Written by Pedro Vaz Pinto
This past year finally allowed us to move forward with routine activities and reach a quasi-normality state after two years of facing all sorts of constraints derived from Covid-19 related restrictions. And on the ground, the year of 2022 did also feel different from the kick-off, if nothing else because in the two previous years, we faced a severe drought in the giant sable areas. But the seasonal rains which started in the last quarter of 2021 intensified significantly throughout the first quarter of 2022 and extended well into May.
It’s a pity that we don’t have a functional weather station, but I felt that this was probably one of the wettest rainy seasons for the giant sable areas in the last two decades. And this sort of change was much needed to fill all the water holes, replenish the water tables and promote vegetation growth.
Because of our movement restrictions during the previous couple of years, we were still unsure of how much the drought could have affected breeding and recruitment in sable herds, but at least now and, dependent on the climate, recovery was on the cards.
The major activity scheduled for 2022 was, without a doubt, an aerial survey and collaring exercise in Luando Reserve. The need to conduct a survey and obtain updated numbers had gained importance and urgency as we had recently lost some grip on the Luando population and were unsure of what was going on. There had been confounding factors at play.
On one hand, the Covid years had caused much economic turmoil which was felt locally and led to a noticeable increase in poaching pressure. This fact, added to two consecutive and severe droughts, was a major reason for concern and could potentially be causing a significant decrease in sable numbers.
On the other hand, we seemed to be having some success in tackling poaching, at least apparent from the number of poachers detained or weapons apprehended.
Also, the fact that we had been experiencing a modest but consistent annual demographic increase of sable for the past 10 years, gave us reason for some optimism, guessing that the trend would not be easily reversed. Maybe the population had remained at least stable but there was a lot of uncertainty, and just when the Covid-related restrictions were being lifted, the heavy rains didn’t allow us to intensify movements on the ground, so we had to wait for proper surveys.
We faced quite a few limitations when choosing the dates for the aerial campaign in Luando. Ideally, we would prefer to do the aerial surveys during the second half of July and into early August. Based on previous experiences, this seems to be the time when a larger percentage of the local miombo trees have temporarily lost leaf cover and most of the grass has burned. In other words, when the vegetation cover is less and the visibility is maximized.
This is a general rule but the climatic factors of previous months are going to affect the conditions and timings. A lot of rain in the wet season will promote a lot of grass growth, which may lead to very intense fires in the dry season, but only after the grass has fully dried out. Also, a rainy season that ends early will anticipate the burnings in the dry season, while one that extends for longer than usual has the opposite effect. With this in mind, August would probably be the best time to conduct an aerial survey in Luando in 2022.
However, we were forced to schedule the operation for a narrow window in early July, as Angola was having general elections in August and it
would be complicated and unadvisable to schedule such a complex exercise around those dates. In conclusion, we would be doing the survey several weeks too early, which we feared could make it harder to spot, count, and dart the animals, but of course, it would be much worse to cancel or postpone the work.
For the 2022 aerial operation, we counted once again on Charlotte Meioux to carry out most of the veterinary work, under the supervision of Pete Morkel, who, apart from his legendary knowledge and experience, has also been a friend, playing a critical role in supporting our conservation efforts over the past 15 years.
The other critical component was the helicopter and, as the machines used in previous exercises were not available, we had to find an alternative, and a collaboration with the African Wildlife Conservation Trust facilitated the use of a Eurocopter squirrel B3 chopper operated by the very experienced Namibian pilot Carl-Heinz Moeller. The core team was set!
As for the ground team, this year it was larger than in previous exercises and included young Angolan professionals and researchers, such as Timóteo Júlio from Kissama Foundation, Juliano from INBC, and Marcus Frazão, who is now enrolled on a PhD project in Biology focused on the feeding ecology of giant sable. Among other participants, we had the exceptional sculptor artist Murray Grant, who was working on and will kindly donate a giant sable bronze piece to the project; Carlos Sousa, representing the donor NGO Viridia; plus several other good and very special friends like Filippo Nardin and Genl Hanga.
The very important logistics were secured by our good friends from Quessua, Ruth and David Schaad, and Marco. As always, the operation was done in close coordination with government authorities and we received crucial logistic support from the Angolan Air Force.
The 2022 July operation had two main objectives. The first, as already discussed, was obtaining a massively important updated census, and the other was darting around 20 animals and deploying 18 GPS Iridium collars. As we assumed the existence of five giant sable herds in Luando, based on previous results, we decided as our goal to deploy at least two collars on females in each herd, plus five collars on bulls. The remaining three collars would give us margin to use on unexpected animals or we could try them on roan antelopes as it would be interesting and useful to understand how the two species segregate in the reserve.
The preparations for this operation took quite a long time to arrange and fine-tune and were not devoid of stress. But over the years, we have learned how to proceed and benefit from collaborative efforts with various government institutions, the Angolan military, and private companies operating in Angola.
We were a bit concerned about using a new helicopter, which had the advantage of being more powerful than other models we used in the past, but with the drawback of consuming a lot more fuel and being less maneuverable, and adding to the unfavorable conditions this year – low visibility with long grass and thick canopy cover. We feared that the sables could be hard to locate, difficult to count, and problematic to chase and dart from the chopper.
Nevertheless, the operation went very well and with good rhythm, and we were able to achieve most objectives sooner than expected. Fortunately, in each of the five herds, there was at least one active collar transmitting a VHF signal, which, adding to our solid knowledge of how the various herds use the landscape based on many years of remote tracking, made it relatively easy to locate every group.
The darting component also turned out to be surprisingly smooth and for a reason we had not anticipated: the long dry grass, especially on the extensive anharas, exerted a lot of friction and drag on the running antelopes, forcing them to slow down the pace and leaving them less prone to sudden change of direction when being chased at full speed. As result, the use of a more powerful chopper, even if a less agile machine, turned out really well, and overall this was surely the most efficient darting operation we conducted in Luando to date.
Following our initial plans, we collared two females on each of the five giant sable herds of estimated ages spamming from 3 to 14 years old, including one recapture (Vian, replacing the GPS collar which had been deployed in 2019). We collared five solitary, mature but relatively young bulls, of 6 to 9 years of age, the older, Mario, also being a collar replacement.
We then proceeded to collar two cows and one bull roan antelope. Three other animals were darted and marked but not collared, one roan cow and one sable bull for being too old, and one roan bull because it was injured.
If finding the groups and darting sables proved to be quite straightforward, we did struggle to obtain an updated census of the population. Probably because it was too early in the season. The herds were often dispersed and they weren’t forming as large and compact groups as they tend to be later as the dry season progresses.
On top of this, the long dry grass made it very difficult to photograph the groups and count the animals, especially calves and young sables. Interestingly, we also struggled to find solitary giant sable bulls, possibly because dominant bulls are very confident and can hold their ground arrogantly when the helicopter approaches and become hardly visible if they are in the woodland under the canopy. This situation will change later in the season when most of the grass burns and the trees lose their leaves, making the bulls stand out in the barren landscape.
At the end of the aerial surveys, we lacked enough data to assess the trends and certainly could not provide updated numbers. Some herds seemed to be doing ok while others appeared to be in bad condition, but most groups were scattered and this update was inconclusive. Maybe there were some missing subunits, and a good number of females isolated for calving etc. In order to count them, we would need to return later and try to drone the herds.
Evidence of poaching
As always, we are sad to report on evidence of poaching picked up during the campaign. Three of the darted animals, all bulls, had been victims of snares.
The worst case was our recaptured sable bull, nine-year-old Mario, who had barely survived a recent encounter with a snare trap. His left foreleg was in shocking condition, with the snare cable now embedded into the hand tissue and having exposed flesh replacing the hooves. We darted Mario and treated his injury and replaced his GPS collar. We expect Mario’s wounds to heal and he should make a relatively good recovery, but it is doubtful if he may ever be dominant. Most likely he will never stand a chance to compete with other bulls and breed.
Then, and much to our surprise, during this operation, we also came across evidence of neck snares. One darted roan bull was injured and carried a wire cable around his neck. As result, he had an infected wound on his upper neck near the back of the skull. But it was recent and we were able to treat it, so we expect the poor animal to make a full recovery soon. We also darted another sable bull, with an obvious scar around his neck, indicating that he had survived a neck snare after a long-suffering period. These types of snares are designed to catch large animals with the snare fitting around the neck rather than catching them on the feet. Head snares are commonly used in southern Angola but are only seldom recorded in the giant sable areas, and it was the first time we came across them in Luando.
In addition, we also came across various lines of foot snares surrounding recently burnt patches of grass. Worryingly, we realized that some of the new traps were more sophisticated, integrating simple but ingenious mechanisms and combining different materials to tackle very large animals and minimize the chances of them getting away. It seems clear that local poachers are stepping up their techniques and methodologies, almost surely getting more efficient, and specifically targeting the larger antelopes in the area, which are roan and giant sable. This was a most worrying find, likely another indirect result of the previous two chaotic years, and suggesting the possibility that some of the poachers might be newcomers from other regions.
Send out the drones
Having failed to complete a good aerial census early in the dry season, we planned a different approach for later in the year.
At end of September and into early October, timed to coincide with the mating season, we used the daily tracking data retrieved from the collars to approach all the herds and film them from above with drones. The various herds are located in remote areas with poor ground access and the seasonal rains also started earlier than expected, so we had to overcome several logistical challenges.
For this 10-day long exercise, we took the two battered Land Cruisers, a couple of quad bikes (one broke down along the way and had to be towed back on return), and a couple bikes, and camped along the way. We kept satellite communications with the office, who provided updated coordinates for the location of a collared female.
Typically, we would progress in convoy cross-country until getting reasonably close to the geo-location transmitted by satellite, making the first stop somewhere between two to ten kilometers away, depending on the terrain. From there we proceeded with bikes, preferably upwind, started to triangulate the radio-telemetry as we got closer, and updated often with satellite data. Then, at 1.2 to 1.5 km we would park the bikes and continue on foot. Finally, we would make the last stop at some 600 to 900 meters before the herd, and launch the drone.
Finding the herds by drone can often be quite difficult, especially through the miombo canopy. It took us a couple days and several trials and errors, but eventually, we fine-tuned the methodology, defining the optimum flight height and camera angle. We had to return to a couple herds twice, but eventually, we were able to film all but one collared female and obtained some really spectacular footage. More importantly, we obtained the much-needed population demographic data.
We found that three of the five herds had split into two subgroups, and for two of them, we failed to record the second unit. It’s still early days to determine if these subgroups will re-join or indicate the genesis of new herds. Even though we did not necessarily film all the sable, based on complementary data obtained in July and previous years, we can infer total numbers with some confidence.
Overall, the population numbers obtained are disappointing and quite concerning, pointing to around 155 sables in Luando, and therefore suggesting an estimated decrease of around 10% over three years, from the 170 estimated in 2019. Such a result is alarming and inverted a positive trend that lasted for over a decade, but I believe the causes can be easily dissected.
Two years of global madness have severely disrupted our monitoring activities and made law enforcement much harder too, while at the same time, leading to an economic crisis, local unemployment, and the unavoidable increased poaching pressure. And coinciding with this, we faced two consecutive years of drought which must have affected sable breeding and calf survival. I guess this creates a perfect storm.
Even though we lost about 10% of the population over three years, the loss was not homogenous, and not all herds performed badly. It turns out that the herd located closest to the ranger post actually increased by about 50% over this period, while two other herds located within about 20km of the ranger post managed to remain approximately stable. The bigger losses were suffered by the more distantly-located herds, losing between 25% and 45% of their numbers.
The fact that the distance to the ranger post seems to be such a good predictor of herd performance clearly shows that poaching is the main factor driving sable demography, and also strongly suggests that the rangers have been quite efficient within a relatively short distance from the post, but their influence dropped significantly further away. The poachers are likely aware of these shortcomings, and it seems clear that we need to address this in the near future. A good place to start might be building a second ranger post in another remote and strategic area, and this will be a priority task that we will try to accomplish in 2023.
Unfortunately, we had major issues with GPS collars, with a good number failing within the first six months. For reasons which are not entirely clear yet, the collars deployed in bulls seem to be more prone to catastrophic failure. By December 2022 we had lost half of the six such collars (two on sable bulls and one on the roan bull) and a fourth collar is only just lingering and very occasionally communicating.
So, we’re now down to two perfectly operating bull collars – the ones deployed on bulls that had been victims of snares. It appears collars last longer on physically handicapped males which could be something to do with their behavior and/or collar fitting.
This issue is something we are looking into and discussing among the team and the collar manufacturers, and hopefully, we will sort it out for future campaigns. We also lost three female collars due to malfunction (a fourth collar was lost for entirely different reasons which will be explained further down), but at least we still keep track of the five herds, including one still split into two subgroups.
Skilled poachers strike Luando
As mentioned earlier, we also lost a fourth female collar, but this one under the most nefarious circumstances. Julia, until then a young and healthy seven-year-old female was the victim of poaching. By interpreting the remote data retrieved from the satellite collars, we were able to almost see the drama unfolding early in September.
Julia moved into the Luando floodplain with the rest of her herd to drink, and soon after the other collared female returned to the woodland while Julia remained stationary. The following day the collar was not transmitting. The pattern was highly suspicious and we immediately tried to send the alarm to the rangers.
Unfortunately, we faced a few communication issues and, due to the remoteness of the area, it took another 48 hours for the ranger team to arrive on the site to check. By then it was already too late! Julia had been killed and the poachers had already left the scene.
When poachers kill a large antelope such as a sable, they face two immediate problems:
1) They know they have killed a highly valuable and protected species, so they need to be extra careful; and
2) to be able to process such a large animal they have two options. Either they move away from the reserve quickly while taking whole fresh carcass – which is quite risky as they can be seen by villagers so this is only possible if they are relatively close to the border; or they smoke the meat on a nearby camp, an activity that may take them at least a few days during which they will also be vulnerable. In the past, we have often come across the “smoking” camps, and if this was the case with Julia, we would have arrived in time to intercept the poachers.
Unfortunately, Julia had been poached right next to the Luando river, making it relatively easy for the poachers to get away by crossing the river into safety within a few hours. These poachers were actually quite efficient and made an almost clean job at hiding all the evidence of what had happened – we would never have figured it out if it wasn’t for the remote tracking.
The first thing they did was destroy the collar, which was enough for us to realize that something bad had happened, but limited our understanding of the scene and suggests that the poachers knew, or suspected, that the collar could be compromising for them. Then, they tried very hard to clean up the scene, covering all signs of traps and removing any evidence that could suggest a sable had died there.
When the ranger team first arrived at the crime scene, they found nothing suspicious and had to double re-check the GPS data and conducted a more thorough investigation only upon our insistence. Eventually, they did find the half-hidden holes where eight gin traps had been strategically placed around the water hole.
Furthermore, the rangers were curious to note that more bees were swarming on a certain nearby patch of dry grass rather than at the water, and under that grass, they found a pool of blood, a sable horn tip, and some tiny bone fragments.
This was the final piece of evidence and revealed the likely spot where the poor female went while struggling, breaking the horn tip, and the bone fragments must have been splinters from a fractured leg. Nothing else was found, and the collar is still missing, it must have been destroyed and either thrown into the river or buried.
The incident is still under investigation, but realistically we may never find the culprits. This, of course, illustrates what the most direct threat to the survival of giant sable is. We collared 10 females and lost a young one to poachers within six months. It’s not a good sign. Throughout the year, the rangers also detained several poachers and confiscated a good number of snares and weapons. Let’s hope 2023 will unfold more in our favor in Luando.
Cangandala National Park
Contrasting to the situation in Luando Reserve, the giant sable numbers have kept increasing steadily in Cangandala National Park.
The giant sable herd in the sanctuary in Cangandala is doing very well, with the animals habituated to our presence, and based on our routine monitoring, we estimate the numbers to be around 115 sables. These numbers suggest that Cangandala is likely maintaining an annual increase of around 10 to 12%.
Overall, the growth in Cangandala compensates for the loss recorded in Luando, although not by much. But at least we can state the global giant sable population is still increasing, even though Cangangala currently accounts for about 42% of the total, which is clearly unbalanced if one considers that in this park they were virtually extinct 15 years ago and that Luando is 15 times larger in land surface area.
Breeding and calving seem to be progressing exceptionally well in Cangandala, but the social dynamics are now quite complex and difficult to keep track of. The older bull, good old Mercury, the first calf to be born in the sanctuary in 2010, was spotted and photographed a couple of times this year. Mercury was healthy and relaxed, but his collar is no longer active and he seems to have chosen a life of solitude and is apparently avoiding or ignoring the female herds and all the bull frenzy that comes with it. It’s the same with other older bulls, such as the exceptional Eolo, which I encountered only once by chance.
On the other hand, quite a lot of younger bulls now seem to evolve around the herds, and it was quite interesting to observe their behavior during the breeding season, in September and October, when at certain times, more than 20 bulls would surround the females. Hierarchies were set and occasionally challenged, but nothing serious, and it is quite amazing to see how so many testosterone-pumped bulls orbit around several receptive females without fighting.
Despite the consistent growth in Cangandala, remarkably we still have some poaching incidents happening inside the sanctuary, as several sables show snare injuries. This is shocking and a major concern, which we are trying to tackle at the moment.
All considered, 2022 was another rollercoaster year; we had some good wins and some frustrating losses, but overall I feel we are making progress and I expect 2023 will be a better one!