ANGOLA: Giant Sable -Palanca Report August - December 2013

Dear friends,

Following the July capture operation things stabilized in Cangandala NP. This year rains started early in September and as result of heavy works being done in the park by Government, to put bungalows and bringing new fencing materials, the access roads soon became so damaged, that from October onwards it became impossible to drive across the boundary into the park. For this reason we could only monitor the animals until September and after that we had to rely exclusively on the trap camera records. Inside the sanctuary and by the end of the dry season, a new well and water tank were being finalized and an elevated viewpoint was constructed over the Cazela river drainage.

In late September the animals seemed to be doing very well, with young Mercury proudly assuming his role as the new master bull of Cangandala. The sables are consistently split in two herds, the younger group closely watched by Mercury and the old females lumped with the hybrids and apparently without permanent presence of any bull. In the latter case it still remains unclear if one of the castrated hybrid bulls has any deterrent effect on the pure males, but apparently the much younger Apollo at age 2 is now gravitating around the old cows.

Most importantly we were able to confirm eight new calves born in 2013, the mothers being the six young females brought from Luando in 2011, and from Louise and Teresa, the two very old fertile cows that can’t stop breeding. And we still hope for a ninth calf that may have been produced by Venus, the first female born in the sanctuary back in 2010. Overall, and if we exclude the four problematic and old cows that have lost their breeding potential and never calved, then for the remaining cows the fertility is outstanding and pretty much at 100% since we started the breeding program. This is just one part of the equation as female sable are always expected to be very fertile, while it is the calf mortality during first year of age that often becomes a limiting factor for population growth.

Unfortunately we couldn’t drive into the sanctuary after September and the herds went few times to the salt licks for family photos, and so we couldn’t track properly calf development and success. By the end of the year it also seemed clear that we have permanently lost the two older bulls that had been the main protagonists in Cangandala for the past few years. Duarte was very old anyway and had done his part producing the first pure offspring produced in this park in over a decade. It seems logical that the terrible fight with Ivan back in March was his last. As for our most popular character, crazy Ivan the Terrible, unfortunately he seems to be out of the picture too. In May, Ivan was photographed, healthy and majestic, but in June he had disappeared while his collar was not emitting signal, and this was confirmed in subsequent months. There is no other large bull in the region and no serious wild predators in Cangandala, not to mention that Ivan was the strongest sable we have ever dealt with, so I’m afraid that we have to conclude that he was poached. Either shot by poachers or caught in a snare trap, and then the collar must have been intentionally destroyed.

The rainy season is when the fence is most vulnerable, because of frequent storms with trees and branches falling over. This has been cause for concern, and in addition it became apparent during the last few months that the fence has been challenged several times with animals breaking through. And of course there is no more Ivan to blame. So far it seems that no sable has escaped, but on the other hand at least two new roan bulls have invaded and established inside the sanctuary. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the roan population has apparently increased significantly in Cangandala or at least approaching the sanctuary, as proven by our remarkable trap camera record. Under such circumstances it is only normal that young roan males are naturally dispersing from their herds and finding good shelter inside the neighboring sanctuary. And our fence is clearly not a sufficient deterrent to stop a young roan bull on a mission. We confirmed in the photographs a young mature bull and also a lonely yearling, in two different salt licks. The latter is yet another animal that, miraculously given his age and smaller size, has survived a snare trap, showing an ugly scarred front leg. The unfortunate incident probably explains why he got astray at so tender age. When caught in the snare he must have suffered for a while, then panicked and got lost, before breaking into the sanctuary. Lost and lonely he was now recorded attempting to approach an old sable cow, probably a desperate attempt to find company.

In 2012 and concerned with continuing hybridization risks, we castrated the young and only roan male (Freddy) inside the sanctuary as he had joined the sable cows and we suspected they were poorly attended by old Duarte. Now the situation has changed slightly and it is not realistic to keep tackling in such radical fashion every new roan invader. Especially because they will probably keep coming and more importantly the sable herds seem now properly supervised by young sable bulls. But we’ll keep watching… On the other hand and even if Ivan’s fate remains open to debate, the injuries on the new young roan prove that poaching with snares is still a major issue even in Cangandala NP, so a lot still remains to be done.

In Luando Reserve the fifteen sable equipped with GPS collars are being tracked permanently and apparently are all safe for now. It seems clear that the most serious threat pending over the last surviving giant sable herds in Luando, are the snare traps planted around the majority of water holes, mainly concentrated between June and August, and aiming to capture by the leg any medium to large ungulate that attempts to approach the site to drink. This infamous technique, often targeting the largest antelopes (mostly sable and roan) seems to be causing huge and unsustainable annual mortality on giant sable. Particularly affected are the most vulnerable, such as breeding cows and young animals, and this is supported by our demographic data. Pregnant and recently calved cows are probably the most dependent on a constant water supply, while yearlings are trusting, adventurous and inexperienced, and many times lack the strength to escape a snare. Old bulls are more weary creatures, less dependent on water and much stronger. This may explain why the bull population in Luando seems to be in better shape than the females and respective herds, and why so many females have serious leg injuries, and also why there seems to be an abnormally low annual recruitment of young animals into adult age, and contrasting with healthy numbers of calves.

In an effort to counteract the rampant dry season poaching we have devised and successfully tested a new strategy, and which we expect will start producing results next season. Firstly we have acquired high resolution satellite imagery, and as result we were able to pinpoint an accurate water network for the whole reserve. Secondly, all water points were provisionally classified according to their nature, size and proximity to known sable territories or home ranges. One interesting surprise was finding that the water network was a lot more prolific than expected or at least perceived from our earlier ground experience… there is a lot more water available than we suspected, and this could be picked up from satellite! Then we conducted a quad bike expedition in September for ground trothing, and fine tuning and further detailed classification of the most important water holes, especially the ones closest to our already defined hotspots.

By the time we did the expedition, most water holes had dried out, while we experienced the first showers announcing the new rainy season. For this reason herds were not visiting the sites for drinking, and snare traps had already been removed. In any case, we were still in good time to evaluate the pre-identified water holes and to determine their importance and levels of threat. Over a few days and quad-biking in cross-country we visited 9 sites (of which only one was previously known by us), less than half than what we expected but we faced some contingency problems that forced us not to continue. Still, results were very promising and above expectations, and proving that we were on the right track. Two water holes, as also suggested by the sat imagery, had limited water retaining capacity and were downscaled as unimportant. Of the remaining seven sites, six (86%) had recent to not-too-old giant sable tracks. And four of those sites (57%) had serious and clear poaching signs. In three water holes we found large poles that had been used during the last dry season, for snares targeting sable and other large antelope. In one of these sites there was a skeleton of a reedbuck that had died maybe a month ago and in the meantime had been consumed by vultures and bushpigs.

In the last site visited the shock was even bigger when we burst into the scene and surprised a poacher calmly drying up meat around the fire on a camp situated less than 200mts from the water hole. He was alone as his other two mates had gone out to poach with shotguns. There were a few freshly killed duikers from the previous day, but we were even more alarmed to find that the two absent poachers had gone in pursuit of a giant sable bull that had visited the site during the night and left unaware of the poachers’ presence. This was easily concluded by the fresh tracks and spoor on the scene. The poacher was arrested and delivered to the local authorities, and his bounty burned. Upon interrogation he confessed that he lives in village situated more than 100kms away, and they were a team of three and came in two bikes. The plan was shooting antelopes for a few days, drying up the meat, and then take the product to Malanje and sell it in the market.
This incident and some mechanical difficulties forced us abort the mission, as it would be too risky to try to reach some of the more remote sites. But the main objective had been achieved. We now hope to establish network surveillance next dry season, cleaning up and securing all major water holes in the key areas. And this may, hopefully and for the first time in many years, help to start turning the tables in our favor in the fight against poaching.

Unfortunately and much to our shock and disappointment, we learned later, that our poacher escaped detention within 24 hours of being arrested and delivered…

Another key milestone on this struggle may have been the renewed commitment from the FAA - Angolan Military Forces (army and air forces), who during October conducted a serious ground and aerial operation in Luando, aiming to serve as deterrent to poaching. For a few days they deployed teams patrolling the reserve, making local villagers aware of the importance to protect the giant sable, and sending the message that from now on, the military will be watchful to protect the national symbol. We collaborated with their initiative, and some awareness flyers and posters were produced and used to Luando. At the end of the operation no poachers had been caught but a clear statement was made.

Nevertheless, a few weeks later we received worrying reports that many armed poachers were still active in Luando, and as compelling evidence the shepherds found a freshly killed roan carcass. It was a yearling male and had been shot by poachers near the diamond areas along the Kwanza River. And yet another worrying report was learning from the shepherds that the big lion was back in business, patrolling and hunting inside giant sable sensitive areas. After the helicopter incident in July he had left the scene for a few months, but finally returned.

To finalize on a positive note, by the end of year we received wonderful news that Toyota – Angola would be donating us a brand new Land Cruiser HZJ … in good time indeed!

Photos can be seen through the following link:

Best wishes,