The trimester started off with worrying news from Cangandala. Partially in response to our constant reporting of poaching, the municipal authorities organized with the local police a series of nocturnal operations placing checkpoints at various dirt roads around the park. And on one occasion detained a poacher which was carrying in his motor bike a roan antelope! It was a yearling female and he had chopped out its head, but still it is amazing how he was driving to Malanje with such a large antelope in his bike. He was duly arrested by the authorities, and at least for a while he stuck in jail while awaiting trial prosecution. It is unclear where the roan was shot, and it may have been outside the park’s boundaries, but of course it may be this case may be the tip of the iceberg.
In spite of the generous rains in previous months, the dry season this year was fairly intense in Cangandala, and against our expectations the natural water holes and drainage lines dried up quite rapidly. This caused occasional shortage of water inside the sanctuary which in turn may have contributed to raise the stress on the animals. Probably of result of this there was quite a lot of animal activity and testing along the fence, and unfortunately it was even brought down a few times as some antelopes violated the perimeter. It wasn’t clear to us which animals broke through the fence. In a couple occasions it may have involved roan, but at least once it was suspected that some sable escaped the sanctuary.
Ground observations and the trap camera record proved that the old females and at least most of the hybrids are still contained in the sanctuary and therefore, our concern grew as we fear that part of the young group may have escaped. Unfortunately none of those sable visited the salt licks in recent months, further raising our suspicions. Tracking the animals on the ground allowed us to locate one young group inside the sanctuary, which included the only two functioning collars in young females. This group comprised six females (ages 2, 4 and 5), two yearlings, five calves and it was escorted by Eolo, a young 2-year old male (third in Cangandala-born lineage, after Mercury and Apollo). Eolo is a handsome young boy, yet to turn black but already with an impressive presence. We were in fact able to approach them several times and get them habituated to our presence, allowing for plenty of nice close-range photos. The composition of this subgroup demonstrates that the initial young herd has split in two, also considering that Mercury had long broken through the fence, the other group likely will be guarded by Apollo and might include five other females and four or five yearlings, plus a few calves. During my visits I could not find the second group, and witness accounts from the rangers are inconsistent (they claim to have seen the group both outside and inside the fence, with irreconcilable numbers and dates). This is a mystery hopefully to be solved during next trimester. Of course the possibility that half of our best breeding sable might be outside the fenced camp, can have major implications on the whole program and force us to propose exceptional response measures. For the time being and until proven otherwise, we will assume the worst case scenario and plan accordingly.
Outside the sanctuary the trap cameras recorded once again our good old friend Ivan the Terrible, patrolling his territory. He has clearly put on some weight and might be recovering some of his lost pride. But hopefully not too much of it. As for Mercury we couldn’t find him, and unconfirmed witness accounts place him patrolling a new territory on the opposite side of the sanctuary, far away from Ivan. I really miss this boy, and it would be a waste if we lose him as a breeding bull. Back inside the fenced camp and after months of frustrating delay it was finally possible to make a bore hole located in a scenic landscape right at the core of the sanctuary, which we will now make sure it will be operational at the onset of the next dry season.
A shocking development that we need to report in Cangandala relates, once more, to poaching activities. There is little doubt that we have at least one team of two armed poachers, who have been operating the area at least for the past three years. They know the area quite well, and mostly hunt at night with a spotlight near the sanctuary, but we know at least a couple times have ventured inside. They have been photographed by a Trap Camera back in 2012, and every now and then have manipulated, destroyed by fire or even stolen cameras. And they seem to have become progressively bolder in their actions. This time they completely destroyed one camera with an axe and took the memory card. Still, one of them was photographed a couple of weeks earlier on a different camera which they are unaware of. Unfortunately we obtained dark night photos, only useful to confirm we’re dealing with the same individuals but not good enough for precise IDs. We have now laid some traps with cameras hidden high up in trees, hoping to catch them in the act next time. This and more efforts are on the way to see if we can catch these guys.
Further south, the bridge across Luando River was finalized in July, and therefore we were able to drive the first car into the reserve in 27 years! We did a couple trips in this period to the reserve and each time spent several nights camping in the deep bush. Having the vehicle with us meant quite an improvement in terms of logistics and reach. But of course the bridge is also cause for concern as it facilitates the way for poachers and stimulates the greed for local natural resources. On the first trip we learnt that our old lion friend had returned to the region and created havoc among some locals, to the point that in certain villages people were strongly encouraged not to come out after dark. Another concern for the sable, although I remember thinking that if we’re lucky this could maybe deter or demoralize some poachers… who knows maybe the lion could even catch one poacher.
In Luando we also tried to approach the sable herds, but even tracking the VHF signals we had limited success. The region is very extensive and remote, and these animals are quite nervous, always on alert for poachers. Therefore the best we could achieve was very brief encounters, and for obvious reasons we decided not to push them further. Most of our time was used to patrol water holes and other hotspots previously identified from satellite imagery. Unfortunately it showed us once again that poaching is rampant in the reserve. We found plenty of poaching tracks, active and inactive traps, recently used cartridges, animal carcasses in traps, poacher’s camps, and even once we came across an armed poacher who got away before we could detain him. As this wasn’t enough the trap camera record were equally enlightening, as apart from roan and smaller antelope pictures, we obtained many photos of poachers, in five independent occasions! This fact was quite alarming.
Now I saved the best for last to end this report on less somber note (even if some might disagree): Before we left the reserve by the end of September we learnt the most amazing news. The lion did it!!! Our big boy caught, killed and had a poacher for supper. And he got away with it. According to the story as told at one local village by a very scared survivor, he and his friend were hunting at night with spotlights, and his companion was in front and carrying a shotgun, when he was ambushed by the big lion who gave him no chance to fight back. The second poacher run away as fast as he could and only stopped at the village, many kms further. He refused to go back to the meal site the following day and disappeared before long. Apparently no one could figure out where the poachers had come from, but were assumed to be diamond diggers operating along the Kwanza River. Now we hope the survivor to tell his tale, and spread it among his buddies.
I must admit that I am starting to see the lion under a different light now. A romantic person could be tempted to accept the lion as an active conservation agent fighting to hold his ground against competitors, while a cynical person could suggest that the lion is simply going for the most abundant prey: poachers! In any case, and however we choose to look at it, my respect for the Big Boy has increased exponentially!!!
Photos are available at the following link: