September 23, 2009

Breeding Program Begins For Giant Sable Antelope

Scientists have reported that the giant sable antelope, which is Angola's national symbol, has dropped in population to less than 100 creatures.

The five foot tall antelope is put on bank notes and company logos, but only a handful of people have actually seen the animal.

The giant sable antelope's numbers began to drop during the 27-year civil war, which ended in 2002.  Many of the surviving antelope stopped breeding or began cross breeding with roan antelopes, creating a new hybrid species.

However, the sable's future has a shed of hope after a breakthrough by scientists from Angola's Catholic University.  The scientists worked with shepherds to track down the antelope 100 years after the animal was first discovered.

The team finally captured 10 purebred giant sables for a breeding program after six years of monitoring stealth cameras and tracking dung samples.  They also tagged dozens of others to monitor their progress.

"It was an outstanding success, it exceeded all our expectations," expedition leader Pedro Vaz Pinto told AFP.

"The timing could not have been better because now is the traditional mating time for giant sable and we hope that by May or June next year, we will have at least seven calves."

"I don't think the giant sable will ever be non-endangered because it's only found in such small areas, but I hope we can upgrade it from its critically endangered status," he said.

Vaz Pinto and South African veterinary expert Peter Morkel traveled together in a helicopter scanning the Cangandala National Park in the northeastern province on Malanje.

Once the team located a herd, they hovered above the ground and fired a sedation dart at a hybrid female so they could fit a collar equipped with a Global Positioning System tracker on the animal.

"We used this hybrid as a Judas and she did a great job. In no time we were able to find nine pure females whom we tagged and took to a sanctuary," Vaz Pinto said.

The animals were blindfolded and transported hanging by ropes from the helicopter to a special 0.75 square mile breeding area in the park.

Some of the antelopes, which can weigh 550 pounds, were carried by a Russian M18 helicopter.

There were no males seen in Cangandala, and the females showed no evidence of having mated in at least seven years.

The scientists also searched the more remote Luanda Reserve, where they only found one positive DNA test on a dung sample.

Pedro has been very pleased with his encounters with the giant sables, despite the absence of the animals in the capital Luanda.

"Getting close to that first male was just incredible," he said. "But for me the most emotional part was when we put the male into the area with the females and stood back to watch them interact.

"We only took one because if we put two in there they would kill each other, but this one we chose is at his prime so we hope will be good for breeding."

And he joked: "The females immediately surrounded him and followed him everywhere, I think he will find it hard to have his own space over the next few weeks. It couldn't be more promising."

Richard Estes of Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology conducted research expeditions on the animals as early as 1968.  He returned to Angola this year to join Vaz Pinto's expedition.

Estes, who is 82-years-old, said he got his best view ever of the animals.

"We had such low expectations based on our earlier failures that it was just incredible," he said, speaking to AFP from his US home.

"I did not think we would find a single male, so to find as many as we did was amazing. This is an absolutely seminal step for the project."

Vaz Pinto and Estes both said they are thrilled with the project so far, but added that it will bring new challenges and require more money.

"This has been an amazing success but it also brings new responsibilities," Vaz Pinto said.

"The giant sable has a place in the heart of all Angolans," added Estes, "and we're looking at a renaissance of conservation conscience in Angola."

But he added: "The government has a moral and ethical responsibility to preserve its natural ecosystems and tackle the poaching and destruction of its national parks."

The study has been conducted in cooperation with Angola's environment ministry, and has been funded by oil companies like Songangol and ExxonMobile.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia