by Jeremy Anderson, Richard Estes, Joe Holmes, Peter Morkel, John Frederick Walker* and Pierre van Heerden
*Author of “A Certain Curve of Horn – The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola”.
Editor’s Note: In African Indaba Vol. 7 No. 4 we published an article by Peter Flack on Giant Sable; we now received this paper from Anderson et al. The first version was already published on our Website with African Indaba 8/2. The authors made some changes based on additional information received. We publish the updated article in full length in this edition of African Indaba.
Peter Flack’s article in the July/August 2009 issue of African Indaba presents an interesting account of the discovery of the Giant Sable and makes a strong case for greater inputs by the Angolan Government. His article however understated the role played by Pedro vaz Pinto in the progress made so far. We can only assume that this was a result of a lack of information and we feel that a response is required with the facts as we have experienced them. We have all been involved in the project, some over many years, and most of us in a volunteer capacity. We present the recent milestones in the efforts to find and then conserve the Giant sable, so as to inform readers on the progress so far and to illustrate why we all believe that what has been achieved over the last five years, has been largely due to the efforts of vaz Pinto with help from a number of sources, including hunting organizations.
1. Richard and Runi Estes undertook research on Giant Sable behavior and ecology in 1969 and 1970. Estes estimated between 1,000 and 2,000 in Luando Special Reserve and at least 100 in Cangandala National Park.
2. With the April 1974 coup in Portugal and the increased involvement of South Africa in Angola’s civil war, UNITA gained control of the area encompassing Luando Special Reserve and the main population of Giant Sable. Any formal protection came to an end.
3. Estes made a return visit to Cangandala NP in 1982 and there were still at least 100 animals in the park and it was still managed by a competent warden. By this time Luando Reserve was inaccessible to outsiders, due to the civil war, and the status of the Giant Sable population there was unknown. Pictures of a herd of bachelor males that that Estes took in that 1982 visit were the last published photos of Giant Sable until 2005. Nothing for 23 years!
4. Despite assurances by UNITA that they were not targeting Giant Sable, it would be naïve to assume that animals were not being hunted for meat. Giant Sable populations in both areas crashed over this period of civil war and there is no doubt that the reason was over-hunting for meat.
5. In 1998, a grant of US$10,000 was donated by CIC to the Kissama Foundation to help support a survey for the Giant Sable. Dr. Nicolas Franco, president of the CIC, Werner Trense, CIC Secretary-General and Mr. Chisholm Wallace of the Shikar Club visited Angola as official guests of His Excellency President José Eduardo dos Santos. During this visit the President was awarded the CIC Gold Medal for his policy on species conservation. In 2001 Wouter van Hoven of the University of Pretoria made a trip to Angola whilst stocking animals into Quiçama National Park (Kissama). He attempted to make a search of the Giant Sable, but, as the civil war was still in progress, all that could be accomplished at that time was a short helicopter tour over Cangandala and the Malanje region. No signs of Giant Sable were seen. Pierre van Heerden accompanied van Hoven as cameraman. SCI’s now defunct African Chapter contributed R20,000. At that time vaz Pinto was ecologist of the Kissama Foundation and should have been on the helicopter but was obliged to remain behind due to lack of space.
6. Shortly after this trip, the war ended, and in 2002 the Kissama Foundation organized a more ambitious visit to the area. This included several flights with a military MI-8 transport helicopter over Luando reserve. This was followed by a short ground visit to Cangandala using two Unimogs for transport. Present in this expedition, led by van Hoven, were Richard Estes, John Walker, Brendan O’Keeffe and Pierre van Heerden. By then, vaz Pinto was the deputy managing director of the Kissama Foundation, and although he was involved in organizing some of the logistics, he did not participate in the field visit. In this visit to Cangandala, sable spoor and dung were found and a sighting was made of what was claimed to be a Giant Sable. Several members of the party have expressed strong doubts that the animal “sighted” was indeed one. The sighting was made by someone who had never been in the bush in Africa. It was of a single “red antelope”. Bushbuck and duiker in Malanje region have a reddish hue – both occur singly and are much commoner in Cangandala than Giant Sable. Surprisingly, the spoor at the sighting was not checked.
7. By this time vaz Pinto had serious concerns about the approaches to determine the presence of any Giant Sable. He also worried that there was no clear strategy for the conservation of the species. He concluded that concrete proof that some Giant Sable had survived the civil war was still needed and that this could only be provided by photographic evidence. He decided on a survey in Cangandala to be done on foot, by a small team of observers. This would have to be done outside his normal work responsibilities.
8. In 2003 vaz Pinto became affiliated to the Research Centre of the Catholic University of Angola as researcher. In the same year the University launched the Palanca Project (The Giant Sable Project, renamed in 2005 as The Giant Sable Conservation Project). Vaz Pinto was then appointed project coordinator, and the project created a specific bank account within the University. This account is still in use today. The first sponsors for the project were Angola LNG (Natural Gas Project) and the UNDP country office. It wasn’t easy to fundraise in Angola at the time, but under vaz Pinto’s leadership the project proved to be reliable, trustworthy and effective in managing donor funds. This has been the foundation for consistent growth and increased support received ever since. The new approach was mainly an Angolan initiative, but was done in close consultation with Estes, Huntley and Anderson, who shared their experience and provided ideas for the best strategy to follow.
9. In this first year, vaz Pinto accomplished less than he had hoped for, adding little to the previous trips to Cangandala and Luando. On a 2-week expedition to Cangandala, he and his team walked several hundred kilometers but saw little game: mostly duiker and bushbuck, roan only once and no Giant Sable. To make matters worse, they found lots of poaching sign in the park. He sent some dung samples to Cape Town University for DNA analyses, but the results were disappointing: one roan, one waterbuck and a few other undetermined samples. By then, it was considered doubtful whether the dung samples alone would give a reliable result. The Giant Sable population – if there was one - was obviously much smaller than had been hoped for, and the surviving animals were under enormous pressure from poaching. The conditions on the ground were difficult, with no roads or access during the rains, armed poachers camped in the park and there were no park staff at all. It seemed unlikely that vaz Pinto or the team would actually see any Giant Sable, let alone obtain photographic evidence. Another approach was clearly needed and the possibility of carrying out a dedicated aerial survey of Luando was considered to be the next option. As there is no AVGAS in Angola, this meant using a turbine powered aircraft, which the project could not afford, or to use a microlite with a Rotax engine running on petrol.
10. At the end of 2003 Anderson made contact with “The Bateleurs”, a Johannesburg based NGO whose members volunteered use of their aircraft for conservation work. His proposal was to bring a couple of pilots and their microlites to Luando, and over a two week period, carry out an intensive survey of the most promising areas in the Luando Reserve.
11. The “mission request” to the Bateleurs was made in February 2004 and was immediately approved. Joe Holmes who ran their microlite Squadron and vaz Pinto began planning the survey for the coming dry season. Apart from the logistics of getting the microlites and fuel to Luando, the most critical aspect was getting approval from the authorities to be able to fly over the area and between the town of Malanje and Luando. With no road access to Luando the logistics were a serious headache and vaz Pinto sorted these out to make this expedition possible.
He also got Governmental support and endorsement and then approached the Angolan army, whose participation was decisive. The Air Force joined the project, donating drums of gasoline and making an Antonov transport plane available to move microlites, camp gear and the team from Luanda to Malanje airport. They had earlier helped provided a MI-8 chopper for the necessary trips to take team and equipment down to Luando Reserve. In April vaz Pinto make a quick survey over the reserve in a MI-8, but as in previous visits he drew a blank. It was the wrong season and the MI-8, the only chopper available, is unsuitable for spotting wildlife. This recce was however in establishing contacts with local authorities and to choose the Capunda village as a base. Capunda had an old abandoned airfield. Vaz Pinto had to make sure that it was cleared of scrub and grass before the survey took place. In planning process vaz Pinto was in regular dialogue with the Angolan civil authorities, the Angolan army, the Bateleurs and Anderson. The initial team for the survey consisted of vaz Pinto, Andersen and Holmes and Vosloo from the Bateleurs. They were joined by Michael Eustace from the African Parks who were n offering to become involved in conservation efforts in Angola and in Cangandala and Luando in particular. In June Brendan O’Keeffe and Pierre van Heerden joined too. O’Keeffe had secured grants from both The Shikar Club in the UK and the Dallas Safari Club. These grants covered the costs of food and some of the camping gear and related expenses. He also brought four “TrailMaster” cameras donated by Dallas Safari Club. He also made the contact with the company Angolan Casa Militar in SA, who arranged the transportation of the South African members of the party and the microlites from Johannesburg to Luanda in the cargo hold of a Ilyushin-76. This survey had an early setback as Holmes’ microlite had engine failure at low level about 40 km from Capunda. With a combination of flying skill, and great luck in finding a 30 meter wide clearing in the woodlands, Holmes and vaz Pinto were shaken not stirred. The microlite was a total write-off in Holmes’ Kamikaze attack on a termite mound. The survey produced mixed results; no sable were seen, but it did obtain indirect evidence of Giant Sable, such as spoor, dung and anecdotal witness accounts of very recent sightings. Dung samples were collected, which O’Keeffe took back to SA. These would be later sent for analyses in Germany. General Hanga of the Angolan Air Force and General Treguedo of the Army championed the Military’s support of the project.
Generals Treguedo and Hanga conferring with Richard Estes during the 2009 expedition
13. The following month (October) vaz Pinto initiated what he termed the “Shepherds Program” in Cangandala. He hired 12 men from local communities and the fund provided them with a basic wage and uniforms provided by O’Keeffe’s donors. Estes then transferred the donor funds raised by Bill and Anne Dodgson of the Utah Chapter of SCI to the Wildlife & Environment Society of Southern Africa (WESSA). The Society opened an account specifically for these funds and made the monthly payments for the Shepherds’ wages.
14. By the end of 2004, vaz Pinto had secured the much broader local support that was needed, since otherwise it would have been impossible to implement all activities. This included travelling in the bush under extremely difficult conditions, 4x4 running costs, maintenance, consumables, etc.
15. The project was now managing grants from PAPS (People & Parks) and the UNDP country office to cover the salaries of the shepherds. It also had contributions from Angola LNG Project for general expenses, plus a lot of support in kind” from several organizations (foreign and national) based in Luanda. Also, and on his request, a few new trap cameras (TM-1550) had been donated by Pedro’s friends and supplemented the ones originally provided by O’Keeffe.
Bull from the 2009 Giant Sable Capture Operation
16. In December 2004 the there was the first breakthrough, when Brendan O’Keeffe announced that Prof. Pitra in Germany had obtained results from the dung samples from Luando (together with some samples vaz Pinto had sent from Cangandala). Seven of the samples were of Hippotragus niger. This was great news, Prof. Pitra, identified also some samples from Luando from roan (no surprise here), BUT, what rang a warning bell was that he also identified two samples as being from wildebeest and one from buffalo! This was a worry as obviously the wildebeest and buffalo identifications were incorrect. So how certain could one be certain of the others? Wildebeest don’t occur anywhere within 500 km of Luando, and a buffalo pat could never be mistaken for Hippotragus pellets! This led to a few tense e-mails between vaz Pinto and Prof Pitra. Prof Pitra insisted the results were correct and it was impossible for his lab to be responsible for contamination, but he later accepted that they had possibly been contaminated on the way. This raised some awkward questions, and vaz Pinto wasn’t happy about announcing the survival of the Giant Sable until these questions had been properly answered.
Vaz Pinto subsequently installed the new cameras at natural licks in Cangandala. This was not a simple process and he first had to find salinas on foot in flat country with limited visibility. Each month, generally over weekends, he made the long return trip from Luanda to Cangandala to check with the “Shepherds”, service and change the film in the cameras and look for new salinas. This at last brought success, one of the cameras obtained the first photo records of Giant Sable in Cangandala. The shots show part of a breeding herd, with adult cows and juveniles clearly identifiable. Over the months vaz Pinto was gradually able to compile a dossier of photos of individuals. It soon became apparent that there was no mature bull with the herd. When vaz Pinto sent photographs of a sable cow and asked what we thought it soon became apparent to some that the cow looked a like a Roan x Giant Sable hybrid. This presented a serious problem and some of the consultative group recommended killing the roan bull as precautionary measure. For several reasons, this could not be done. Careful examination showed that there was more than one hybrid. Te age classification showed that the first Roan x Giant Sable hybrid calves were born in 2002 and that in 2004 the entire calf crop consisted of hybrids. Since 2006, only Roan X Giant Sable hybrids calves had been born in Cangandala.
17. The results showed the following: the last pure Giant Sable calves had been born in 2005, indicating that the last adult bull had disappeared after the 2004 breeding season. What was a relief though that none of the hybrid cows showed any signs of having produced calves. This suggests that they are infertile.
Sable and Roan x Sable hybrids calves less than one year old recorded between 2002 and 2008 in Cangandala National Park
|Year of Birth||2002||2003||2004||2005||2006||2007||2008|
18. The level of monitoring was increased in 2006 with the acquisition of several digital video cameras. With the “Shepherds” receiving basic field ranger training, the level of poaching decreased and although no weapons could be supplied to them, they were able to retain weapons (AK 47’s) captured from poachers. During the course of the year the MoU was signed between the Government and the Giant Sable Conservation Project. Then at last, four young bulls were photographed for the first time. That year, in recognition of his efforts to save the Giant Sable, vaz Pinto received the Whitley Award in the UK.
19. By early 2007 the four young bulls were down to three. It was logically hoped that one of these would save the day and take over the breeding herd. On 25 Dec 2007, two of these bulls were photographed for the last time by a camera trap at a salina. They had obviously all left Cangandala, or had been killed. However, as visits by these bulls to the salinas were very infrequent, their certain loss could only be concluded some months later.
One of the cows arrives from the field to be transferred to the boma during the 2009 capture operation
20. In 2008, Pedro planned a dry season capture operation in the to radio-collar members of the herd so that it would later be easy to locate the animals. He raised the funds for the operation and contracted a well known Namibian game capture operator to bring in his helicopter and capture crew. Two days before the capture was scheduled to start, Estes and Walker had arrived in Angola and Morkel and Anderson were en route to Angola when the Namibian capture operator phoned vaz Pinto and told him that, after entering Angola, he had changed his mind and turned around to return to Namibia. “*%&$ it !!!”. This was a major setback as it had wasted a lot of money and effort and more importantly set the program back another year. Morkel tried hard to dart an animal on foot, but was unable to get close enough.
21. In November 2008, when conditions were better for tracking and the flush of leaves had improved conditions for stalking, Morkel again tried to dart an animal from the Cangandala herd on foot. Despite getting four good sightings, this was unsuccessful. At the same time, the German Aid Agency GTZ funded Anderson and Morkel to do a report on Cangandala. The resulting report emphasized the dire situation for the survival of the Cangandala herd and recommended that the best course of action was to resort to an in situ intensive breeding operation. It was recommended that a large sable- and roan-proof breeding enclosure be built, and that all the Cangandala Giant Sable cows be captured and put into this enclosure and an adult bull be brought in from Luando. This proposal was accepted. Vaz Pinto and his colleagues raised funds to purchase game fence materials from Namibia and to pay for another capture operation.
22. As soon as it was dry enough to get a vehicle into the site selected for the enclosure, the 400ha breeding enclosure was constructed. When this was completed a smaller plastic holding boma was constructed within the enclosure. At the same time a ground search for the presence of Giant Sable in Luando started. An area of fresh spoor and reported recent sightings was located, but no actual sightings were made. However, DNA from dung samples showed that the animals were Giant Sable. This 2009 capture operation was led by vaz Pinto and the keys to success were the active collaboration of the Angolan Army and Air Force, arranged again by Generals Hanga and Treguedo and the support given by Pete Morkel and Barney O’Hara and his Hughes-500 chopper. The Angolan Government provided the Mil-8 helicopter. The lion’s share of the funding for the operation came from the Association of Oil industry companies operating in Block 15 (Sonangol, Esso, BP and associates). The following companies all donated $20,000 or more ESSO Angola, Statoil, ExxonMobil Foundation, Tusk Trust and US Fish and Wildlife Service). The unsung stalwarts of the operation were the volunteers who managed the logistics and made sure that people we fed and that the vehicles operated. These included Sendi and Ninda Baptista, Henriette König and the Brock family Werner, Wolfram and Eddie who have helped Pedro from the beginning and through the bleakest times when results were hard to come by. Great credit is also due to General Hanga and General Treguedo, who both in their official and private capacities provided always vital support to the project.
23. The operation started in the last week of July and the breeding herd in Cangandala was located within the first hour. One of the hybrid cows was immobilized, fitting with a radio-transmitter collar and released. She would to act as a “Judas goat” and enable the capture team to rapidly locate the breeding herd and catch the Giant Sable cows one by one. The following day, the capture team flew down to Luando, more than 100 km away, and managed to locate and collar an adult bull, so that when the transport Mi-8 Helicopter arrived, the bull could be located rapidly and re-captured early in the day while it was relatively cool. Over the next few days several more bulls were seen, and eight were caught, marked and released. The smallest horns measured were 49 inch long, all the rest were over 50 inch.
24. Because of the logistic problems of getting a vehicle to the darting sites, it was decided flying the animals from the field suspended from the helicopter. This technique had been successfully used by Morkel and O’Hara on a number of species. On August 3rd the first two cows were caught and flown to the boma site. The following day two more cows were caught and flown to a site 3 km from the boma where they were then taken by pickup to the boma. Most animals were in the boma within half an hour of being darted.
25. The breeding bull was captured in Luando Reserve on August 5th, flown to the nearest village and then airlifted the 100 km to Cangandala in an Angolan Air Force Mi-8 transport chopper. He was then moved into the boma and rapidly settled down with the cows which were immediately submissive towards him.
26. The entire operation went like clockwork and no Giant Sable was lost. Once all the animals had been caught, the Minister of Environment visited Cangandala and saw them prior to their release. When the crowds had left and things had calmed down, the boma was opened and the animals left to find their way out in their own time. Within 20 minutes the bull, followed by the cows, had quietly walked out of the boma. That evening, Pedro vaz Pinto brought out a bottle of Madeira Vintage 1905, four years before Varian described the Giant Sable. Our prolific author, John Frederick Walker, who is also a wine writer, was for once lost for words.
Today, seven months later, all these Giant Sable are alive and well. By now the bull should have done his duty and the long wait for the first calves is nearly over. The threats to the survival of the Giant Sable have not gone away however. The two threats of greatest concern are poaching in Luando and the possibility of theft of sable for sale elsewhere. The first concern is obvious, but the second, less apparent is a very real possibility. When a 46 inch Zambian sable bull can be sold on auction for around $500,000 in South Africa – what would be the value of a Giant Sable bull with 60 plus inch horns? Already there have been approaches by some South African nationals to obtain a breeding Giant Sable bull from Angola. Should that ever happen, it is inevitable that it would be used to breed with cows from western Zambia. There have been recent publications suggesting that the western Zambian sable have similar facial markings are Giant Sable and that they are in fact just outlying Giant Sable. Sadly too, western Zambian sable have already been sold for Giant Sable by some dishonest dealers to gullible buyers in the USA and the Middle East.
There still is a long way to go before the status of the Giant Sable is secure. The first priorities are that the breeding enclosure must be increased in size, and the Government must come to the party and provide resources to increase the level of protection in Luando. Cangandala must also be fenced and this will allow extra bulls to be brought in.
Had it not been for Pedro vaz Pinto and the generosity of the many donors and the Angolan based volunteers to the project, we doubt that the progress in conserving the iconic Palanca Negra would be where it is today.
Pedro vaz Pinto with the first Giant Sable bull to becaught alive - ever!