John Bassi

Saving the Giant Sable in Angola

Part one.

John Bassi

The giant sable bull arrived dangling beneath legendary wildlife pilot, Barney O’Hara’s MD500 helicopter, the antelope’s four-foot-long horns curving back toward its flanks like the scythe of a backhoe.

As the aircraft came into view, hundreds of people who had been waiting to greet the massive antelope at the dry, grassy edge of Angola’s Luando Strict Nature Reserve, broke into tears, song, laughter, dancing.

For the Angolan people, the giant sable is a national symbol, adorning everything from soccer jerseys to postage stamps. But this giant sable represented something even greater; hope.

As Barney deftly delivered the tranquilised bull to the ground, a group of shepherds and scientists loosened the strops and rolled the sable onto a stretcher. A dozen people, under the watchful eye of another wildlife legend, Dr Pete Morkel, hoisted the stretcher into the belly of a Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin, a second, larger helicopter.

The crowd pushed forward. Some people tried to get one last glimpse, others hoped to hug or shake hands with curly-haired biologist Pedro Vaz Pinto, who stood nearby, looking a little dizzy with disbelief. Somehow, against enormous odds, he had just led a team in tracking, tranquilizing, and transporting the 500-pound bull, which would journey another 60 miles north to Cangandala National Park, where it and nine female giant sables would comprise the world’s first captive breeding program for the nearly extinct animal.

“It was an absolute magical moment”, Pedro Vaz Pinto reminisces with an incredulous smile many years later, having witnessed many magical moments over the course of his 20-year mission to save the charismatic ungulate. However the animals future remains terrifyingly fraught. It remains beyond comprehension that this icon, the national animal of Angola, remains completely ignored by the government and its survival is dependent on a small handful of private individuals.

The giant sable is found in Angola’s largely undeveloped interior, when it can be found at all. No foreigner had seen one until 1916, 400 years after Portuguese explorers had first landed on Angola’s shore. It was not for lack of trying. The antelope is notoriously elusive and enjoyed the protection of the Lwimbi and Songo tribes, who often denied its existence to outsiders, deliberately misleading trophy hunters.

Historically for locals, the creature was a totem, the tip of its horns a portal into the spirit world. An antelope almost heraldic in its stateliness, more like a proud beast from legend, than one of this earth.

But even the giant sable wasn’t spared the carnage of Angola’s brutal, 27-year civil war. In the early 1970s, before the conflict, an estimated 2,000 giant sable inhabited the miombo woodlands in two of the country’s preserves, the Luando Strict Nature Reserve and Cangandala National Park. By 2002, when the war finally ended, no one knew if there were any left at all.

“Nobody could tell me for sure,” said Pedro. But curiosity about the status of the sable gnawed at him. “For a biologist who likes adventure, this was too much to ignore.”

Pedro decided to do some reconnaissance work. In 2004, he installed motion-activated cameras in Cangandala National Park, strapping the devices to trees near termite mounds where giant sable, grazing herbivores, might visit to eat the sodium-rich earth. Because there was nowhere nearby for him to develop the film, Pedro mailed each spent roll back to his mother in Portugal. One day, about a year into the effort, she called with some promising news. “She said, ‘There’s a lot of brown animals in this one,” Pedro remembers with a chuckle. He asked her to be more specific. “Brown, kind of reddish?” she tried again. Pedro had to wait an agonizing week to get the pictures in the mail, but when they arrived, it took the biologist mere seconds to know that he was looking at the first photograph of a giant sable in nearly three decades.

With evidence that the giant sable had survived the war, Pedro was able to secure public and private funding to establish the Giant Sable Conservation Project.

“I thought it would be easy,” he says, “I thought there would be more.”

Instead, subsequent photos began to reveal new crises. For one, they always showed the same nine animals, suggesting that the giant sable was holding on, but just barely. More worryingly, there didn’t appear to be a bull among the group. And something else about the photos began bothering Pedro. “Some of the animals looked a bit funny,” he says. “They had floppy ears and clownish faces.”

So he began tracking the herd on foot. When Pedro finally succeeded in catching up with them, what he saw confirmed his worst fears. Standing in the middle of a harem of females was a roan bull, a completely different species of antelope. Left without a sable bull, the female giant sables were mating with the roan and giving birth to hybrids. Pedro knew that with only a handful of pure sable left, hybridization would doom the animal to extinction in short order. “The sky fell on my head,” he says.

If the tiny sable population in Cangandala was going to survive, Pedro wouldn’t just need to separate the pure females from the hybrids, he would also need to deliver them a giant sable bull.

Pedro quickly devised an ambitious plan. He would recruit all the help he could and build a 17-square-mile enclosure in Cangandala National Park. Meanwhile, he would begin scouting for a bull in the nearby Luando Strict Nature Reserve, where giant sable had historically roamed but hadn’t been spotted in years. If all went according to plan, in the summer of 2009, Vaz Pinto’s team would carry out the intrepid translocation mission, moving the nine females and one yet-to-be-found male via helicopter to the enclosure at Cangandala.

“I thought the chance of us finding a male were small,” said Dr Pete Morkel, the wildlife veterinarian Pedro recruited for the effort. “In fact, I told my wife it was probably a waste of time.”

With the help of area shepherds, Pedro began collecting and testing dung for evidence of giant sables—nearly identical in appearance to roan dung—in the Luando Reserve. One month before the group had scheduled their translocation mission, a sample came back positive for male giant sable DNA.

“We were so lucky,” Pedro exclaimed. But finding DNA didn’t mean that locating the actual animal would be simple. The Luando Reserve is about 3,820 square miles, or 830,000 hectares, the landscape a hypnotic collage of browns and tans with vast canopies of miombo forest. There are no fences, allowing easy access to poachers who penetrate on small Chinese motorbikes with murderous results.

And then, when he needed it, Pedro had another one of those magical moments. On the first day of the translocation mission, without any other leads to go on, the group chose to begin their aerial search for the sable where his dung had been collected. When they arrived, the bull was standing in that very spot, as if he knew they were coming. Pete Morkel tranquilized the animal from the helicopter and the group rushed to tag and place a GPS collar on him.

A couple weeks later, the process was repeated, of locating, then chemically immobilizing each animal individually from the helicopter, and slinging each one to a recovery point. The females were all moved to the enclosure one by one. Once the cows were secure, the team flew back to Luando in the 500 to collect the bull. Because the journey to Cangandala required more fuel than the team’s small helicopter could carry, the crew stopped briefly to transfer the sable to a larger aircraft, providing the locals time for their impromptu farewell party and hugs for Pedro.

In the decade since, the captive population has run into several challenges, including the unexpected infertility of several females and an aggressive bull that joined the enclosure, leading to the death of another male sable in 2011.

Funding, Pedro laments, has been a constant struggle, especially during the pandemic, when longstanding corporate donors withdrew financial support. Angola’s current economic depression is also a major concern, as more people turn to poaching to survive.

But for the most part, the herd has thrived. Today Vaz Pinto guesses there are more than 100 giant sable living in Cangandala National Park. “It’s been a spectacular success,” he says, while acknowledging the species is still perilously endangered. Between the populations at Cangandala and Luando, only about 300 of the antelopes remain.

For Pedro, who never meant to devote two decades of his life to the giant sable, his continuing role in its survival is both an honour and an obligation, and he hopes he can soon step away.

The biologist who likes adventure admits he’s itching for a new one. “In a way, I feel like a doctor in the ICU eager for the patient to be discharged—not because I don’t love what I’m doing, but because it will mean the job is done and the patient can move on,” he says. “I am eager for the day the giant sable has been discharged from the ICU.”

In October 2019 the Cangadala nucleus in their protected enclosure were doing really well, apart from one female with a snare. However the Luando population is highly threatened from poachers using sophisticated whip snares. A follow up operation into Luando was conducted in July 2021, the objective to try and locate 20 sable and monitor the health of the small population, no easy task for the 19 scouts and an AS350 covering an area almost as large as the Kruger National Park, but with no roads.

Flying over the vast landscape searching for an estimated 150 to 200 sable is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Focus is torn between hoping to see live animals, and observing the myriad of green patches dotted in the clearings. Lethal grazing patches, completely surrounded by violently powerful whip snares. Then next few days proved to be a pleasant surprise…

To be continued.

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