Giant Sable Conservation Project

Project LocationMalange District, Luando Strict Reserve and Cangandala National Park, Angola
Project TypeWildlife and habitat conservation, Community conservation initiatives, Endangered species protection, Environmental education
Endangered SpeciesGiant sable antelope
Land Area Protected8910 km2
Benefiting Locally15 directly, 500 indirectly
Local People Employed20
Schools Supported3 (200 pupils)
Project Websitewww.us-angola.org

Giant Sable Conservation Project

The project aims to conserve the giant sable antelope (Hippotragus niger variani), within its area of origin in Central Angola through monitoring and research programmes; active conservation actions in the areas; promotion of capacity building at national and local level; supporting the resident communities through their integration into the project activities; and to create public awareness at local, national and international level.

The giant sable was only described in 1916, and it has since been praised as the most beautiful antelope in the world. In Angola, it is regarded as the national symbol, displayed in the logo of the national airline company and the national football team is called “os palancas” (the sables). It is only known to occur in two areas (Luando Strict Reserve and Cangandala National Park) covering approximately 9,000 square kilometres in total. In the seventies, its population was estimated to be of 2,000 animals, but following the civil war that ravaged the country, the population crashed to such an extent that it was feared extinct.

The Giant Sable Conservation Project

In 2003, the Catholic University of Angola launched the Giant Sable Conservation Project to prove that the species had survived the civil war. The first attempts included long tracking expeditions on foot into Cangandala, where plenty of promising evidence was found, such as spoor and confirming reports from locals. However, no sightings were made. Several additional attempts to find surviving sable failed, and it was eventually camera traps that captured photographs of a sable herd in Cangandala National Park.

Through monitoring of the herd, the project soon realised that the population was facing a crisis - hybridisation. A lack of sable bulls has meant that a lone roan antelope bull has interbred with the one remaining herd. The current giant sable population in Cangandala consists 14 pure sables of which 10 are females in breeding age, and seven hybrid individuals, all born in the past five years. This crisis seems to be the result of a population crash and lack of breeding males thought to be a result of intense poaching pressure in the area.

Giant Sable Translocation

Although the scenario in Cangandala looked beyond recovery, there was hope.  Firstly, the hybrids had never succeeded in breeding.  To the best of our knowledge, we had only first generation sterile hybrids, so the situation could be reversed if we managed to exclude them from the group.  Secondly, in the Luando reserve, after years of dead ends, we ended up locating a giant sable herd, based on a positive DNA test from one dung sample.  Also, sponsors and key stake holders, including Tusk, renewed their confidence in the project and a new, more ambitious plan was designed.  A 400ha fenced sanctuary was erected and a game capture operation would move as many pure females as possible and one bull into the sanctuary. 

The operation turned out to be a huge success, far superseding all expectations.  On the first flight into Cangandala, the herd was found and one hybrid cow was darted.  She was then released back wearing a VHF collar.  The team was then able to use the lone female to locate the pure females, one by one.  The plan worked, and in alternate days, to avoid stressing the herd too much, the team managed to catch all nine pure females and move them safely into the ‘boma’ (enclosure).

But the most exciting results were obtained in Luando reserve, where the team darted eight giant sable bulls and one cow.  One mature bull was then moved to Cangandala to join the females in the sanctuary.  Transporting the bull over an excess of 100km was a challenge, and was only made possible with the participation of the Angolan Air Force, who made available a Russian-built military helicopter MI-8 for the rescue.

Looking to the Future

A few months down the line, the animals have adjusted remarkably well to the sanctuary and, more importantly, the females and bull seem to have connected from day one. 

The plan is now to enlarge the sanctuary from 400 to 2,700ha.  The effort now is to ensure the conservation and protection for the animals in Luando reserve, in particular supporting the law enforcement agents who bravely fight poachers on the ground. A team of 20 ‘shepherds’ have been hired, given basic training, uniforms and a monthly subsidy, to become the present day guardians of the giant sable. The team also assisted in the research and management of the species and became informal law enforcement agents.

Tusk Support

In order to tackle the hybridization crisis, the project, with support from Tusk Trust, is carrying out a tracking and breeding programme. Funding from Tusk has enabled the team to train in game immobilizing and capture operations. As part of this effort, pure sables have been translocated from Luando to enhance genetic diversity in the Cangalandala herd. The project continues to develop its controlled breeding programme and, despite complications and setbacks, several purebred sables have been produced. Thus, there is hope that the species will be reestablished.

Funding from Tusk has also enabled the project to purchase a Yamaha Rhino ATV. This vehicle is expected to be of major assistance during the darting operations, and will later be integrated into the park management equipment. The project hope to fly the ATV later in the year using an Angolan military chopper into Luando, to carry out a new expedition in this remote reserve. Hopefully this should allow the team to find a suitable giant sable herd from which a couple of bulls can be subsequently captured and translocated to Cangandala.

Notes from the field
Back in Cangandala, we have had some very good news. First by finding another newborn! The mother is one of the young females, and the father may have been Duarte, but requiring confirmation. And then surprisingly, Teresa once again, is showing clear signs of pregnancy. What a wonderful cow! She will produce her fourth calf in little more than 3 years, in what is a remarkable breeding performance. It will be interesting to determine the father, as it may have been any of the three bulls present. All in all, the programme has been a success. However, the situation is still extremely delicate – it only takes a couple of poaching incidents to put the herd beyond the point of recovery.
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