The Royal Sable From 2002 To The Present
by Peter Flack
Over 30 years ago I was at a loose end in London on a Saturday morning and so I took a taxi to what I think is one of London’s most beautiful buildings – the Natural History Museum. In the entrance hall, the bust of my hunting hero, Fredrick Courteney Selous, caught my eye in the far left corner at the foot of the stairs leading up to the second level. I walked over and, after looking my fill, followed the stairs up and to the left, wandered along and to the right and, unexpectedly, arrived at three dioramas prepared by that greatest of all taxidermists, Rowland Ward. It was the massive bongo and okapi that first caught my eye but, as I turned around, I stopped in my tracks and simply gawped open mouthed at the next diorama. It was my first sight of a royal sable in all its glory. From that moment I was smitten. All these years later, in my opinion, the royal or giant sable is still the greatest of all the hunting icons of Africa.
I immediately looked for and found the book, Some African Milestones, by H. F. Varian after whom the royal sable was named. He had come across the animal during the course of his time in Angola. Right at the end of the book, in his chapter on game, he wrote as follows,
“On one of my visits to London from Angola, I had taken to the curator of the Natural History Museum, Mr. Oldfield Thomas, specimens of a number of smaller mammals….. I mentioned to him that in spite of the official lack of interest in the larger animals of this province, I considered that some of them showed a distinct difference from the classified varieties, and would repay a little study. I told him of a large sable antelope which I had already described in an article published in The Field, which differed in face-markings and other important respects from the ordinary sable antelope found in most parts of Africa, and as I knew it to be far larger than any they had in the Museum, I offered to present him with a specimen. He welcomed the offer, and I accordingly sent him the head and skin, pointing out the differences, and suggesting that this might be a link between the common sable and the 60 inch single horn that had puzzled Selous when he saw it in the museum at Florence, the record measurement of the ordinary sable being then about 51inches. In due course I received a warm letter of thanks from Mr. Thomas, in which he stated that this was one of the most important gifts the Museum had received for a long time. At a subsequent meeting of the Zoological Society, the head was exhibited and the difference demonstrated between it and the common sable, Hippotragus niger. It was decided to name the new species after me, and it was duly called Hippotragus niger variani.”
In 2002, John Frederick Walker published A Certain Curve of Horn
, to date, the most complete book on all aspects of the royal sable. He reported that Selous, “On one of his return trips from Africa, Selous visited what is now the zoological collection of the Natural History Museum of Florence. That particular collection, “La Specola,” housed south of the Arno, was first opened to the public in 1775. By the time of his visit it held a vast collection of specimens. Selous could probably have identified virtually any large mammal found in southern Africa from the most minimal of clues – a claw, a hoof, a scrap of skin. But he was taken aback by a single five-foot-long horn, a huge half-loop of ringed thickness trailing off into a perfect point. What animal grew that great arc of ridged keratin? It looked like an immense sable horn, but it hardly seemed possible. The best sable he’d ever shot was from Mashonaland (in today’s Zimbabwe) and carried horns of forty-four and a half inches. “I measured this phenomenal horn,” he wrote, “and I am sure that there is no mistake about its length of 61inches, though where it came from nobody knows.”
Walker went on to write that, “And the horn is still there; in the old catalogue its provenance is given as “Africa australe” – southern Africa. It was added to the museum’s collection in 1873. Unfortunately, nothing else is known about it. One can make guesses about where it came from, and how it got there, but all that is certain now is that it is a giant sable horn. Selous could not know that, but he knew what it had to be – evidence of a grander, more impressive animal, one not yet seen for what it was. The hunter never forgot it.”
"For years he tried to find out where it came from", John Guile Millais wrote, “without success.”
That the great horn in Florence must have come from a race of extraordinary sables made the enigma all the more worth solving. Selous had a special regard for sable; like many, he regarded them as the most “high couraged”
of all the antelope tribe, and was impressed by their tenacity when pursued…… but it was more than fierceness that drew Selous to the sable. “Where they have not been much persecuted, sable antelope are amongst the least shy of wild animals; and the bold and noble bearing of a herd of these antelopes, standing on the slope of a wooded hill, gazing with curious though fearless eyes at the first mounted man to invade their haunts, could not fail to strike the least impressionable of hunters.”
Written over 120 years ago, these words are as true today as they were then and have inspired hundreds of hunters to seek out these majestic and magnificent animals.
Walker’s book ends on a depressing note, however. Despite all his determined and dedicated efforts, by the time he completed his book, no one had been able to conclusively prove that royal sable still existed. Worse still, based albeit on only three samples, the DNA evaluation by Professors Bettine van Vuuren and Terry Robinson, now of Stellenbosch University, seemed to indicate that, genetically speaking, the royal sable was not significantly different from the typical or common sable. In fact, Walker wrote that Professor Robinson was confident that any more specimens he could gather would only further support that contention which, subsequently, proved to be wrong. At that time, however, he explained to Walker that “sables may have been widely distributed across southern Africa into Angola, but changes in climate since then had left certain populations isolated. The giant sable could simply be a sable population with a high incidence of the genes that are responsible for giant sable characteristics – primarily facial markings and horn length.”
Last year a friend of mine, Steve Kobrine, a bow hunter of international repute, arranged for Peter Fisher, the fourth generation, Zambian owner of Nchila Wildlife Reserve, to send me pictures of three sable bulls on this property in the far northwestern corner of Zambia, some four kilometers from the Congo border and 28 kilometers from Angola. As soon as I saw them, my heart skipped a beat. The facial markings looked exactly the same as those of the royal sable from Angola and the horns of one of the bulls looked to measure at least 50 inches.
Within days the telephone lines were buzzing between myself, Steve and Peter and the upshot was that I booked the first available hunt of the 2009 hunting season.
I have just returned from a very successful time at Nchila (which means puku in the local Lunda language), during the course of which I shot not one but two sable bulls. The first was a good representative bull with common sable (Hippotragus niger niger
) markings, the horns of which measured a very respectable 41 ˝ inches. The second bull was an entirely different kettle of fish. The facial markings resembled those of a royal sable and the horns measured a fraction under 47inches but the haunches were a shiny brownish black. When I stood next to the incredible animal it triggered off a whole series of memories.
I remember an attractive, dark haired woman coming to see me at a SCI convention in the late 1990s. She explained that Professor Van Hoven had told her that he had seen royal sable during the course of a low level flight over north central Angola and had asked for help in raising funds to verify his sighting. She asked whether I thought there was any likelihood of any of these animals surviving the bitter, long lasting, civil war that was still ravaging the country. I replied by asking her, in return, whether the good professor had had a camera with him and, if so, whether he had the taken any photographs. The answer was, yes, he had a camera but had been too excited to take any photographs. The cynical corporate lawyer in me reared its ugly head and scepticism fought against my strong hope that this magnificent animal had somehow survived.
On my return to South Africa, I and a few friends questioned our contacts in Angola, including various embassy staff members who were uniformly negative about the chances of survival of any of these iconic beasts. They pointed out that the area in and around the Cuanza and Luando Rivers which housed the original herds of royal sable had seen much fighting and been occupied, at different times, by both the MPLA and UNITA forces. The latter was known for its ability to live off the land, not to mention the ubiquitous land mines in the area. I advised Ann Donaldson accordingly but her inherent human hope was stronger than mine and she raised substantial amounts of money which were forwarded to Professor Van Hoven to assist him in his attempts to prove that his original sighting was correct.
A good friend of mine, Brendan O’Keeffe, the former chairman of AGRED, accompanied three missions to Angola to assist in this process and raised substantial funds from two members of the Shikar Club, the African Chapter of SCI and Dallas Safari Club to fund the 2004 expedition and supply four still cameras with infrared triggers. It was one of these cameras that in March, 2005, took the first pictures of royal sable cows in Cangandala National Park, north of the confluence of the Cuanza and Luando Rivers. Along with Luando National Park, which lies between the two rivers, these parks housed the two royal sable population groups estimated by researchers such as the world famous Richard Estes and Brian Huntley to amount to no more than 2000 to 3000 animals.
These photographs were announced to the world by Mr. Pedro Vas Pinto, who accompanied the original mission as well as the 2004 expedition as an interpreter in his position as an adviser on conservation projects to the Catholic University in Angola. At no stage did he acknowledge the contributions of O’Keeffe or the Shikar Club and, rightly or wrongly, since that time, has attempted to establish himself as the sole expert and gate keeper on current royal sable issues.
To date, there have been no further discoveries of royal sable other than the original seven cows which, it would appear, are led by a roan bull which has bred with these cows and produced hybrid animals. As one of my friends explained, they looked like a pair of roan ears with a little sable attached.
To date, as far as I am aware, there have been no prolonged, properly planned, manned and equipped attempts to track or trace royal sable in Luando National Park since O’Keeffe’s attempt in 2004 which produced dung samples evidencing royal sable DNA and two of which indicated that they had been produced by royal sable bulls.
Despite being heavily criticized by the Angolan authorities at the time for taking the dung samples out of the country without permission, it was those selfsame samples that provided the first concrete evidence in December, 2004, that royal sable still existed. In the paper, DNA-led Rediscovery of the Giant Sable
by Prof. Christian Pitra et al, not only did O’Keeffe receive acknowledgement for the first time but it was stated that, “Comparisons of mitochondrial DNA sequences derived from dung samples recently collected in the field and from old museum specimens of certain provenance provide the first documented evidence to date that this enigmatic antelope has survived.”
Its DNA-led rediscovery in the former combat zone was subsequently confirmed by photographic evidence. “The Angolan isolate constitutes a distinct monophyletic group that shows a dramatic population decline from historic levels. It represents a diagnosable conservation unit which is characterized by unique cranial morphological features…..a highly restricted range, and the presence of fixed genetic differences in all of its common relatives.”
In a recent conversation with O’Keeffe, he mentioned how difficult it would be for aerial surveys to identify royal sable given their chosen habitat of predominantly brachystegia woodland. He explained that, on his 2004 trip, when use was made of a microlight aircraft, despite being in radio contact with the pilot and providing him with the requisite GPS coordinates, the pilot was unable to spot three people on the ground waving at him while trying to guide him towards them over the radio. His view was that, if people were serious about wanting to save the royal sable and, in this regard, the identification and capture of one or more royal sable bulls was essential, they would have to plan at least a three month expedition to Luando National Park and use the local sobas together with a large number of well trained trackers with suitable cameras and GPS equipment supported by helicopters. If this was properly planned and implemented, he was absolutely convinced that additional sable herds, including bulls, would be found.
So what has happened since 2002 after Walker’s book was published? Firstly, we know now that an unknown number of animals exist in the wild in Luando and at least seven royal sable cows in Cangandala although they are led by a roan bull. Secondly, having now analyzed well some 150 samples, Professors Van Vuuren and Robinson have modified their original views and come to the clear and inescapable conclusion that royal sable are an entirely separate sub-species whose closest relatives, incidentally, are those common sable found near Ugalla in the south western side of Tanzania, followed by those on Nchila Wildlife Reserve.
Altogether then, there are currently five sub-species of sable recognized by science, namely, royal sable from Angola, Hippotragus niger kirkii
from Kenya, Hippotragus niger rooseveltii
from in and around the Selous Game Reserve in the south western corner of Tanzania, Hippotragus niger anselli from Malawi and eastern Zambia and common sable, Hippotragus niger niger
from most of southern Africa including, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mocambique and Tanzania. There are still question marks over the sable from Malawi and Mozambique as insufficient or no samples have been obtained from sable populations there although the best guess is that the ones from Mocambique are probably typical or common and not Roosevelt and those from Malawi may well be the same as or similar to the Ugalla specimens. Time will tell.
Yes, all the monster sable from the West of Zambia whose DNA has been tested, including those from Nchila, some of which bear similar facial markings and skull shapes to the royal sable, are all common sable. Having said this, however, to date the testing has focused only on their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and nuclear DNA tests have not been done. In layman’s terms, what this means is that scientists in South Africa have only been able to establish where the mothers of the tested sable have come from but not the fathers.
Why is this important? Well, if I were prepared to or was about to hand over R3 million ($375 000)) or so for a sable bull (as was done at an auction last year), I would most definitely want to know precisely where the bull came from, particularly given the questions surrounding the provenance of so many of the animals with facial markings and horns that are similar to royal sable. As a friend of mine says, while not everyone in the game ranching industry is a crook, at times, it seems as if every crook is in the game ranching industry.
The fact of the matter is, although some of the bulls recently on auction in South Africa have carried horns measuring in the high 40 inches, none has been measured independently at over 50 inches. The merest glimpse at Rowland Wards Records of Big Game will show that the biggest royal sable measured 64 ⅞ inches and was shot in Angola in 1949 by Count de Yebes. A picture of this awesome beast can be seen at page 379 of James Mellon’s magnum opus, African Hunter (Editor’s note: and on this page in African Indaba – courtesy of Ińigo Moreno, Marques de Laula, Spain
Conde de Yebes / Count Yebes with his magnificent trophy
More importantly, the next 25 royal sables recorded in The Book all measured over 60, yes 60, inches! On the other hand, not one of the typical or common sable entered in The Book over the 117 years of its existence measured 60 or more inches while the biggest, shot in 1898 in Tshokwane, South Africa by S.W. van Ee, stretched the tape to a “mere” 55 ⅜ inches. Makes you think doesn’t it?
What are people paying all this money for? As of now, no sable tested outside of those from Angola have shown royal sable DNA. Those that look like royal sable, other than those from Western Zambia (of which the Nchila animals are the best examples), seem to have been selectively bred from typical or common sable much like those people trying to re-create the quagga from animals that most look like them. And what is wrong with that you might ask seeing as all the sable in South Africa seem to be Hippotragus niger niger
Even the authorities seem a little confused. The relevant government authorities have given approval for the importation of sable from Zambia and, in fact, many have been imported from this country in the past, but now it seems that the State Vet is having second thoughts and has recently refused permission for this practice to continue. Why? Is this not like shutting the sable door long, long after the bulls have bolted? And on what grounds, as all the sable from Zambia bear exactly the same DNA as those from South Africa? Is this not just one more bit of madness introduced under the brief but damaging reign of the previous Minister for the Department of the Environment and Tourism along with his controversial TOPS legislation?
In my humble opinion, the government should not ban the import of typical or common sable. The only thing that possibly still needs to be done in South Africa in this regard is to establish the base, nuclear DNA body of information to enable complete testing of all sable. That way all buyers and sellers of sable, including hunters and game ranchers, will know for sure what they are dealing with.
Given all of the above, the question must be asked, is it not time to form SASA – the Southern African Sable Association? Game ranchers, capturers, breeders and hunters alike could become members and help fund the future research on royal sable as a benefit to all? The association could also direct and focus attention on this magnificent antelope and the pathetic efforts currently being made in Angola for their preservation and protection. And this would be a good thing don’t you think?
As for Angola, that is another question altogether. Since the publication of A Certain Curve of Horn
in 2002, what has been done by this country to try and preserve or conserve this majestic animal which is, after all, its national animal, known there as palanca negra
and which appears on the tail plane of its national carrier. The short answer is not much. On the one hand, the Angolans seem to want everything in connection with royal sables to be done in and by Angolans. Now that is perfectly fine. But, on the other hand, in the five years that have elapsed since their re-discovery, they have done nothing meaningful to preserve, let alone conserve the last remaining royal sables and, as each year goes by, the seven sable cows are one year closer to extinction without giving birth to any pure bred offspring. What is wrong with them?
Martin Meredith, author of The State of Africa – A History of Fifty Years of Independence, wrote as follows: “A large proportion of Angola’s oil wealth was siphoned off for private purposes. Oil production rose six fold after 1983. Between 1997 and 2002 the oil sector generated $17,8 billion. Yet what happened to the income was shrouded in secrecy. An International Monetary Fund report in 2002 showed that 22 per cent of government expenditure between 1996 and 2001 was “unexplained”; a further 16 per cent was listed as “extra-budgetary”. Using IMF figures, a Human Rights Watch report published in 2004 calculated that between 1997 and 2002 an amount of $4.2 billion went “unaccounted for” – an average of $700 million a year, nearly 10 per cent of gross domestic product, roughly equivalent to the total sum spent on education, health and social services over the same period. What had occurred, said the report, was gross mismanagement and corruption on the part of the Angolan rulers.”
And yet none of this immense wealth has been used to save the own national animal! To add insult to royal sable injury, capable and reputable foreign experts are prevented from helping in any significant way and Angolan efforts remain feeble. If the precious royal sable is lost, the entire world will not only call Angola to account but will hold it in contempt as well.
On my last evening in Lusaka at the end of my recent hunt, I had dinner with Anthony Hall-Martin, previously a highly respected head of department with South African National Parks and now a founding director of African Parks. He was in Zambia to conduct negotiations with the government who appeared interested in contracting out the management of certain of their parks. He was also involved in similar negotiations in Angola and his organization had funded a helicopter capture team to catch and translocate the seven aging royal sable cows to a secure, fenced enclosure. So maybe, just maybe, moves are also afoot in Angola to do something meaningful to preserve and then conserve Angola’s and Africa’s top game icon. If so, it’s about time!
Royal Sable Addendum
by Peter Flack
I have just finished speaking to Jeremy Anderson. He has given me the best news I have received all year. Brendan O’Keeffe, has been proved to be correct all along. On Sunday, Barney O’Hara, from Botswana, flying his Hughes 500 and accompanied by the well known, Onderstepoort trained vet, Piet Morkel, found a herd of royal sable in the Luando National Park right where O’Keeffe predicted (way back in 2004) they would be found. One of Dick Estes’s old trackers has estimated the herd to be some 46 in number but this has not been confirmed. What is certain, however, is that Morkel darted and radio collared both a royal sable bull and cow which were part of the herd and will return later to cherry pick individuals to be relocated to a 400 hectare, fenced enclosure recently established in a dambo in Cangangdala National Park.
Earlier, O’Hara and Morkel had darted and radio collared a hybrid royal sable/roan cross which habitually accompanies the seven royal sable cows that were discovered by infrared photography in 2004. The hybrid should lead them to the seven cows and enable them to be captured and relocated to the selfsame 400 hectare fenced enclosure.
The expedition was organized by Pedro Vas Pinto and funded by one of the oil companies, thought to be Total, although this has not been confirmed. The helicopter search and capture exercise was delayed by a year after a Namibian game capture team failed to honour its commitments in this regard in 2008.
Everyone who has the royal sables interests at heart will now not only breathe a huge sigh of relief at the thought that this most iconic of all Africa’s game may be taking its first teetering steps towards recovery but will congratulate and wish Pedro Vas Pinto and his team well in his continuing efforts on by half of these animals. If only the Angolan government would now provide them with the support they so desperately need.
(Editor’s note: Dr. Jeremy Anderson informed us that in the meantime a second royal sable bull hascollared; the horns of both bulls measured over 50 inch in length, and Jeremy called them “penkops”)