Giant Sable Report
by Pedro Vaz Pinto
Months of preparations finally culminated on the crucially needed capture operation, and the results were staggering and above expectations. A huge success!
In the last couple of weeks before the operation, we made necessary improvements on the 8 km fence (delimiting the 400 hectare sanctuary) and dealt with all the red tape issues and logistics. The seasonal burnings had arrived later than in previous years, but the woodland seemed in good condition to meet our requirements – good aerial visibility with the trees mostly leafless, and the area almost cleared of grass. In the meantime we had Luis Veríssimo, based in US, monitoring the daily burnings in Cangandala and Luando through the MODIS satellite, and producing weekly maps showing the progress of burnings in both reserves.
The latest trap camera shots recorded the sable/hybrid herd in mid-July (Photo 01), and with little surprise they were at S3C, usually their favorite salina in the dry season. Furthermore, lab results on mtDNA from dung pellets collected on a certain anhara in Luando reserve the previous month, confirmed what we suspected and hoped for: they were of Hippotragus niger variani – giant sable!
By the end of the month everything was ready, and the operation officially started in July 24th, with the arrival in Malanje of Barney O’Hara on his well equipped Helicopter Hughes 500, from Botswana. Pete Morkel was with us once more, as the leading vet, and had arrived a few days earlier. Later on, Jeremy Andersen and Richard Estes, also spent a few days in Cangandala to kindly assist us with their outstanding expertise on these animals. The capture operation was sponsored by a Block 15 (Sonangol as concessionary, Esso as operator, and other associated companies) grant, but a special mention is due to several people who kindly assisted with logistics on the ground such as Henriette Koning, as to the company Oceaneering and the Angolan military FAA, who facilitated the fuel acquisition and transport to the park. The operation was fully recorded on HD video for documentary, by our friend Kalunga Lima from the local producing company LS Produções, and he did obtain some really spectacular footage. And the local television TPA also kept a team on the ground for a couple of weeks and was able to obtain great informative footage that was subsequently broadcasted nationally and generated great enthusiasm.
During the three and a half weeks that the operation lasted we were based in Cangandala NP and doing morning chopper flights every day. The main objective was of course to find and capture as many of the last pure cows in Cangandala as possible, and transport them into the 400ha breeding enclosure. Secondly and more ambitiously, we wished to locate some sable in Luando and, if we’re lucky, to dart and bring a bull to Cangandala. One of the crucial preparations during the first week of the operation was, under the demanding and perfectionist supervision by Morkel, building a temporary holding pen, a sort of quarantine site where we would keep the females adjusting under close monitoring for a few days, before definitive release.
Typically, we would start flying as soon as the weather allowed, which would be between 6h30 and 8h30, depending on the morning mists, and each daily flight would last from 2 to 4 hours, sometimes with a quick stop for refueling, and often having to land to handle animals or check things on the ground. On every flight, Barney would be skillfully piloting his chopper on the front seat and I would be seating on his right and carrying the maps; Pete, being left-handed, was positioned directly behind Barney, from where he would aim and shoot to dart the animals. Occasionally a fourth passenger would seat next to Pete.
Whenever an animal was spotted and we decided he should be darted, we would keep the visual contact from a distance for a couple of minutes, while Pete would “make” is dart - basically preparing the cocktail of drugs and put them into the dart. When the dart was ready, Barney would gently lead the animal into a nearby open area (generally an “anhara”), and the next stage would be a vertiginous chase culminating with Pete darting from a few meters above the animal. The chase itself most of the times lasted less than a minute, but was always an adrenaline-full ride, showing the pilot’s amazing skills in spectacular fashion.
Once the animal was darted (and very few shots were missed by Pete), we would back-off immediately and monitor the animal from a safe distance while waiting for the drug to produce its effects. The animal would go down between 3 to 7 minutes. Then the chopper would land as close as possible, so that we could rush to the site, where the animal would be handled quickly. The standard procedure was to check the animal’s condition, remove the dart and treat the wound, check for ticks and treat the skin with insecticide, plus inject general antibiotic and de-worm medication. The teeth would be checked to estimate age, and females would be checked for any signs of breeding. The horns in bulls were measured, and on the females that were to be relocated into the sanctuary area, the horn tips were removed to avoid injuries during social interaction in the quarantine area. On the darted animals in Luando we sprayed the horn tips with red paint to make them more easily identified in subsequent flights. All the darted animals were marked with color ear brinks, and some animals were released with VHF and/or GPS/GSM tracking collars.
Handling would last just a few minutes, after which the animal was ready for the last stage: release or transport into the holding pen. The release was a very straightforward process, injecting the antidote, and literally within seconds the animal would recover fully and move off, confused but probably feeling nothing more than a mild hangover.
Translocating the animals was a different story altogether and quite an exciting exercise. The sable would be flown a few kilometers suspended by their legs 30mt below the helicopter, to a drop-off area where other participants and visitors would be waiting. Here, the animal would be landed on top of a stretcher, and then driven in the back of a pick-up truck into the quarantine area, where the antidote would be finally given. During the whole process, the animal would be drugged, blindfolded and with ears blocked with cotton, so it would be totally unaware of all the commotion surrounding.
On the first day of flights we headed towards the prime area in Cangandala, and five minutes into the flight we saw the dominant roan bull (yes, the shameless liberal bull, that has been messing around with our sable females for so long!), but after a split second hesitation, we decided not to dart him (to be castrated) just yet, thus saving his masculinity. Although we didn’t see him again, that proved to be the right decision, as a couple hundred meters ahead we headed into the main herd. The group was larger than anticipated, totaling 16-17 animals between sable cows and hybrids. We chose a hybrid female (Photos 03, 04), which was cleanly darted and quickly released back with a VHF tracking collar. Sticking to our main plan, the idea was to use her in a few days, to lead us to the pure females, one by one. This hybrid was of course a well known beast; in fact one of the oldest hybrids and the same female that had been caught in a snare trap back in December 2007, and which we knew to had barely survived. The wound had healed by now, but the animal kept a nasty scar and her right hind leg was still clearly swollen.
In any case, and over the following weeks, this poor hybrid proved to be a very competent Judas and crucial to the success of the operation, leading us every odd day to all the pure females.
We identified in total 9 pure sable females in the group, and we managed to capture them all! This was a result clearly above our conservative expectations. We were quite sure there were less than 10 pure sable in Cangandala, but suspected there could be as few as 4 or 5, so finding more and getting them all was superlative. We can’t exclude completely the possibility of existing one or two more pure sable females somewhere in the park, but this seems highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the trap cameras will keep the area under surveillance, as always.
First Royal Sable Bull
It was no surprise to learn that all the females were relatively old with estimated ages between 8 and 14 years, and the youngest cows being born in 2001. Although being old, all the females were in excellent physical condition, healthy fat, with shiny coats and showing no ticks. This is probably result of the abnormal present circumstances in Cangandala, with low predation pressure, low levels of competition, and bizarrely low breeding rates. Only one female had a bit of an udder and had produced a calf (hybrid of course) a few months back. The remaining cows showed no sign of pregnancy either.
Another Captured Bull
In spite of their relatively old age, Pete estimates that even the older females should give us at least 2-3 years of breeding before their teeth wear out to the point where she will starve to death (thus dying of old age).
The early success in Cangandala set the tone for even more exciting surprises in Luando, where we focused while the Judas was left undisturbed for a few days to rejoin the group. Like in Cangandala we were right on the money, and as we flown the first time to where we had collected the giant sable dung back in June, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw at the edge of the anhara, the unmistakable dark silhouette – a giant sable bull! He was cleanly darted and handled on the ground, and of course it was a very special moment to grab and feel those massive and spectacular horns for the first time. It was no longer a creature of myth – it was there, bones, flesh and horns. And what a fine specimen it was!
Half an hour later and not far, we also darted an adult female (Photo 07). She was also apparently alone, but a full udder indicated that she had recently calved, so a small calf was probably hidden somewhere nearby. Subsequently we witnessed as the cow was joined by the calf after a few days, a week later with another female with calf, and a couple of weeks later with another female, a couple yearlings and a territorial bull. This is normal behavior in July/ August as the females have recently calved on their own, and slowly start to regroup and reestablish the social bonds. Again, in marked contrast with the situation in Cangandala, where all the females (and hybrids) were found together, during what should have been their breeding season.
In the following weeks our lucky strike continued, not only with the referred fêmeas in Cangandala, but ending up finding and darting in Luando a total of seven territorial bulls, plus one other found in a group of 7 bachelor males (bachelor herds are a classic sable social unit, formed by bulls who don’t own a territory, usually young males recently expelled from the female herd). Not in our wildest dreams we would have expected such extraordinary results! If anything, we were just a bit surprised to find so many bulls and very few females in Luando (only the ones referred in the previous paragraph), but this was probably caused by a combination of seasonal elusive behavior due to calving, and their less conspicuous color and posture.
None of the bulls darted could be considered as a remarkable specimen but they were all good examples of the “giant sable type”. The horn lengths were somewhat disappointing, and of course it would have been nicer to dart a really big bull with 60+ inch horns but it wasn’t to be. Six of the bulls were mature with pitch-black coats, with ages estimated between 8 and 12 years, and their horn lengths ranged between 50 and 54 inches. The remaining two were young bulls and still brown-colored, a 4 year old with 43’’ horns, and a 6 year old 49 incher. They may have been pretty average for a giant sable, but still more than enough to embarrass sable from elsewhere in Africa. Going through the record book of Rowland Ward one can verify that the record trophy for a non-Angolan (non-giant) sable was a 55 incher shot in 1898, while only eight specimens ever measured over 51 inches, and none was in the past 30 years!
With the pure females being darted and translocated into the holding pen in Cangandala, the next obvious thing to do was bringing a bull from Luando. It was decided that bringing more than one bull would almost surely lead to confrontation between them which could be disastrous – better to bring one and let him focus on the pretty, even if not terribly young, cows. To bring a bull and being more than 100km away from Cangandala seemed an insurmountable problem in terms of logistics, so we resorted to the Angolan military Air Force and their participation was outstanding – very professional, competent and enthusiastic. As in other occasions when we searched for the giant sable, they were one of the key partners, and this time Genl Hanga (chief of staff of air force) even spent a few days assisting us in the field.
One bull, chosen because he was caught relatively closer to an intermediate landing site (village), had been released with a VHF transmitter, so when the time came, he was recaptured and airlifted by the Hughes 500, as was done with the females (Photos 42, 43). Then he was off-landed in the village, where a military Russian-build MI-8 was on standby. He was then loaded onto the MI-8 and flown to Cangandala, where the pick-up awaited to take the bull to the pen. The whole exercise lasted less than two hours and went flawlessly. Catching a bull and bringing him to Cangandala was of course a major accomplishment, and understandably led to huge excitement among all the participants, including local villagers, officials and represented authorities. The national TV obtained excellent and unprecedented footage, which opened all the news reports the following day and featured in major newspapers.
Bull in Holding Pen
The females (and bull) were being regularly introduced into the holding pen, sometimes one-a-day, or every two days but on three occasions we were able to catch two in a row on the same day. During the 9 days we had animals inside the pen, we managed to get them to drink water in good quantity in plastic water basins buried in the ground, but providing them with fresh graze and browse proved to be a much more challenging task. We struggled to gather significant amounts of fresh palatable grass every day, and the animals seemed to eat just a small portion. Not that this was unexpected, given the artificial conditions inflicted upon these until now totally wild antelopes, but forced us to release them soon after the ninth and last female had been captured. The holding pen serves various purposes. Firstly, allows us to monitor the animals to make sure they have recovered fully from the capture exercise, or identify any abnormal behavior or condition; secondly it forces them to make or reestablish crucial social bonds, reducing stress levels and allowing them to be released all together as one group; lastly is may make them a bit more used to captivity and human presence, like getting them to feed and drink on artificial containers. All this had been achieved, and from early observations it was clear that the females had accepted and naturally submitted to the male dominance, following him everywhere he went inside the pen.
One extra benefit of keeping the animals inside the holding pen, was being able to show them, in a very controlled way of course, to dozens of people who visited the park during that week, including the media. More importantly, the Minister of Environment herself Excellency Drª Fátima Jardim made sure to be present with the Governor of Malanje Excellency Dr. Boaventura Cardoso, plus their most notable deputies.
Finally on the afternoon of the ninth day, we opened the door and left quietly. We later learned from a video camera left rolling near the pen door that the bull was the first to come out (Photo 47), closely followed by the females in order of hierarchy.
Over the following days the animals were radio-tracked from a safe distance, confirming that they were all together in one group including the bull. They patrolled the fence and got habituated to its presence, while they have been browsing and drinking water in go. In the last few days of operation we went for the hybrids, but only managed to dart a second hybrid female (Photo 49). By then we had caused too much disturbance and the herd without the old females had completely lost the cohesion. The hybrids were now all over the place and our “Judas” finally did not join with other animals. In total we darted nine pure females and two hybrids in Cangandala, plus one female and eight bulls in Luando. A totally unexpected bonus was a female pacassa (Angolan form of the forest buffalo), darted and collared in Cangandala
Over more than 60 hours of operational flights, other wildlife seen included several herds of roan in both reserves; one herd of waterbuck in Luando; some sitatunga, reedbuck and yellow-backed duikers (surprising quite a few of these) in Luando; a lot of bushpigs in Luando, but warthogs mostly in Cangandala; a few bushbucks and hundreds of common duikers everywhere. A highlight was flying over a leopard out in the open in broad day light in Luando – a really spectacular view. Species like lechwe, and eland were not seen, but in any case they are presumed extinct as result of war. This is particularly sad in the case of red lechwe as there used to be easily seen in thousands on the Luando floodplain.
In spite of the moderate numbers of wildlife seen, we also saw plenty of poaching signs, which included dozens of snare-lines and several poaching camps, some of them active. On occasions we landed near such camps in Luando, where we would find sometimes dozens of animal’s carcasses, drying skins and smoked meat, traps and shotgun cartridge shells. In one camp we collected 170 snare traps! The remains that we could identify were of duiker, bushbuck, reedbuck, bushpig and warthog, rabbit and various birds. No traces of sable in the camps, but for obvious reasons when a sable is killed, the evidence must be eliminated. In any case the snare traps don’t make distinction among prey, and most of the natural water holes we visited were totally trapped, surrounded by trap lines, some of which using 6mt long poles, clearly design to catch large antelopes (sable or roan).
Some of the poaching in Luando seems to be well organized, and we still managed to set on fire some of those poaching camps. Although this was alarming, we have since been in close consultation with the military, and some actions are already being prepared with them to tackle this situation.
By any standards the operation was an utter success. We found, darted, handled and transported more animals than we had hoped for; there was not one single animal seen that we wanted to dart and ended up failing to; all the animals we wanted to translocate we did; there was not one single injury on people or animals to report; there is not one single decision made during those three weeks, that I regret; nothing went wrong – it was simply the perfect job! Of course that for this remarkable outcome all participants and partners contributed somehow, but notably the much impressive piloting skills of Barney O’Hara and the remarkable veterinarian expertise of Pete Morkel, they both proved to be the right people for the job – a winning team no doubt.
The funding for this operation was made possible by a grant from Block 15 (Esso - operator, Sonangol - concessionaire, and partners), although it had been prepared since 2007 and started then with a grant from TUSK Trust. We must now prepare for a new level of responsibility, as the animals in Cangandala now require a much more demanding and intense management, and the same applies to Luando. The Government is also now becoming ever more active, and we expect management structures to be appointed and deployed to both reserves soon.
Ready to Go