the year to spend time in the bush in the region. Remarkably, this time we saw close to 20 duikers, many more than we use to, which was very promising. The smaller antelope populations really seem to be recovering well and there is no doubt we see more of these today in Cangandala, compared to a few years back. Too bad we can’t say the same about the giant sable…
The visit to Cangandala was mostly to monitor the cameras. The shepherds had seen the sable herd a couple of times on routine patrols, but nothing unexpected was recorded. The cameras worked very well, recording a few more thousands of wildlife photos. S2, as always, recorded hundreds of bushbuck sequences and a few more of duiker and warthog.
As it is also customary, the main sable herd visited the site, although they did it only once and between 01h30 and 02h30, definitely not the best time for quality photos. In spite of the late time and dark night, the fact that we had placed a second camera at S2 shooting at close range, allowed for some interesting and useful close ups. Nothing exciting or surprising was recorded, as all the individuals are well known by now. I can distinguish four to five pure adult females and five hybrids, including our four youngest animals, two males born in 2006 and two females in 2007.
Apparently confirming our suspicions, there seems to be no calves born this year. Also no sign of any of our young pure males born in 2005 (not that we expected of course, given the zero breeding rate at the moment), and no territorial bull – there must be one somewhere keeping young males adrift, and most likely will be a sterile hybrid bull… The young hybrid male born in January 2006, is approaching 3 years old and starting to look impressive, so it shouldn’t take much longer for him to be kicked out of the area. After all, the pure males were expelled in 2007 short after completing two years of age.
S3C gave us a full 2GB memory card, totaling about 2,000 photos of game. The usual numbers of duiker and bushbuck photos, some during the day but most at night. Quite interesting was observing the constant presence for a few weeks of a pennant-winged nightjar, who would stubbornly perch on the same spot on the ground, while watching the ungulates feed on the soil. This led to some funny sequences, like a female grey duiker curious about that odd-looking bird.
Two days after they had been at S2, our polluted herd visited S3C, and the animals were once more photographed, only this time mostly the young hybrids and one adult pure female. The other pure adult females must have kept themselves nearby. But the big surprise was a new addition to our mess: a young solitary male pure roan! Another roan, not exactly what we need at this point… but not entirely unexpected, if we consider the dynamics in the park. He appears to be a two year old, right at the age when young males get evicted from respective herds and he really seemed to be a new kid on the block. He came across the salt lick on August 29th, and over the period of 2 weeks he returned to the spot 5 times, both day and night.
All our Hippotragus individuals typically spread over their territories, rotating regularly on a number of salt licks and making their presence on a given site quite unpredictable. From our records sable or roan have never visited even the most “attractive” salt licks, more than twice over the period of one month. So, this roan is probably a newcomer who happened to find the lick and is keeping himself close by, unaware of alternative sites. S3C is well inside the territory of the old hybrid bull (the one who has fostered the hybrids), so it will be interesting to note for how much longer this young contender will be tolerated.
The cameras near Cuque River , where we were hoping for some waterbuck, produced no results, but the southern camera at S4B gave us more to play with, and to worry about. At this site, we have long ago given up on the illusion of finding sable, so I expected some waterbuck and maybe roan shots. The waterbuck didn’t show, but the roan did. The roan herd visited the site twice and therefore we obtained a couple of sequences, one of them in broad day light. Interesting was that in both occasions only three young calves approached the site to feed. The adults must have been observing nearby, giving full priority to their latest offspring. It is our conviction that it’s this healthy roan herd, the origin of the roan males who once and a while show up near the sable group, 20km further north.
A much more worrying photographic sequence was recorded soon after the first herd’s visit: a poacher! The herd had come deep in the night of September 3rd, and on the following morning, this poacher appeared. He entered the salt lick cautiously spent some time interpreting the signs. He almost surely got there following the spoor and fresh trail left by the roan herd. He was carrying an axe, a spear and some ropes. He was probably considering putting a snare trap on the salt lick, when he realized the presence of our camera. He must have reconsidered, and after looking carefully into the lens, he moved away suspiciously.
Looking on the bright side of the encounter, at least he wasn’t carrying an AK-47, and he didn’t smash the camera, but this just brings to light how much we still have to do in order to bring safety to these remarkable creatures. And no wonder why the animals so often seem to be hesitant about entering and using the salt licks – the place might be trapped!
Luando Strict Reserve
I was looking forward for another Luando expedition and it fully met our expectations. As planned, we left the LandCruiser near the Luando River where we camped the first night.
The following morning we crossed the river on the still operational barge, carrying or basic equipment and food for a week. We hired three locals to help us carry our bags and boxes and headed to Capunda, an 8km walk, crossing the huge Luando floodplain and ending uphill. In Capunda we mounted the quad bikes and headed south.
The rains still hadn’t started in Luando, the woodland looked marvelous and our progress on those beautiful roads was fairly easy. We were recognized in all villages and people felt encouraged with the ongoing program. We were approached by lots of candidates to become shepherds, and we had to manage this enthusiasm cautiously, to avoid raising too much the expectations. On one of the first villages we stopped, we rescued a baby greater galago (Otolemur crassicaudatus) who was about to be cooked for supper (his twin brother already had been eaten). We brought him along for company and managed to keep him alive feeding him powder milk.
Once in Quimbango we met with some of the shepherds, and we very happy to learn that not only had they been busy for the past few weeks, but they had indeed found lots of spoor and located 8 natural salt licks! Quite an improvement when back in July they didn’t know of any salt lick in the region, in spite of my frustrated attempts to explain what they were and how they should look like. So much so, that I had left Luando in July, considering the possibility that sable in Luando simply didn’t recur to special places to eat soil. The shepherds were motivated, and this produced wonders. Also we recruited 6 new shepherds, totaling now 15 in Luando. What we saw in the reserve this time left me much more optimistic than before. Extensive areas where locals had claimed there were no sables left, now after being patrolled by our shepherds (or in certain cases by candidates to become a shepherd!) it turned out there was spoor and frequent signs of sable. Of course we still can’t prove we’re dealing with sable, as we can be misinterpreting roan tracks, but it is promising. Roan was always considered less common than sable in Luando, unlike Cangandala where they occurred in similar numbers. The shepherds defend that roan and waterbuck are currently rare in the reserve and confined to other areas where we are not exploring at this point, so we should mostly get sable results. We want to believe this of course, but we must remain cautious, given the Cangandala experience…
The camera we had left near a water hole produced no results because the vegetation close by undulating under the wind quickly filled up the memory card with false events. In any case there were no signs of large antelopes coming to the site. On the second month the camera had been moved to a natural salt lick, but still no results yet. This salt lick, as all the others found in Luando, proved to be very similar to the ones in Cangandala, basically a large termite mound (from Macrotermes termites) where the animals gather to eat the soil. The mounds seem to be chosen by their high contents of certain minerals, particularly sodium. From our preliminary assessments these sites are regularly visited but don’t seem to get more use than the ones in Cangandala, so it will be a matter of patience (and number of cameras) until we obtain the desired photographic results: new herds of giant sable, and a master bull! This camera was left on site near the Luce River, and second was placed 20km north in an area where the shepherds had found no less than 5 new salt licks and one water hole. I visited two of the sites, and placed a second camera. The site seemed even more promising than the first one, clearly eroded by the animals and we could see plenty of fresh spoor, less than a day old.
Back in Quimbango, we visited another salt lick, and placed my third camera. Again, we could see plenty of spoor, and signs of regular use. We were now done with the cameras, and there was still on site to visit in the region of Camitungo, some 25km north of Quimbango. From Camitungo we reached yet a new salt lick, maybe the most interesting of all. It was located in a more densely wooded area, showing some sable-like tracks as the previous ones, but also quite a lot of forest buffalo, bushpig and yellow-backed duiker signs. It would be great to get some of these reclusive species photographed! Unfortunately it will have to wait, until I can send over a new camera.
This trip was very demanding physically (having done 250km of quad bike riding and a few dozen of walking) but also extremely rewarding.
A typical day (another day at the office I guess) would start around 5h30am, waking up with the earlier birds singing all around us, and prepare coffee and breakfast on the remains of the previous night campfire; then we would pack the tents and equipment on the bikes and ride most of the day, mostly using the old trails but often off-road to approach the salt lick areas; we would make a quick midday break for a can of sardines and cookies and back riding the bikes; and there would be a few kilometers of trekking on foot to access the sites; in the afternoon we would have a swim in the river before calmly enjoying the sunset hours and setting up camp for the night; we would have a hot meal cooked in the fire and retreat to the tents around 8h30pm under an unbelievably loud cacophony of frog and toads calls ; I would be asleep at 8h31pm, and Eddy somehow also managed to sleep sharing his tent with the baby galago, jumping around all night long! The best camping site where we spent two nights was no doubt located near the Quimbango river, a real special place.
The only thing missing was (seriously) an ice cold beer, must sort this out in the future, somehow… As for water, we managed boiling water from the Luando and smaller streams, but we drank straight from the Quimbango.
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We had great expectations for August, as we were hoping to dart and collar the first sables, but the capture operation turned out to be little short of a disaster. Following months of planning and effort, we couldn’t deliver, and in the process we had deeply involved dozens of stakeholders such as sponsors, Governmental authorities, friends and supporters, media, resident communities and scientists. Until the last few days everything was going well, and all the hurdles were overcome with more or less difficulty, but everything went down the drain in such a way I was incompetent to predict: the Namibian operator contracted for the job was unhappy with the 2-day delay of his truck to clear customs at the border, and when we finally got the final clearance and green light from customs (following quite a lot of political involvement and commitment from authorities in Luanda), the operator simply and unexpectedly ordered his truck to turn back and return to Namibia!
We knew customs would be a tough nut to crack but we had it covered all along, and as per our earlier agreement with the contractor we had a few days cushion just in case there were any delays. The contractor had the best of professional reputations in Namibia and I don’t question his honesty, but I clearly overestimated his willingness to carry out this venture, and I spectacularly failed in assessing his character. We were all stunned and disappointed, but I in particular still feel embarrassed for the failure. Even worse is realizing that this blunder may have seriously compromised our desperate attempt to save the giant sable residual population in Cangandala NP. The truck was bringing a plastic capture boma, diverse equipment, a trained capture team, a Hughes 300 Helicopter and respective fuel. The truck’s “disappearance” meant we were left without a viable alternative, as everything had been planned for “chopper capture”. On the other hand it was too late to call off completely the operation, as we had Richard Estes and John Walker flying in from the States, and after a few hours of hesitation I decided to bring in Pete Morkel anyway. Pete is one of the top vets in the wildlife sector, and his perseverance, knowledge, professionalism and full commitment throughout the 10 days he spent with us was simply outstanding.
At least we would make the most of having with us in Cangandala such illustrious guests, and would take the opportunity to assess the situation on the ground, brainstorm with cool heads (mine was still warm!) and plan a new strategy. In the process we would try to approach the sables on foot, and hopefully dart one to release with a GPS collar. If only we could get one single animal collared, the operation would have been at least a mild success, as it would allow us to get them all later on. In any case we knew this was a long shot, considering we have very few and elusive animals, hardly approachable on foot, and conditions in early August are lousy for tracking (little bush cover; animals moving more than usual; hard dry leafy soils difficult to read tracks and noisy under our feet).
Ironically, conditions on the ground revealed ideal for our original plan, and all our preparations on site had worked perfectly. Namely, the timing couldn’t have been better chosen for chopper flights, as the trees were virtually all leafless (and this can last for just a couple of weeks), allowing maximum visibility from the air; the burning program had been perfectly executed by the shepherds, having recently burned a huge belt to contain the herd, and left strategic pockets of vegetation to provide cover to the animals; on the other hand a couple of early burnings during the rains had stimulated new grass growth, that the animals now visited almost daily; the shepherds had been keeping an eye on the animal’s movements, and their information proved accurate enough; finally weather and wind conditions were also benevolent.
Conditions were optimal. So much so, that Pete Morkel told us he was convinced that had the chopper and capture team come, we would have captured fairly easily the herd or most of the animals on the very first day! Needless to say, this did little to improve my state of mind at the time! As we expected, tracking the animals on foot for darting proved to be an insurmountable task, in spite of Pete and the tracker’s heroic efforts. We tried ambush at the best grazing spots, and tracking them down but they kept frustratingly out of reach.
Several times we had the feeling we had been really close, but it was as if they always knew what our movements would be, keeping one step ahead of us. When we sent trackers one way, sometimes they would see the animals, but then they would disappear before Pete got to them, and reappear later on a different spot or on the original place as soon as we were gone. Some of the misses were almost funny, if it weren’t for what was at stake. In particular once when during a break after the usual early morning track we visited Salina 7 to replace batteries and memory disk on the trap camera. Not surprisingly this site produced no results (last sable hit on S7 had been in November), but we left it mounted anyway. The next day while Pete was tracking the herd again in the area, we found what seemed to be a territorial marking spot for waterbuck 15 km south (see photo below), so we decided to remove the non-productive camera from S7 and place it at this new site.
To our surprise on our return to the spot S7 showed evidence of sable presence, and the camera actually registered a sequence of 4 relaxed animals -one adult female and 3 young hybrids- entering the salt lick (see photo below) within 4 hours of our previous visit! And on top of this, Pete and the tracker were at that very moment tracking them down and within a few hundred meters? Unbelievable. We knew then we couldn’t win this time?
On the last night we tried a desperate move, leaving Pete and the tracker the whole night alone in the bush waiting for the animals to show on th most promising grazing spot, where they had been often at night, but of course they decided to go elsewhere? the only visitor being a surprised bushbuck that barked at them for a while.
The trap cameras were monitored during our stay and we placed a few cameras in the southern region, where we expect to record sequences of roan and waterbuck for a change. For the past few weeks the woodland had been subjected to extensive burnings, including the areas where the cameras were located which even produced some spectacular fire photos, so we didn’t expect many results even on the best Salinas.
If the sables had been persistently visiting the salt licks under the cover of night for the past few months, now that the bush was mostly burned, the trees leafless and the woodland looking desolate, they would surely not venture during the day? but we were proven wrong! To our surprise, we did obtain a fantastic sequence of the sable herd at S2 in broad day light with more than 200 photos, most of excellent quality.
Analyzing the photos we got no bad surprises, but no reason for optimism either. We can identify at least 5 mature pure females, and 5 young hybrids. All the animals recorded are “old acquaintances”, and we couldn’t see one single calf from this year, confirming our suspicions that 2008 is another year lost in terms of sable reproduction in Cangandala. If one of the young pure males had succeeded in defending a territory and fertilize some of the females we would have had young calves by now? The exceptional physical condition of the beautiful mature females (see photo below: they’re relaxed, well fed and with shiny coats – they could hardly look more impressive) at the peak of the dry season is ironically a bad sign, telling us that they haven’t bred for a while.
Before the end of the year, we will try our best to have at least the first sable collared, so that we can start tackling the hybrid problem soon after.
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In July we skipped Cangandala but finally got started in Luando. Reaching the reserve was almost an epic journey, and was the culmination of weeks of preparations and hard work. It was absolutely worth it, and should be considered as another benchmark achieved by the project.
The Luando Strict Reserve, in spite of constituting the core area of the giant sable distribution, and being historically the most famous and promising area where most giant sables have been photographed, studied or hunted, have remained frustratingly out of reach for us. The land between two rivers, as it was often called, is a depressed territory stretching for more than 250 km between the mighty Kwanza and the Luando rivers. Because of broken bridges, broken ferries, roads destroyed or with suspicion of land mines, or by a combination of those factors, the only way we have been able to enter the reserve has been by air using helicopter and/or microlights. But this time we were determined to get through by land.
Having failed a couple of years ago to cross the Kwanza river from Bié province, we now decided to go around east of Malanje. The main problem is that we would face two rivers to cross, without bridge or ferry, the Jombo and the Luando. In order to make this expedition we obtained, sponsored from our partner the Ministry of Environment, 2 quad bikes 4×4 700 Diesel and a couple of trailers. The company Oceaneering donated transportation and customs clearance of the equipment, and Harold Roberts the company’s manager in Angola rode one of the quads. Bebeca also participated, using our third quad, donated by Tusk, and brought in from Cangandala. To cross the rivers we built and brought a metal barge disassembled and six plastic drums. We met in Malanje with the local village administrator of Quimbango, and he joined the party on his Chinese bike.
It took us one long day of driving from Luanda finally to arrive late at night at the Jombo river crossing, 250km southeast of Malanje, and carrying all our load, Landcruisers, quads, barge and logistics.
The next morning we were pleased to find out that a construction company was actually finalizing the repair of the bridge, and if we waited a few hours we could cross the new repaired bridge even before its official inauguration scheduled for the next week. Not bad for timing! In the afternoon we were the first vehicles to cross the Jombo River since 1992. The second night was spent 25 km southwest, at the Luando river, having driven across a road and villages that hadn’t seen a vehicle in 16 years. Our party was cheered as we progressed.
The third day was all spent building the barge and crossing the equipment to the other side and into the reserve. This proved to be quite a challenge, and at one stage we almost managed to lose one of the quads when the barge inclined dangerously to an impossible angle until we could abort the crossing. In the end we succeeded to cross the bikes safely, after removing the wheels, and thus lowering their center of gravity.
We camped the third night on the left bank of the Luando, finally inside and carrying all our gear. The Luando river forms a truly spectacular riverine ecosystem, extending for more than 200 km and several kilometers wide, with virtually hundreds of lakes of different sizes in both sides, while the river slowly meandering through a maze of channels. In the rainy season the whole region becomes flooded, with thousands of micro-islands covered with trees or termite mounds. The abundance and diversity of bird life is outstanding, and this should be regarded by its own right as one of the most relevant wetland in southern Africa.
The following day was used to reach our final destination, the village of Quimbango. On the way we spent some time at Capunda, doing some PR, meeting with political representatives and the traditional authorities. Our progress was also slowed by a few temporary setbacks, such as a couple of punctures on the trailers forcing us to leave them behind. We also spent a few hours dismounting and cleaning filters and tubes, after having filled a diesel tank with petrol by mistake.
It took us four long days but we were finally at Quimbango! In the evening we met with some of the local informal volunteer “shepherds” who have been reporting sable movements. Only then we learned that the area where they claimed there were a few herds left was still 50km away from Quimbango. So on the following day we left with our quads before sunrise and reached the giant sable region around midday. At last… After meeting with the local volunteers, we were shown anharas where giant sables have been reported often. We could see lots of spoor, fresh and not so fresh, and the site really looked promising. Our assistants didn’t seem to understand what I meant by “natural salt lick” where I wanted to place three cameras brought from Cangandala. It was as if, the antelopes in this area didn’t need to eat soil on natural licks. Maybe the vegetation and soil are richer anyway in the region… or maybe they just aren’t aware of the fact. Anyway this posed a problem, because in order for the cameras to perform, we needed to identify one very well precise and specific spot where the animals go… eventually we were shown a small spring/ pond where according to our guys the sables like to drink almost daily in August and September. We cleaned the area and left there one digital camera, the first in Luando.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to find other promising sites for trap cameras, so we ended up bringing back the two remaining cameras. Between Quimbango and the area where the giant sables were located, we appointed and hired the first nine shepherds, all of them were the volunteers already appointed to do this job for the last two years. Six uniforms were given, and we left the men motivated and proud to assume their responsibility as the new giant sable shepherds in Luando reserve.
The support received by the local administrations was outstanding, and everyone wanted us to do more and start as well in Capunda, Cunga Palanca, Mulundo and throughout the reserve! We took the decision of starting in Quimbango, and then slowly extend the program step by step. On the next trip, we can implement the program in Capunda and next year further north in Cunga Palanca.
As for the conditions of the animal populations we found no reason to be optimistic, it seems that the war really impacted severely the sable populations, and the subsequent years haven’t reversed the trend. If the remoteness of the reserve provides some relative protection against the commercial bush meat trade, on the other hand, the reserve has been exposed to a different sort of phenomenon, namely illegal diamond mining along the Kwanza and occasional presence of military forces to expel the “garimpeiros”. All this seems to have affected negatively the animal populations in general and the giant sable in particular. This year a relevant effort is being undertaken by the government aimed at collecting weapons within the local communities. Within the first few weeks of duration, already 52 weapons had been collected from communities around Quimbango. It is fair to assume that for the past 6 years these guns have been used exclusively to shoot animals. Even near the giant sable site we visited, where a few locals were sable-protectors volunteers and we felt a positive will to support the giant sable conservation, on a 10 km walk we did through an area with lots of sable spoor, we collected about 10 snare traps, most of them done with cable wire. This sort of traps makes no distinction among antelopes, and a cable snare can easily kill a palanca.
As a result of this, it is no surprise to conclude that the giant sable is under a lot of pressure in Luando, and if nothing is done very soon it will be on the verge of extinction. My best guestimation based on the few data available, points to a maximum population left around 200 hundred palancas. It seems clear that the giant sable has completely disappeared from extensive areas in the reserve, including some where they used to be particularly common, like most of the area between Capunda and Quimbango, where no one remembers seeing a sable in recent years. In other areas they are seen as occasional visitors, and they seem now to have been reduced to isolated pockets in some of the most remote or more suitable corners of the reserve. It is doubtful that each of these pockets can contain more than 1-3 viable herds. Based on indirect data and witness accounts, which require further research and confirmation, we have preliminary identified three of these pockets, evenly spread over close to 150km long of woodland! It is possible and maybe likely, that a couple more pockets exist over this distance, but requires more data. We also have left close to 100km long (covering maybe 300.000 hectares) for which we have no information at all, but nothing suggests a better scenario.
The habitat in the reserve seems to be in excellent condition, given the abandonment of agriculture over the past decades. However, we saw a lot of small villages spread along the main road, and dozens of children everywhere. It is unclear how sustainable model for the reserve can be implemented in the long term, integrating an explosively growing human population, its legitimate needs in terms of available land for agriculture, and the future of this unique and sensitive creature…
Anyhow, this was a very successful trip. We hired the first shepherds, placed the first trap camera, and started involving local administrations and resident communities. The reserve is a marvelous piece of territory, with beautiful woodlands, magnificent anharas, spectacular rivers and wetlands, and even unsuspected fast flowing clear water streams with natural pools, like the one around Quimbango where Richard Estes lived for one year when he studied the palanca. That site is indeed so special that I have elected it as our future definitive camping spot!
I feel definitely hooked by the reserve, and with the exception of Angola. And it is the home of the giant sable, no less! I believe there is no other conservation area as spectacular as this one in
Our next trip to Luando will be in September, and I can´t wait!
Next month will be sable capture/ marking time in Cangandala.
We are approaching a critical time, and preparations are being finalized so that in the following months we may be tackling some of the most urgent issues. July and August will be time for action in both reserves, including exploring new areas, expanding largely ongoing programs into Luando, and subsequently marking sable and dealing with the hybrids in Cangandala.
June marked the beginning of the dry season in full force on the Angolan plateau, with flatly hot dry days followed by freezing cold nights. Watercourses and dambos are now lacking water and moist, allowing for an easy driven access throughout the park. The veld is dry and the grass overgrown, although most trees are still hanging on to their leaves but, probably resulting from the unusually late rains that extended well into May, no fires had been recorded yet in Cangandala. This fact, led us to devise a preventive burning program, to be implemented in the beginning of July. One reason is that trying to keep the whole park untouched by fire will be risky, leaving it quite vulnerable to late season hot fires (a lot of dry accumulated fuel load), which could spread out of control and become quite damaging; but the other reason is that we expect to undertake a capture/ marking operation in early August, and we will try to have the woodland more or less “customized” to our needs, keeping large open areas without grass and leafless trees, as well as some refuge areas, and above all, minimizing the risk of untamed fires at the worst possible time.
Work is in progress at various levels in the park. The local cell provider UNITEL had a team on the ground putting up a 40-meter communications tower, as promised earlier. Apart from a VHF repeater, the tower will ensure, through a repeater operated by solar power, GSM coverage over much of the southern and central areas in the park. This will facilitate communications in the park but also allow for GPS/GSM collars to be efficiently used on sable. The work is expected to be concluded by the end of July.
As for the roads, the improvement has been significant. We can now access the northern areas for the first time in many years, and it was very interesting to visit Culamagia, and the old main post of Cangandala NP. An old advanced post house was still half-standing, but the buildings of the main post where the warden used to live and nearby houses built for park use and tourism, were completely destroyed and burnt down to the ground, work of UNITA during the war. The walls were all gone and we could barely identify the old house divisions from the tiles and floor.
Symbolically, the only structure left standing, was one single half-pillar with a beautiful carved relief of a giant sable head. Was it intentionally spared by the rage of UNITA soldiers, maybe fearful of its totem status or out of respect for the national icon, or was it just pure luck? We may never know the answer, and it will likely remain as one of so many marvelous and bizarre events that mark the history of this mystical creature.
The area of Culamagia shows already worrying signs of human encroachment, and the people there claim that giant sables haven’t been recorded in the area lately, and particularly none seen north of the main road for a very long time. This was no surprise and is consistent with all our failed efforts of locating new herds in the northern park for the past few years. Our presence here should at least now start being felt more often, also because most of the poaching either originates in this area, or the poachers cross the area on their way south.
Also good news meeting with a ground team sent by the Governor of Malanje, making an assessment of road conditions, so that a proper repair on the main access roads can be done as soon as possible. Another pleasant surprise was observing a young bushbuck female, very calm and relaxed, for a couple of minutes, just a few meters from the car in broad day light. Doesn’t look like much, but it was the first time in five years that we actually come across a tame antelope at close range, usually they disappear within seconds of perceiving human presence. Definitely an encouraging sign…
As for the trap cameras, basically we got a few hundred new photos of bushbuck, including our habitué one-eyed-blind female and respective calf. A closer look reveals that not only she is blind on her left eye, but her left ear is also missing a piece – she may well have survived a predator’s attack at some stage…
We also got a nice photo of a young male showing some sort of display/marking behavior, desperately trying to get a female distracted from her calf.
It was also interesting to see a common duiker using the salt lick, simultaneously with a bushbuck couple. It is the first time we record two species of antelope at the same time, and until now I would have assumed that the bushbuck would not tolerate a duiker nearby when feeding…
The camera that was monitoring a small riverine forest pond produced nice photos, but not of the species we were expecting. We were hoping for some bushpig and maybe some blue duiker, species that we know to occur and that haven’t been photographed, but instead we got lots of nice images of common duiker, bushbuck, warthog and our newest client (photographed for the first time by the trap cameras): vervet monkey.
At S3c we got some shady porcupine shots and nothing else. At S2, and apart from hundreds of bushbuck photos, we finally got some action from sable, although nothing spectacular as the animals kept their recent trend of only visiting S2 well under the night cover. In total we obtained about 900 sable photos, most of very poor quality. The first to come was our lonely hybrid adult female (the one who has recovered from snare-caused leg injury) on the night of June 14th/15th. Then she came back one week later, alone as always.
A female bushbuck was then chased away, this time size mattered. Interesting was noting that after a couple of hours she left, but about an hour later the herd arrived at S2, including a few pure females and young hybrids. This suggests that the lonely hybrid female stays relatively close to the herd, but somehow may not be accepted by the group.
We then proceeded to remove three out of the seven cameras we had planted on the ground. I will bring these three cameras to Luando reserve in July, where hopefully we will find suitable sites to mount them. The expedition to Luando is being prepared and will involve three 4×4 quad bikes, trailers and a homemade barge to cross the Jombo and Luando rivers. We will appoint the first shepherds in the reserve, and they will be trained to operate and maintain the trap cameras. All arrangements are in place, and contacts have been made with the local administrations. The time has come for the project to expand to Luando, where we expect to locate as soon as possible a few viable herds and, of course, the so elusive bull…
The month of May marked the beginning of the dry season, as the last seasonal rains are supposed to come in April. This season turned out to be quite atypical, again. Not only did it rain in April more than in the previous three months put together, but this time the rains even extended into the first couple of weeks of May, which was quite unusual to say the least.
When we got to Cangandala, the rains had already finished, which is not to say that we didn’t feel the effects of those late showers, and crossing the Maube River with the Land Cruisers tested our 4×4 skills and provided some moments of fun.
The grass was now fully grown throughout the park, but of course not yet dried, so the shepherds haven’t been able to set a couple of controlled fires as we intended. A few well timed fires on key sites would promote the new growth early in the dry season and help us keeping the animals well monitored.
The team in the park had been busy reopening some of the old park roads, included the access to the north via Culamagia. This route had been cut off for more than twenty years, and will allow us in the future more mobility, and the possibility of connecting to Malanje from the north, as the bridges are being rebuilt. Of course this will also bring new threats to the park and we must be prepared to deal with them.
Having concluded our soil sampling in the park, we had supplied some salt rocks to some of the lick points, and it was interesting to note that some of the rocks had been well licked and eaten. We had 8 digital cameras throughout the park but they didn’t all produce results. One seems to be malfunctioning and took no pictures. Three of the remaining cameras were placed in various new sites where we hoped to get Hippotragus visiting, but this turned out to be wishful thinking… and they recorded nothing at all. We got a bit more of the usual customers, like duikers, bushbucks and warthogs.
Worth mentioning was several visits by the one-eyed blind female bushbuck, even during the day and showing off her handsome juvenile daughter… And another visit from the “master warthog of Cangandala” with his impressive tusks, only this time 8 km south from his previous sighting back in January, suggesting that he rules over a pretty large home range.
As for palancas, we obtained few photos and of very poor quality this time, taken in dark nights. Even so, we were pleased to have recorded on one occasion a small group of three individuals, in which we can distinguish one of the young 3 year-old pure males and their “sister”.
The third animal in the background is almost surely, one of the remaining young male “brothers”. As we know, all too well by now, 2005 was the last “happy year” in which there was production of pure sables in Cangandala (a giant sable bull was still present in 2004), and the herd had then 5 newborns, 4 males and one female. They are all now 3 year-olds and they can well be sexually active. They play a central role in our hopes to save this population, and we have been recording some of them regularly, the last being in February. It is however the first time we saw the young female with at least one of her “brothers”, and that can only be a promising sign…
The road from Malanje to Cangandala town is now well graded, and this means a huge improvement for our trips. On the other hand, the increased circulation rates are also putting more pressure on the natural resources in the area, and the charcoal production is getting totally out of control, thousands of bags being exported by truck and bicycle every day, in spite of a “theoretical” legal prohibition to produce charcoal in Cangandala . The region holds after all, the last remaining pockets of pristine woodland relatively close to Malanje.
This trip also served as a preliminary check of on-the-ground conditions, for the sable-marking operation we hope to pull out by the end of July/beginning of August. It is too soon for details on this, more later… Important arrangements are being put in place, such as building of a 40 meter tower and installation of repeater, kindly sponsored by the cell provider Unitel, and we have a couple of GPS/GSM collars being finalized in South Africa. They will be mounted on sable necks, and the animals will transmit their GPS coordinates through GSM. Basically, two sables will have a collar and a Unitel SIM card, and they will send regularly their positions to a base station by SMS.
On another level, we are also about to start activities in Luando, which will include very soon a series of low altitude flights over the reserve, kindly offered by De Beers. And we are making the final arrangements for another expedition into the reserve, in which we will use bikes and quad bikes, considering that it is not yet possible to put a car inside the “land between two rivers”. To make this expedition possible, our partner the Ministry of Environment has sponsored the purchase of 2 diesel quad bikes, and these have just arrived in Luand.
All exciting stuff…
- MORE ARTICLES ABOUT THE GIANT SABLE:
- ‘Angola’s Giant Sable Makes A Triumphant Comeback’ – Click here to download a 4 page PDF of an article written by Journalist, conservationist and artist John Frederick Walker, in the Fall 2010 issue of SWARA, the East African Wildlife Society’s Journal. This article is reproduced with permission of the author, all rights reserved.
- ‘Operacoa de regaste da palanca negra gigante’ – Click here to download a 3 page PDF of an article written in Portuguese in the Angolan newspaper Novo Jornal (20 Agosto 2009) about Pedro Vaz Pinto’s work. This article is reproduced with permission of the author, all rights reserved.
- ‘Icon on the Brink: Angola’s Giant Sable Antelope’ – Click here to download a 3 PDF of an article written by journalist, conservationist and artist John Frederick Walker about tracking giant sables in Cangandala Park with Pedro Vaz Pinto and biologist Richard Estes, in the May/June 2009 issue of Wildlife Conservation magazine. This article is reproduced with permission of the author, all rights reserved.
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- Dear friends,The last trimester of 2012 marked the onset of the rainy season as predicted. In Cangandala and Luando, the rains started early and heavy this season, somewhat compensating for the severe drought that lasted for almost one year.
- Versao Portuguese
- Versao Portuguese