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. All photos and text © Pedro Vaz Pinto.
- 2016: First Trimester 2016 Report, Second Trimester 2016 Report
- 2015: Fourth Trimester 2015 Report, Third Trimester 2015 Report, Second Trimester 2015 Report, First Trimester 2015 Report
- 2014: Fourth Trimester 2014 Report, 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:
- Second Trimester 2016 Report
The second quarter always marks the transition from the end of the rainy season into the dry season. It is never a period that I look forward to, usually with too much water in April and too much grass in May and only improving a bit well into June. This is however the time when sable calves, with calving peak typically reached in May. Therefore it is hardly surprising that it tends to be very difficult to approach and observe the animals in these months. To make things worse, the abnormally generous rainy season of 2015/2016 in Cangandala and Luando, made conditions even harder with very wet conditions in May and an ocean of tall unhospitable grass right to the end of June.
And if this wasn’t enough the old radio-tracking VHF antenna fell apart and it became pointless to try monitoring the sable on the ground.
Instead we focused on various other activities, supporting management components in Cangandala such as repairing the water hole system and start building a new fenced sanctuary, which will be destined in the future to contain bulls for tourism visits.
The animals were simply monitored indirectly in Cangandala via the trap camera records as usual. Ivan the Terrible was recorded again, marking the territory outside the sanctuary, and at one stage the rangers on patrol reported to have seen Ivan once accompanied by a sole female… he doesn’t seem to enjoy too much the company of females, as he has ignored plenty of opportunities to lead herds, and until now had never been seen near a cow… but we can only assume that being a loner doesn’t make him less of a bull and hopefully the now lonely female will bear his seed!
Inside the sanctuary the most striking records reflect a steep increase in the number of young males. Apollo, just a few months younger than Mercury is back and might soon be a real challenger for the dominant bull role.
A bachelor herd was also recorded with three 2-year old young males (young males between 2 and 3 years old tend to abandon the comfort of their herds and wonder off forming bachelor herds of males before establishing territories later in life and then challenging mature bulls),
and plenty of male yearling and male calves. Mercury’s succession is guaranteed, but we can also expect that the rise in testosterone inside the sanctuary will result in more conflicts, fence challenging and possibly some injuries and deaths of inexperienced bulls. The plan eventually is to remove some of these males to the new sanctuary, as soon as it is finished.
In Luando Reserve a few things have shown progress, but there are a lot of worrying signs suggesting increase in poaching, and we lack updated hard data on the condition and status of different herds. One positive development was the support received in previous months by Angolan military, which has very much boosted the confidence on the shepherds and allow them to make more patrols and to penetrate deeper into less covered areas.
There were a couple of incidents reported of encounters with poachers, and on one of them there were several shots fired, and it ended with a shotgun and an Ak-47 apprehended. On a sad note, some shepherds reported encountering an injured female with a severe leg wound, possibly amputated. They could not see ear tags so it is possible that she was an unmarked female and another recent victim of a snare or foot trap. The shepherds also claimed that the poor female was accompanied by a small calf which would be consistent with a very recent incident.
The next quarter will be crucial as we are preparing for another capture operation, designed to put collars in animals in Cangandala and Luando, but also to make an updated aerial census of herds in Luando Reserve and, with assistance from military, to support anti-poaching activities also in Luando.
Photos can be seen in the following link:
- First Trimester 2016 ReportVERSÃO PORTUGUES (Download)
The 2015 El Niño was being responsible for an extreme drought condition across southern Africa, particularly in Mozambique and South Africa, but in many parts of Angola if anything it’s been the opposite. At least in Cangandala this rainy season has been quite generous, causing over flooding of rivers and constraining so much our movements that in the first trimester we could only access the park between late January and early February, following a short break in the rains.
The rare break allowed us to carry out several activities in the park, reaching for example all the trap cameras. However, and quite exceptionally, this time we couldn’t even approach the giant sable inside the sanctuary, much less see them or photograph them. With few roads at our disposal, we’re often forced to track the animals driving cross country, but this just looked like a terrible idea with waterlogged soils and under threatening skies, and eventually we dropped those efforts.
And tracking the animals on foot wouldn’t make much sense either, they would feel chased and not much to gain from it… Instead I spent extra time looking for birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects, while enjoying some photography.
Without being able to track and monitor the animals on the ground, we had to settle with inferring the dynamics from the trap camera record, keeping me busy for quite a while. As usual we obtained plenty of photos, and even after filtering the data to exclude blanks, we got around 30,000! These included the usual species, such as giant sable, roan, hybrids, bushbuck, duiker and warthogs.
More calves, plenty of healthy females and Mercury dominating the pure herds. All good here!
On the other hand there was a big surprise waiting for us on photos taken outside the sanctuary, which was the resurfacing of Ivan the Terrible. Yes, the crowd’s favourite is alive and back!
He had last been recorded in November 2014, and considering the long absence and the high level of poaching in his territory, we speculated that he had probably been killed. He used to visit the salt licks somewhat irregularly but at least every few weeks. The only exception was between June and December 2013 when he went missing while fighting for his life after being caught in a snare trap. Throughout 2014 we were able to observe monthly his steady recovery, as he was slowly regaining some of his former physical strength, before disappearing again. He surely wouldn’t survive another poaching incident… Well, Ivan is now back with us! In the last three months of record he was photographed on five independent occasions. The reasons for his latest long absence are simply unknown, but he seems to be in good physical shape. Maybe it was just his crazy nature that led him to go wondering for so many months, may have decided to take a sabbatical year… Anyway it was a positive development, and we’re looking forward for his future adventures.
We now have ambitious plans for the remaining of 2016, but these will only be disclosed in subsequent reports.
Photos can be seen in the following link:
- Fourth Trimester 2015 Report
The last quarter of 2015 was the wettest I have witnessed in the giant sable areas. The rains had started early and to be accurate the first storms were felt still during September, but they steadily increased in intensity throughout the following months and by December the rivers had overflowed in Cangandala, making it almost impossible to drive around. No doubt that this climatic extreme is associated to the El Niño phenomenon, but it is the first time we see such an obvious link in our regions. If this continues we may well be restrained from entering the areas for most of the rest of the rainy season in 2016. This weather might result in more vegetation growth, less or delayed fires in the dry season, more water availability and for longer, but may also yield a raise in insects, ticks and other disease vectors. Probably the net balance in 2016 will be positive for the sable, but only time will tell.
In Cangandala October started with alarming news: there had been a poaching incident with shooting involved, which resulted in one of the rangers being wounded. One of our best rangers, Domingos “Pau Queimado”, who had been a sable shepherd since day 1 and one of my most trusted men, was shot and penetrated by an AK-47 bullet that entered his left upper leg near his groin and left through his buttock. During a night patrol a team of three rangers was lured into an ambush by two poachers who had left a flashlight turned on and tied to a tree next to a camp fire while waiting behind bushes. When the rangers approached they opened fire without warning and Domingos was immediately hit. A short battle followed but the damage was done and the poachers eventually escaped while our man had to be rescued. Miraculously the bullet didn’t rip through any bone, organs or blood vessels, and after surgery in Malanje and a few days in Hospital, by the end of October Domingos was recovering reasonably well at home when we visited him. This is another sad reminder that even in Cangandala poaching still remains a very real threat, and unfortunately we could not yet capture the culprits. In fact, we very much suspect that they might be the same individuals responsible for trap camera destruction and placing of snares around the sanctuary. They seem to be getting more confident and bold, but it is the general feeling among the rangers that sooner or later they’ll be caught and they will have a score to settle!
Other than this tragic event, things seem to be going well in the sanctuary where at least the sable are breeding well and look healthy.
The harsh ground conditions and the lush vegetation didn’t allow us frequent and prolonged monitoring of the herds, and particularly because as a result of the constant rains, huge numbers of tsetse flies were hammering the animals, leaving them restless and difficult to keep up with. Nevertheless it was interesting to note, and also confirm with the trap camera record, that several calves had been born relatively late in the season and even that some cows were still pregnant in December.
This is a bit unusual as giant sable tend to display a well synchronized breeding with calving peak in June, but I suspect it might be related to accelerated breeding under optimal conditions. Mercury is still very much in charge in the sanctuary,
and once again the trap camera did not record our dear and crazy “Ivan the Terrible”. His last appearance was in November 2014, and considering that one year has passed without sightings, I think it is fair to presume that he is probably dead – well, at least he is literally out of the picture! True, he has surprised us in the past, but I’m not keeping much hope for him at the moment…
Overall in Cangandala and because of the weather and ground conditions, there were not many opportunities for mammal observations, which were compensated by an abundance of insects, birds and of course frogs!
We did try to revisit our friend the hippo in October before the rivers had overflowed, but we weren’t lucky. The hippo “guardians” at the village tried their best, and it was quite amusing to watch a local kid who climbed a large tree near the lake and started yelling “hipopótamo… hipopótamo!!!” while promising us he would come in response to the calling. Eventually he didn’t show and we offered the village chief the two cabbages I had bought to feed the hippo.
In Luando there was lots of action in this quarter, not necessarily for the best reasons. 2015 was confirmed as a tough year in terms of poaching in the reserve when it ended yet with another crisis. It all started in the second half of September when one of the few animals still carrying an active GPS collar, a young female named Nadia, suddenly showed a sharp change in behaviour becoming suspiciously lethargic, even if not totally still. But from moving a daily average of 4-5kms sustained over two years, it suddenly dropped the daily log to a few hundred meters or less. This unusual pattern continued for several weeks as we entered October and we soon concluded that she must have got injured. Moreover, and tracing back her movements it was found that her behaviour had changed precisely when she crossed the drainage line where a foot trap had been recovered earlier in the dry season by the shepherds. Therefore we were probably dealing with another mutilated giant sable, tragically a very young female who had been collared in 2013 when two years old, and who should now be attending her second calf. It is another animal lost for breeding, so for the population it is as good as dead. Driving our Land Cruiser into that remote area in mid-October would no longer be possible, so we devised an emergency plan to try to reach the female with aerial means.
As always, the National Air Force (FAN) has been reliable and enthusiastic in providing support, and this time was no exception.
A military Alloutte chopper was deployed to Luando and our small team that included an experienced vet, military and ministry officials, were dropped deep in the bush close to the spot where Nadia had last transmitted. Following the VHF beacon we were able to find and track and get very close to the injured female, but she sensed us and kept moving away, always maintaining a couple hundred meters distance through the very thick vegetation. We could not get as much as a visual and after a few hours we had to abort the mission for operational reasons. The disturbance forced the female to move a couple kilometres that day, but in subsequent days she became very limited in movements once again, and after a couple weeks the signal abruptly ended, likely as the batteries went dead. We believe this female is gravely injured and another victim of increasing poaching in Luando… the second in collared animals alone in 2015!
Making the most of the presence of the military chopper we also tried to locate two known herds in Luando, even if the conditions weren’t ideal this time of the year. The best we could, was locating a small subgroup, composed of one bull and four females, yet three of the five animals were previously marked.
The male was Gabriel, a bull handled in 2009 and estimated to be now 13 years old; and two old cows Andreia and Laura had been marked in 2013 and estimated to be currently 16 and 15 years old respectively. The two remaining cows were “new” (not previously handled) animals, one being a very old female (likely 12+) and the other a relatively young cow (possibly 6-7 years old). We found just one subgroup, and the composition wasn’t brilliant… three out of five were known animals, and four out of five are extremely old animals! On top of it the bull didn’t seem healthy and there were no calves in sight. It may not mean much, but these observations left me a sour taste.
Ending on a positive note, the military decided to step up their support to the shepherds in Luando reserve, making a few ground joint anti-poaching operations with ministry rangers, and subsequently deploying a few weapons to the shepherds who from now on will be better equipped to tackle the poachers.
Photos can be seen in the following link:
- Third Trimester 2015 Report
Dry season. Notwithstanding the first hesitant showers that followed a couple thunderstorms at the end of September, most of the trimester went through the peak of a well-marked dry season.
Still, and as usual, this period is arguably the most heterogeneous and rewarding to do our field trips in the region: in July the grass is long dead and finishing being burnt, visibility is maximum and we can then reach the most remote corners; in August the sables tend to be tamer than in the rest of the year, proudly presently their calves as they come out in the open to graze the fresh grass; by end of August and early September the Brachystegia and geophyte regeneration paint the miombo landscapes with vibrant and unexpected colours; and throughout September the first showers bring back the earthly odours and myriads of flowers cover the anharas.
In Cangandala things are going fairly well with breeding in cruising speed.
The calving season has ended, but quite honestly it is very much difficult to determine the number of new calves. Sables are grouped in at least three different herds, often splitting temporarily in different subgroups. In addition the females marked with ear tags or collars also constitute a minority these days and only one keep an active tracking collar, and as result we can hardly locate the different herds or attribute calves to respective mothers.
But this is a good sign of course. Even though the two oldest breeding cows (well over 14 years old) have apparently ceased breeding (still around but accompanied only by her two 2013 male calves), all the young females look very fecund.
Mercury keeps embodying the spirit of a true master bull, imposing yet totally tolerant to our presence.
In late September, as we entered the oestrus season, we were able to watch him being quite assertive towards the females, chasing them around insistently in short sprints and holding his head menacingly down, likely as part of the pre-mating loving ritual… although it depends on one’s perspective, no doubt many will call this aggressive sexual harassment. He would go after them one by one for a while, and whenever he embarked on this behaviour the rest of the females in the herd would stay close, yet restless and nervous. After a while he would calm down and everyone relaxed.
In late September, as we entered the oestrus season, we were able to watch him being quite assertive towards the females, chasing them around insistently in short sprints and holding his head menacingly down, likely as part of the pre-mating loving ritual… although it depends on one’s perspective, no doubt many will call this aggressive sexual harassment. He would go after them one by one for a while, and whenever he embarked on this behaviour the rest of the females in the herd would stay close, yet restless and nervous. After a while he would calm down and everyone relaxed.
Another interesting behaviour was witnessing how loose the herd-bonds seem to be this time of the year. Throughout the day and in consecutive days, we could watch as the main herd would split in different subgroups without any seeming logic – calves would sometimes stick together and without respective mothers, or some would go with other animals and some would stay, etc.
On a different herd, young Eolo at age 3 is developing fast and almost totally black by now, soon he may be challenging Mercury’s position. Also in the sanctuary the hybrid group has been photographed often by the trap cameras. Surprisingly a very young calf was recorded once accompanying hybrids, but the presence of a young pure sable female not far away suggests she may be the mother… or so we hope. Outside the sanctuary once again we got no news from ol’ Ivan the Terrible… let’s hope the poachers haven’t finish him off! On the other hand we found a young female, 2-years old, alone on the wrong side of the fence and trying to get back into the sanctuary. We made a plan to bring her in, but unfortunately in the following day she wasn’t to be found again.
Park management in general has improved in Cangandala over the latest months, and the rangers seem now more motivated.
Some repairs have been conducted on the Sanctuary’s fence, and finally the water hole has been fully functional and is being widely used by the animals.
In the Cuque river, where it crosses the southern areas of Cangandala park, we were offered the most unexpected spectacle: a tame hippo that has made his home in Cuque river near a local village and somehow manages to live in peaceful harmony with its human neighbours.
Apparently it all started a few years ago (2010?), when allegedly a hippo calf, possibly coming from the Kwanza river a few dozen kilometres to the south, found its way to the current location in the Cuque within 500mts from the village. No one seems to know how and why this has happened, but one can speculate that the mother may have been poached and the calf wandered far on its own and finally settled down when found water. Actually I had passed through the village a few times before but was unaware of the hippo presence, and as far as I could tell the rangers also didn’t know about it until very recently. What is really remarkable is that, not only the hippo wasn’t chased away or quickly converted into bush meat, but instead was allowed to stay around and with time has grown a sort of bond with the locals. The river is only about 20mts across in its widest part. Women fetch water and wash clothes next to the hippo; the kids call the hippo screaming and engage in all sorts of games around it; while the occasional drunk may also joins the party performing eloquent speeches directed at the hippo.
A bit of all this I was able to witness, and I couldn’t believe how close the hippo got to people. It does come across like a very dangerous exercise, although I must say that at all times while I was there the hippo seemed more curious and friendly than menacing… but of course if one day he decides to charge, at two meters distance no one stands a chance of escape! To add an even more surreal touch, on the day we visited the kids brought with them a small dog to use as decoy – instructing the dog to bark from the margin, the hippo quickly responded and came out of the water to approach the dog as if they were good old friends… he so got to within one meter of the dog, who was understandably nervous and eventually run away. The kids have concluded that dogs must be his favourite food (?!) which is of course nonsense. The hippo just appears to be a friendly lonely fellow desperately looking for company, and in the absence of other members of his species, then humans, dogs and goats will have to do! Let’s just hope that he keeps his good humour unchallenged… Well, in any case it allowed for some really remarkable and unexpected photographic sequences… the beast and the hippo whisperers of Cangandala!
In Luando a lot of things happened, and unfortunately we have to report an escalating of poaching, and this time with a lot of vivid and shocking evidence to support. Firstly there were reports on the use of a new trapping technique in the reserve: foot traps!
These are iron made with indented lateral faces and operated by powerful spring coils. They are designed to break the leg of a large antelope such as sable or roan, and were not previously known to be used in Luando reserve. And the first time that Sacaia (our best man) and two other shepherds came across one of these traps, was in dramatic fashion and could have had much worse consequences. While on a routine patrol along the drainage line mostly used by our most important herd in Luando, Sacaia and his mates noticed suspicious tracks around the water hole, indicating that a sable cow had been caught in a trap and had been fighting there for her life a few days earlier. While they were analysing the spoor and looking for snares, Sacaia inadvertently stepped on a foot trap. In a split second when he felt the trap he tried to remove the foot but it was caught squarely half-way through his brand new boot! If it had hit him in the ankle it would have broken his leg, but luckily this way the boot was able to sustain much of the damage. With the quick support from his colleagues, they were able to disarm the trap, and in spite of the pain and injuries he was able to walk back home. If he had been alone he probably wouldn’t have made it. But at least another sable female on the main herd, wasn’t as lucky… A few weeks later, and near a different village, another group of shepherds also recovered a foot trap, so this may be a trend and a worrying sign.
And yet, we were in for more sorrow. From the animals collared in Luando in 2013, only two bulls still had active signals and were being regularly tracked, big boys Francisco and Elvis. The former a very old bull (around 14 years old) that limped from a deformed hind leg caused by a snare; but the latter was a magnificent bull at the prime of his age (around 9-10 years old). It happens that for several months now, we strongly suspected that they had died, but it hadn’t been possible to reach the sites where they would be located. This was only feasible in the dry season. This time we did reach those sites, confirmed the deaths and found the skeletons of both bulls. Francisco was very old, probably in poor physical condition and indeed his teeth were much worn-down. It wasn’t possible to find any clues to shed light on what caused Francisco’s death. It may have been promoted by a poaching incident, but it may also as well have been from natural causes… it was an old warrior anyway, and probably non breeding for a while and irrelevant for the population. A totally different story has to be said about our Elvis the King. Not only was he a dominant healthy individual that one wouldn’t expect to die “naturally”, but on site we found enough evidence to point to poaching as the cause.
The most relevant was recovering his right scapula (shoulder bone) with a round hole almost surely caused by a bullet; and moreover poacher signs were abundant in the area. The loss of Elvis is a huge setback as he was the dominant bull that attended both our second and third herds in Luando. Symbolically, both Francisco and Elvis were magnificent and imposing animals, carrying perfectly looped horns that measured 58 and 59 inches respectively. Two decent representatives for the most beautiful antelope in the world. Unfortunately it is also one of the most critically endangered mammals…
During our field trips in Luando we found plenty of steel-cable snare traps, old and active poaching camps, and killed animals – mostly duikers, either being smoked in racks at poaching camps, or simply rotting in the bush.
But to end the report on a less sombre note, we did receive more news from our old friend the lion, and it was colourful as always. And yes, he did it again! He was reported to have killed and eaten a second poacher! This time the story was that a pair of poachers were operating snare lines near the Kwanza, when at night one of them decided to check on his traps while his colleague stayed in the camp preparing the bush meat. Not only the first guy never returned, but throughout the night the lion was very vocal roaring from the direction the first poacher had disappeared. The following day, the second poacher made no attempt to look for his mate, crossed the Kwanza and told his tale. Well, at least the lion seems happy to prey on poachers and is already a living legend. Besides, specializing in this specific food item (poachers) I don’t think there is much risk that he will ever starve in the reserve…
More great photos and images of interesting park specimens such as those pictured below, can be found at:
- Second Trimester 2015 Report
The second annual trimester marks the transition between the dry and the rainy seasons. It begins moist and muddy and evolves quickly before ending dry and dusty, but if I had to choose its major defining component, it would be grass, lots and lots of grass.
Cutting the grass at Salina 10; Cortando o capim na Salina 10.
It’s the period when grass reaches the peak in development, produce the seeds and becomes moribund. For me it has always been the least charming time to be in the giant sable reserves. The grass covers everything, even the main picadas (sand roads), making it very hard to see any wildlife; then millions of seeds clog the car radiator and enter the windows sticking to one’s clothes and irritating throat and skin, and when we go tracking on foot the dry leaves cut through our exposed skin. In compensation, this is when all roads dry up and we can fully resume our activities in both reserves.
There is not a lot to report from Cangandala in this occasion, as things have been relatively stable. We were able to track down and approach the animals a few times. Mercury has now fully matured, and his behaviour is what would be expected from a master bull, calmly arrogant and imposing; totally aware of his strength and hierarchical position as undisputed number one.
Mercury at close distance; Mercúrio a curta distância.
Most of the occasions when we approached him, he was alone and apparently not looking for company. Only once we found him accompanying a female group, but when they showed some nervousness and left in one direction, he looked up but made no effort to follow the girls. As if saying: “Never mind, they’ll come back sooner or later…” Amazingly he even allowed us to drive the Land Cruiser closer to him than ever before, and on our last visit we shortened the distance to within 15 meters as he grazed very relaxed, and totally ignored us.
Size and color matters… the youth respectfully moves away; Tamanho e cor importam… a juventude afasta-se respeitosamente.
What seems noteworthy is Mercury’s remarkable resemblance to his late father Duarte. Not only physical, but mostly his behaviour. His serenity, naturally imposing dominance without too much fuss or obvious signs of aggression. Everything he does, he does it slow and in style, in nonchalant manner. Like with his father we have yet to see in him show any aggression that one would theoretically expect from a master bull, like a few short sprints and pushes to herd some knotty females and maintain them nearby, or a few knocks and threats towards younger males to keep them well-behaved and fearful. Nope, not at all. Instead he just walks calmly, and everyone else seems well aware of who is the boss and stays obediently organized and respectful. Like the human father that all it needs to do is to raise an eyebrow, to keep his children quiet and well behaved around the dinner table (I wish I could do that!). I suppose Mercury is the good tyrant type… what a contrast to mad Ivan.
The trap camera record didn’t bring any surprises. The females seem healthy and most should be calving these days. The two main herds are increasing in number and most of the animals are very young.
The prospects are good for Cangandala in the short term. Consistent with our ground observations, Mercury appeared sometimes alone and other times escorting the females. His younger sibling, Eolo, has also been visiting the salt licks either alone or within the herd, but was never recorded near Mercury. Eolo is maturing fast but he still lacks physical presence and the body language reflects his sub-dominance status.
As for ol’ Ivan the Terrible, he didn’t show up this time. However, following earlier poaching incidents that led to the destruction of cameras, we’ve been keeping only one trap camera outside the sanctuary and until security is re-established, and this fact has significantly reduced the chances for us to record Ivan.
Inside the sanctuary and additionally to sable, roans and robles (the hybrids), once again we recorded the tiny reedbuck family, composed of a young pair and their daughter…
Hybrid cow smelling the presence of the cane rat; Fêma híbrida cheirando a presença da paca.
… and then plenty of the remaining usual species, namely duikers, bushbucks, warthogs, porcupine and vervet monkeys.
And the dark-haired is the winner! E o moreno ganhou!
In June we entered Luando reserve and for the first time we managed to reach Quimbango with two 4X4 vehicles. Additionally we tried to access as many water holes and critical areas as possible, and locate some of the collared animals, but our objectives were hindered by the very long grass. Driving off road was a nightmare, our progress slow and painful and resulting in a couple punctures along the way. We reached only a few water holes, where for a change the poaching signs were not evident (however at the time the snaring season was yet to begin). Contrary to our intentions we couldn’t pick up any VHF signals nor get as far as the locations where we believe two collared bulls died earlier this year… this enterprise had to be postponed to July. At least we very much enjoyed some magnificent bush-camping nights, around the campfire and under Luando’s stunning June starlight!
Sleeping between two campfires help resist a chilly June night; Dormindo entre duas fogueiras ajuda a resistir a uma geleda noite de Junho.
Other than this we verified that the poaching pressure is not diminishing and the rangers feel helpless to counter-act increasing numbers of well-armed and organized poacher groups.
Photos can be found in the following Link:
- First Trimester 2015 Report
The first trimester of the year coincides with the peak of the rainy season which in addition tends to end in crescendo. This fact generally translates into overflowing rivers, muddy roads, frequent storms and lots of green everywhere, and for this reason we always keep low expectations in terms of our bush activity. This is our low season. Nevertheless some routine monitoring activities need to be carried out as usual, and it was a welcoming surprise when persistent absence of rains allowed us to drive inside the park, without getting hopelessly stuck, until the end of February.
This latest rainy season started hard and strong in September and by the end of November the park was waterlogged, but then several weeks of drought followed, and what seemed to be an epic rainy season turned into an average to modest one.
In spite of us being able to penetrate the park, the conditions were hardly optimal and we struggled to track down and approach the animals. We could only obtain was glimpses and a hand full of semi-obstructed photos of sable through the dense miombo vegetation. At least we were able to find and for a while follow Mercury, after tracking the radio signal on his VHF collar. The field observations coupled with hundreds of photographs obtained across the roughly three months since he returned to the sanctuary, revealed a very different Mercury. He is no longer the precocious yet unexperienced young bull that tried to impress and herd the youngest female group… now he has matured substantially, and truly personifies the master bull role for the whole sanctuary, which is evident in both his body language and general behavior. Instead of constantly following one female herd, he now spends most of his time alone marking and patrolling his territory, and only occasionally bursts calmly amidst a group of immediately-turned submissive females, to claim his bounty. His leadership is now naturally enforced and totally unchallenged. All young males, including the next-in-line Apollo, disappear or keep now a safe distance on his approach.
As for the rest of the animals in Cangandala, we were able to locate pretty much everyone, including the nine hybrids and some old females that we presumed dead by old age. This includes the unexpected resurfacing of the incredible ancient cow Joana, likely turning over 18 years of age at least… I’m not aware of any sable antelope ever reaching this respectable age, and although we can’t be sure of her exact age, when was captured and handled in 2009 she was the elder of the lot and the very experienced vet Pete Morkel estimated her to be more than 12 years of age. Quite remarkable in any case that she is still alive. Also the broke-horned Paula was photographed after a long absence, and even good old Theresa was seen accompanying her 2013 offspring boy. What seems evident is both Theresa and Louise, our only two breeding cows from the original lot, have finally stop producing… for the first time since 2010 neither has bred. Pity but surely resulting from their old age, with some luck maybe Louise may still give us one or two extra calves in the future.
Basically we were able to see or record throughout this trimester almost every known sable in Cangandala, the exception being, once again, young Apollo and one of the young females brought from Luando Reserve in 2011 – Raquel. Considering the long absence from records and a few unconfirmed witness accounts of sable outside the sanctuary, we now believe that a small group may in fact have escaped, totaling a maximum of 4-5 individuals. What is important is to recognize that breeding inside the sanctuary seems to be excellent and we have now reached a point in which it is no longer possible to keep track of new births nor identify individuals in the most recent generations… it’s simply too many of them and almost impossible to distinguish different animals and relate them to respective mothers… what a nice problem! We have at least two good breeding herds, totaling about 30 animals and with a good number of young breeding females… in this regard the prospects in Cangandala are encouraging. Quite remarkable if one considers that in 2009 we were down to nine old mostly infertile cows… a spectacular comeback no doubt! Interestingly we now had at least two calves born at the peak of the rainy season, around the turn of the year. We were expecting an increased synchronized calving around May-June, so this was somewhat surprising especially because it wasn’t from first-voyage mothers… it may result from an acceleration of breeding under unusually benign conditions, although this is speculative.
And now for some additional good news, the crowd’s favorite, mad-bull Ivan the Terrible made a very brief appearance in late December to be recorded on a trap camera outside the sanctuary. He seems now fully recovered and as elusive as ever. He might carry a limp and be less of an imposing figure, but in a twisted way it is reassuring to have him around! Another good surprise was a sequence of photos showing three reedbucks inside the sanctuary! Back in February 2013 we had once recorded one female with a calf, but never a male, and they were never seen again. Now finding three is a sign of breeding, which is excellent news.
On a sad note, many poaching incidents were reported, most coinciding with the Xmas and New Year season, typically a favored season for poachers, when the demand for bush meat increases significantly in urban markets. In Cangandala armed poachers were detected inside the sanctuary and shots were exchanged with the poachers, before they eventually escaped. Also yet another trap camera was stolen, highlighting the lack of security in the park. In Luando Reserve, although it wasn’t possible to access the area because of the rains, we were informed by the rangers that poaching is rampant and one of our trap cameras was destroyed by poachers. On the next trimester we will also investigate the probable death of two collared bulls in Luando.
Photos can be found in the following Link:
- Fourth Trimester 2014 Report
As expected the last trimester coincided with the onset of the rainy season. The rains started generously and by end of October it was getting difficult for us to move in the park. These conditions also forced a stop in infrastructure development in Cangandala National Park, but at least the main bore hole was finished with good water flowing and solar pump installed. This means that throughout the next dry season there should be plenty of water available for the animals inside the sanctuary. On the other hand a permanent fence is being erected along the park boundaries, and this work has progressed very well until it was forced to a halt in November because of the rains. Nevertheless fencing should be resumed and finished in 2015.
In October and November we were able to track the animals in the sanctuary several times and from close range. The main issue requiring clarification was finding out exactly how many of the females had eventually broken through the fence and escaped the sanctuary in July. Unfortunately we still couldn’t get a definitive answer as very few VHF collars remain active, although there is good reason for us to be more optimistic now. The young females especially, seem to maintain very flexible bonds, leading to the temporary formation of loose herds that often come together and split again with different composition. This means that not always we find the same females together, even if we always track the same individual with active collar. The reason for this behavior probably relies on the breeding dynamics within the group relating to calving and estrus, but there might also be a random effect when the herd grows too large and it may get easier to break when they are foraging in the rainy season. The bottom-line is that all considered in different occasions inside the sanctuary, we have observed in total over the past few months the majority of sables that should exist in Cangandala. Only two young females have not been found. It is possible that a small group did escape the sanctuary but it won’t be a large group, and it is possible that no female escaped.
One interesting and clear pattern is that animals tend to group more according to their age and sex classes, than to their blood ties. It is well known that calves tend to stay most of the day in crèches, but even as they grow a young sable seems to prefer the company of same sex and age individuals than to follow his/her mother. And we found young females from the “old” herd being absorbed into the “new” herd where she could join similar age girlfriends. On the other hand the older females seem more conservative, and for quite a while they had only split in two behaviorally different groups: the non-breeding sable old cows and hybrid females, and the two very old breeding sable cows (Louise and Theresa) and their annual offspring. The old cows have never been seen close to the younger herds, but when their offspring reached a certain age they would split and join the young herds. Unfortunately it now seems that these two very old cows may have reached the end of their breeding career. Theresa has disappeared from the radar, and we fear she may have died of old age. Louise is now seen alone except for the company of the two yearling offspring that she and Theresa raised in 2013, but following four years of successfull breeding she didn’t produce a calf in 2014. Nevertheless these two Cangandala old cows have been heroes and made a fantastic contribution for the recovery program, producing a remarkable 9 calves (6 males and 3 females) between 2010 and 2013! And their offspring include the 3 young males (Mercury, Apollo and Eolo) that have been dominant the dominant bulls in the sanctuary since their father’s departure.
But there were significant developments regarding the bulls, but mostly positive ones. First the background: Over the years the dynamics surrounding the bulls have been often troublesome but always interesting to follow. With crazy Ivan the Terrible settled out of the sanctuary since 2011 and good ol’ Duarte killed by Ivan in the beginning of 2013, our first-born Mercury assumed the leadership inside the sanctuary. Mercury was a most imposing and precocious young male and had all the females at his disposal at age 3. However by the end of 2013 and much to our disappointment, Mercury decided to break through the fence alone and dispersed outside the sanctuary where there are no females and neighboring Ivan’s territory. This opened the way for Apollo, the second-born bull in Cangandala. But his reign in the sanctuary may have been even shorter, and hasn’t been seen since the beginning of 2014. He may still be escorting a couple young females, or he may have dispersed out of the fence or been killed, the fact is we have no idea what happened but he seems out of the picture. For this reason Eolo, the third in line and in spite of his tender age slightly over 2 years old, has been assuming the role of “resident” breeding bull escorting the larger breeding herd inside the sanctuary.
When we got into the park in November we received worrying news. The shepherds reported that the perimeter had been violated once again, and this time it was Ivan who broke through the fence and invaded the sanctuary. The rangers even had a visual report when during a patrol they came across the big imposing dark and proud figure of Ivan well inside the sanctuary. This wasn’t good news. If this was true and given Ivan the Terrible’s notorious and bloody curriculum, he would soon target the young bulls and Eolo in particular wouldn’t stand a chance. This was also unexpected considering that since 2011 Ivan seemed to have established a well-defined territory outside the sanctuary and never showed interest in returning. But the trap camera record told us a very different story: it wasn’t Ivan, but Mercury who returned to the sanctuary! After one year of adventurous dispersal he decided to come back home! Interestingly he did not reclaim his bounty, or at least until now he showed no interest in fighting Eolo and join the female herd as master bull. Mercury was our most impressive young male so no wonder that at the age of four, he has turned into a mighty imposing black bull with massive horns, and this explains why he was mistaken for Ivan. His behavior suggests that he is more interested in establishing a territory inside the sanctuary than escorting females on a permanent basis, leaving that task for the subdominant Eolo. If confirmed this may provide new insights into dominance and territorial behavior of sable bulls. Ivan on the other hand this time has not showed up in the trap camera record, raising some concerns about his condition… but as he has proved very resilient in the past and was recovering from the snare injuries, and therefore we expect him to resurface in future reports.
As always, the trap cameras provided tons photos and some very interesting sequences. The most unexpected by far was framing a python on the hunt ambushed at Salina 7. This was incredible, particularly because the python being cold-blooded even moving would not trigger the infrared sensor of the trap cameras. Because of this fact, the python was only recorded as “collateral” when mammals visited the Salina. It is amazing to see how the python has chosen well the ambush site stretching parallel along a piece of exposed root. It wasn’t a particularly big python, and it was probably waiting for a duiker, bushbuck calf or a cane rat. The first co-visitor we recorded was a hybrid (roble) female. I dare say that the combination of a roble with a python in a natural scenario, got to be a candidate for the most unique and bizarre combination of species ever recorded in a wild photo!!! The following day the python came back for the ambush but had changed to the other side of the root, and the new visitor was a male bushbuck. Once again it was too large of a prey for the python to attack, but amazingly the bushbuck stand less than 30cms from the python but not seeing the snake. Both in the case of the roble and the bushbuck, the antelopes seemed clearly nervous and aware that something isn’t right, looking around in inquisitive manner and lifting the front feet nervously several times before fleeing the site without even feeding. But I suspect that if they had been smaller the python would have strike and they wouldn’t escape unharmed. Needless to say that I was very much anticipating a predation sequence, with the python dominating a duiker or small bushbuck, but unfortunately didn’t happen. Pity, maybe next time!
In Luando Reserve we were able to move around in the beginning of October, when we attended a few trap cameras placed in water holes. However soon after, the rains settled in, and it became unadvisable if not impossible to drive off-road. We witnessed some massive storms in the afternoons, which allowed for some interesting landscape photography opportunities but it also made it clear that we could not venture further into the bush. Therefore we invested most of our remaining time in Luando in the planning and coordination of activities with the shepherds.
More photos are available at the following link:
- 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
- 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.
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