Rediscovery and Conservation of the Angolan Giant Sable Antelope
Saturday, August 25, 2007 8:33:35 AM
Source- Africa Journal (Washington, DC)
Pedro Vaz Pinto
In 1909, Frank Varian, a Belgian engineer working for the Benguela Railroad in Central Angola, announced he had found a unique sable specimen carrying immense horns of over 60 inches in length; he was promptly ridiculed for his claim. The African antelope fauna was thought to be well known by then and few sable horns had ever surpassed the 40-inch mark. Varian was vindicated seven years later, in 1916, when the specimens he sent to London led to the description of an entirely new subspecies of sable antelope, Hippotragus niger variani, the appropriately-named Giant Black Sable Antelope of Angola.
Its huge and perfectly arched horns, elegant and majestic features, and the coal black color of the mature male, make the giant sable arguably one of the most beautiful and regal antelope species in the world. For this reason it has always been sought after by naturalists, scientists and, unfortunately, hunters. Remarkably, its also one of the rarest of African mammals, and until the 1960's was only known to occur on a depressed strip of land between the Luando and Kwanza Rivers covering approximately 8,000 square km. "The land between two rivers" was subsequently defined as a protected area by the Government of Angola, named the Luando Strict Reserve.
It would take 40 more years, until 1962, when a second and smaller population of giant sable was officially "discovered" in Cangandala. One year later a government proclamation established Cangandala National Park. Instrumental to this "discovery," was the cooperation of Kataba, the local Chief, who proved to be so knowledgeable about the giant sable that he was appointed as a honorary park ranger and was given the nickname of "pastor das palancas" - the Giant Sable Shepherd.
Research and Discovery of the Giant Sable
In the 1970s, the giant sable was studied by Dr. Richard Estes, who spent a full year in Luando Reserve. The animal was well protected by then and the total population was estimated to be as high as 2,000.
However the civil situation in Angola would soon deteriorate following the country's independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. Soon thereafter the conflict spread into the giant sable habitat areas.
In 1982, Dr. Estes visited Angola on a World Conservation Union (IUCN) mission, and managed to photograph a few giant sables in Cangandala National Park." These were the last reliable records for decades to come. In spite of having been elevated to the status of Angola's national symbol, featured in the national currency notes, on the logo of national air carrier TAAG, used as nickname to refer to the national soccer team ("os palancas"), and proudly referred to by Angolans of all races, religions, and ideologies, little could be done to avoid its decline during a brutal 27-year civil war. As human populations struggled to survive, not surprisingly, wildlife conservation became the least of national or provincial priorities. Animals of all kinds, including giant sable antelopes, were indiscriminately killed by hungry people all over Angola.
When enduring peace finally came in 2002, little was known about the situation on the ground in the giant sable areas but the first attempts to relocate the animal either failed or were considered inconclusive.
Also, law enforcement measures in the Angolan protected areas were non-existent and this condition was expected to continue at least for the next few years. The international conservation community was preparing to receive the worst possible news: the giant sable antelope, one of the most magnificent African mammals, and one of the last to be discovered, might have become yet another casualty of human wars.
The Giant Black Sable Conservation Project
In 2003, the Scientific Research Centre of the Catholic University of Angola (UCAN) launched an ambitious project, the Palanca Negra Gigante Conservation Project, initially aimed at proving that this remarkable antelope had survived the civil war. The first Palanca Project attempts to locate the animals included long expeditions on foot and aerial surveys using microlight aircraft and military helicopters but they all failed to produce hard evidence. If alive, the giant sable was now even scarcer and more elusive than ever before and a new tactic of discovery was necessary.
In October 2004 at Cangandala National Park the Palanca Project established the Palanca Shepherds Program, based in the same village, Bola Cassaxe, where Chief Kataba had originated. Local residents were proud to be descendants of the original sable shepherds and they felt strongly about the park and the giant sable and the need to save them both. The traditional symbolism of this beast is still powerful among residents. The establishment of the Shepherd Program meant that 20 members of the local communities could be trained and hired to become the new shepherds, giant sable guardians, and be integrated into the research activities and basic Cangandala National Park management initiatives.
The shepherds played a decisive role in assisting the researchers to prove that a herd of giant sable was still alive in Cangandala. This was achieved through photographic trap cameras, triggered by infrared beams, which were planted around salt licks found by the shepherds and where they had claimed sables were regular visitors. Success came in March 2005 with the photography and publication of the first giant sable images in more than 20 years. The Angolan national symbol was still alive, and the news was received enthusiastically all over the country and by the international community.
There is now one small giant sable herd located in Cangandala and the Palanca Project plans to extend the research and the shepherd program into Luando reserve later this year. Presently, the shepherds' main task is to prevent poaching, which is still a serious threat to the giant sables and other local game species in spite of official government support and protection.
Partnerships for Conservation
Private companies have joined the efforts to protect the giant sable, and the oil sector is leading the way as the main contributors. Esso, ExxonMobil's affiliate in Angola, has become the primary corporate sponsor and project partner. Esso has committed funds to rehabilitate the long-neglected headquarters complex at the entrance to Cangandala National Park. Further support was granted by the Angola LNG project and by Chevron.
International conservation organizations are also involved in the research and preservation of the giant sable. This was reinforced in May 2006, when Pedro Vaz Pinto, the project coordinator, received one of the highly-coveted Whitley Awards for Nature from Princess Royal Anne at the Royal Geographic Society in London.
Of crucial importance to the sustainability of the Palanca Project are the very strong links established with the Angolan Government. The government has recognized the shepherd's role as the "de facto" protectors of the giant sable and in September 2006 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between UCAN, the Provincial Government of Malanje, and the Angolan Ministry of Environment, to further develop the research, management, and law enforcement in the giant sable areas.
Following the signing of the MOU, the Government appointed a park administrator to supervise the shepherds and the Palanca Project is assisting him with the material and financial means to do his job.
The Palanca Project represents a pioneering conservation initiative, a true partnership between science, local communities, private companies with interest in conservation and the environment, conservation organizations, and Government. The results to-date have been very promising and this project has the potential to be exported as model and implemented in other areas of Angola and southern Africa, where many forms of wildlife are on the brink of extinction. -
Pedro Vaz Pinto is the project coordinator of the giant sable conservation project, at the Scientific Research Centre of the Catholic University of Angola.