Our Search for the Giant Sable 1997 to 2004
Our Search for the Giant Sable 1997 to 2004
by B.W.J. O’Keeffe
Editor’s Introductory Note: The good news is that photographic evidence of the continued existence of at least one population group of the Giant Sable (Hippotragus niger variani) has finally been obtained. These photos have circled the world in the meantime. It is less known that some time prior to this particularly photogenic group of Giant Sable triggering infrared beams of the cameras, Prof. Christian Pitra of the German Institute for Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research had already established conclusive DNA sequences from the dung samples the 2004 expedition had brought back. Scientific caution and political tact forbade however that the sensational news being published. The scientists needed time and DNA samples from other authenticated sources. Last not least, the Angolans should have the right to proudly announce the news themselves; the latter happened on April 7th.
Brendan O’Keeffe’s report in this African Indaba recounts the story of his personal involvement in the search of the Giant Sable, but it ends in November 2004 – when the expedition returned without tangible proof or photos – but with some casts of Sable spoor, and with dung samples which eventually proved to be from the very Palanca Negra they were searching. I could have asked Brendan to add a post script to his article, but since I reluctantly had to seriously shorten his splendid original report for space reasons, I feared that I would have again to use the editor’s cutters and therefore opted to write this lengthy introductory note myself.
I am convinced that we would be even now wondering whether that magnificent antelope still roamed in the wilderness of Northern Angola if it would not have been for the sheer determination and terrier-like bite of Brendan. Many of those who hail this “rediscovery” now had repeatedly stated that “all efforts are just a wild goose chase and a waste of money”! Brendan’s insistence prevailed and he collected sufficient funds from his peers at The Shikar Club to rekindle the fire of the search. The SCI African Chapter (prior to its dissolution) added ten thousand Rand to his war chest and when the need was greatest – just days before the expedition was about to leave for Angola – Gray Thornton from DALLAS SAFARI CLUB saved the day and wired the money to buy the cameras which ultimately took the pictures which now prove to the world that the Royal Sable still exists!
The DNA story started in Brendan’s lovely home in Johannesburg in 2003 after the Durban World Parks’ Congress. I had introduced CIC’s Kai Wollscheid and Rolf Baldus to Brendan and we talked about many subjects – of course also his personal Holy Grail, the Palanca Negra. Later, Brendan showed us a treasure - a dried out dung sample collected during the 2002 expedition with Prof. Wouter van Hoven. Rolf immediately suggested taking it to a laboratory in Germany and Brendan consented without hesitation! After many months news came back – the scientists were positive that it was of hippotragini origin, but since roan antelope also occurred in the area, a conclusive proof was not yet possible. More material was needed, they said!
Brendan had his mind already set on a follow-up expedition and after clearing many hurdles with dogged persistence and after just as many delays, the South African expedition members de- parted in September 2004. It must be noted here that the funds raised by Brendan paid for the entire expedition – with the exception of Michael Eustace from African Parks who came up with a contribution, and the transport provided by the Angolan Armed Forces.
Hunting Organizations like the members of venerable Shikar Club, the pro-active and agile Dallas Safari Club and the now dissolved SCI African Chapter were the ones who put their real money where the hunters’ mouths often are: Towards the conservation of a unique and critically endangered species! And just as a footnote - van Hoven’s 2002 expedition was also funded by with US$20,000 by the SCI Italian Chapter and R10,000 by the SCI African Chapter.
The cameras tied to trees around salt licks which were now triggered by the animals breaking infra-red beams were paid for with hunters’ money – and if Dallas Safari Club had not come up with the funds for this equipment, Pedro Vaz Pinto’s trips to Cangandala would not have brought back the sensational photos which are now floating around in the internet. We still would be waiting for photographic evidence!
Pedro Vaz Pinto – the Angolan leader of the expedition – braved many disappointments over as many years and certainly deserves his claim to fame, but we must not forget the driving force of Brendan O’Keeffe and his international hunting friends.
I want to conclude with Vaz Pinto’s words: "The worst has passed for the giant sable, now we need to secure its future” – and here again the hunters come in. I heard that a considerable amount from moneys held by IUCN’s Antelope Specialist Group has already been transferred to secure ongoing activities in Cangandala. Guess where the money originated from: under the leadership of Ann & Bill Dodgson some dedicated hunters from the United States collected it in 1997 for just this moment!
And now enjoy Brendan’s tale:
Following 400 years of colonial rule and 30 odd years of internecine warfare, the politics of Angola today is difficult to comprehend. The response therefore to anyone expressing an interest in the continued existence or extinction of an antelope, beggars belief. More so, when the motives for such an exercise do not include a financial incentive or any other quid pro quo! Put simply, my personal quest to see the giant sable defied any rational explanation when seen from an Angolan perspective. It is against this background that I commenced my mission to establish whether the Giant or Royal Sable still existed or not. In 1995 I made an undertaking to an elderly gentleman in England. While on a partridge shoot in England, I was introduced to Colin Lees-Millais. Coming from Africa, as I do, the name Millais excites one’s curiosity! Having discreetly established over lunch that my new acquaintance was indeed from the same family, I asked Colin if he’d do me the kindness of taking me to meet his famous sporting artist grandfather, Raoul Millais, the son of the great J.G. Millais, and godson of F.C. Selous. I knew about his trip with his father in 1923 which led them beyond the sources of the White Nile to Bahr el Ghazal in the Sudan. I soon met Raoul, now in his nineties, and we exchanged correspondence about our common interests of Africa and the desire for discovering the untamed and lesser known areas of Africa, on foot with porters and a rifle for rations and a camera for posterity.
An Irresistible Challenge – The Royal SableColin Lees-Millais and his grandfather invited me to join the Shikar Club. It was founded by, amongst others, his father J.G. Millais and his godfather, F.C. Selous and the first dinner was held in 1907. Raoul was quick to assure me that he had something in mind. He earnestly wanted to know if the giant sable was extinct or not and he thought I should go to Angola and see for myself and then report back accordingly. I was delighted to oblige.
Unfortunately, Raoul Millais passed away in 1999 shortly after his 99th birthday, by which time I could only report to him that the anecdotal evidence from the Songo tribes in central Angola was that the Giant Sable, or the Palanca Negra, as it is known locally, certainly still existed. I had ascertained that it was regarded as their spiritual link with their ancestors and the existence of one without the other was inconceivable to them. Hardly convincing to the western rational mind, especially as nobody from the outside world had seen them since Prof Brian Huntley in 1975 in the Luando area and by Prof Dick Estes in 1982 in the Cangandala area. There has not been any reliable evidence of a sighting since then.
These animals only occur in one area of the world which lies on the north bank of the Luando River near the confluence with the Cuanza (Cangandala) and between the Cuanza and the Luando rivers, known as the Luando Reserve. These areas had become inaccessible during the war. None of this war had been conducted between the two rivers but the surrounding areas were, and still are well covered by landmines. Hence access has been difficult if not impossible for a long time. The inescapable irony was that the protracted war had ensured their continued existence.
As the body size and weight is similar to that of the typical sable, the spoor is similar and also difficult to discern from its larger cousin, the roan. As the horns are much longer, the sight of them must be breathtaking. The facial markings are quite different from the typical Sable.
Many years before the Giant Sable was first described in 1914, Raoul Millais’ godfather, F.C. Selous observed a single sable horn of extraordinary length in a museum in Florence. Later he came across reports of larger than usual sable and suspecting they were from north of the Zambezi, he attempted to go there in 1888 but was thwarted by hostile tribes. In 1907, one Frank Varian went to Angola. Varian had made the first observation about this rather different sable, some time prior to 1914 in an article in the Field magazine and in discussion with Oldfield Thomas, the curator of the natural history museum in London. By 1912 the Angola Boers had got access to giant sable country. Frank Varian had observed the widespread destruction of game by the Boers in other parts of Angola and persuaded the governor, Joao Norton de Mattos to declare the giant sable royal game and to restrict access to the area by special permit only. That provision still remains on the statute books today.
Then in 1914 he followed up by sending a male and a female head to the natural history museum for examination. Soon afterwards Oldfield Thomas named it Hippotragus niger variani after Frank Varian. Selous’ godson Raoul Millais went to Angola in 1925 and collected a few specimens of this magnificent antelope, one of which is recorded in Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game. There is also an entry for 1921 in the name of J.G. Millais but the family are not sure how this came about as he did not go to Angola. Only in the 1950’s a further population group of giant sable was discovered to the north of the Luando River in the Cangandala area. The local Songo people had maintained the secret from the outside world for ages.
Soon after I had become a member of the Shikar Club I received much encouragement from the chairman the Lord Charles Cecil, the president Viscount Ridley and from Raoul’s lifelong friend, Hamish Wallace, himself the son of another great explorer, big game hunter and writer, Frank Wallace.
I have to add that the rump of the cost of the expedition in 2004 was carried by some of the members of the Shikar club. Two further generous donations were received from the now dissolved SCI African Chapter and from Dallas Safari Club. I ‘d like to take this opportunity of thanking all these generous donors and particularly The Dallas Safari Club which responded to an 11th hour ap- peal within 24 hours! That final donation enabled us to install a series of still cameras around a salt lick in the bush with infra red triggers.
The Members of the 2004 Expedition Our party in Sept 2004 comprised six South Africans and two Angolans and we had only the best support from the Angolan military and several government departments. The expedition was led by Pedro Vaz Pinto who advises the Catholic University of Luanda on conservation projects. Without his co-ordination, access to the area would otherwise have been impossible. The “Bateleurs” Club sent along two veteran bush pilots, Joe Holmes and Peter Vosloo. Our photographer was Pierre van Heerden who had filmed much of the elephant translocation to Angola and Prof Van Hoven’s trip in 2002. Bebecca from the Dept of Agriculture in Malange, Jeremy Anderson, a member of the IUCN antelope specialist group and Michael Eustace, director of African Parks completed the team.
The main language of the area we explored is Kimbundu. It is unlikely that anyone speaks Kimbundu and English. A few people speak Portuguese and Kimbundu. Hence everything was discussed through two translators, our leader Pedro Vaz Pinto who is fluent in English and Portuguese and his colleague Bebecca, who is fluent in Kimbundu and Portuguese, but not English.
For me, it was my third trip to Angola, having been there in 2000 with a plane load of elephants donated by the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa and again in 2002 with Prof Van Hoven’s expedition to Cangandala in an attempt to find the giant sable. Various parties tried to establish the status of the giant sable over recent years. None have been conclusive and only anecdotal evidence suggested that the animals were still there. DNA analysis of dung samples from previous parties have turned out to be from other species and my own samples from the trip in 2002 showed a 96% correlation with that of the Hippotragus genus which includes sable and roan. Although not conclusive, it was encouraging.
A Russian owned cargo company based in Johannesburg, Aerolift, arranged our transport to Luanda military base. Our 3 tons of cargo included 2 microlight aircraft and we landed at Luanda military base about midnight, finishing unpacking the Illyushin at 5:00 am! Pedro Vaz Pinto met us and by mid morning we were airborne again in an Antonov and a MI 17 military helicopter. After re-fuelling at Malange, the MI 17 flew us in two relays to our selected site while the microlights flew there under their own steam.
The area has no roads for hundreds of kilometers and no motor vehicles. The rivers must be crossed in makoros since the few Portuguese-built bridges had been blown up. Information about landmines is unreliable. However, everyone seemed to be in agreement that there were none within the area we wanted to explore although almost certainly all around its perimeter. We had used satellite images to analyze the vegetation and identify old bush airstrips. We also looked for burned areas in the hope that the green patches would be good areas to search for the giant sable. Researchers had recorded the giant sable habit of moving from the dry forest into these green glades before sunrise and after sunset during the winter months. Of course we had to be near water and a village to employ camp staff and porters. Having decided on an area, Pedro Vaz Pinto secured the support of the provincial governor. About a month before our arrival, he dispatched a bush telegraph to the village sobas of the area announcing our arrival and that they should assist us in finding the Palanca Negra.
The local tribes are not very keen on visitors who come in search of the Palanca Negra. All the explorers and big game hunters over the last 80 odd years who have written about their experiences make mention of what bad trackers these people are. Having done a fair bit of tracking big game in various parts of Africa, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re very good, but also very shrewd. They’ll take one on a wild goose chase or straight in to where one wants to be depending on their view of your objective. Partly due to the variety of gifts we presented and the official backing of the governor we enjoyed enthusiastic support from the village sobas.