(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Rare sable antelope survives the war

[Angola] One of the photographs of the Giant Sable antelope taken by the Catholic University's Centre for Scientific Studies and Investigation, using remote cameras.

The rare giant sable antelope (Hippotragus niger varianien), unique to Angola and feared extinct after almost three decades of civil war, has survived.

A majestic but notoriously skittish beast, the 'Palanca Negra' is informally regarded as the country's national animal. The striking curved horns of the adult male, which can grow up to 165 cm long, appear on the logo of Angola's national airline and football team.

Many assumed that 27 years of fighting had wiped out the species because there had been no confirmed sighting since 1982. Even when peace reigned, poachers in search of commercial bushmeat or food for survival posed a serious threat.

Now a team from the Catholic University's Centre for Scientific Studies and Investigation, using remote cameras triggered by an infrared beam, have managed to catch a herd of giant sable on film in the Kangandala National Park in the northern province of Malanje.

"We had been seeing droppings and tracks of the giant sable for around two years, but that was not good enough; we needed proof. This is the first definitive sighting backed with concrete evidence in more than 20 years," said Pedro Vaz Pinto, who led the project.

The photographs show young bulls and several cows with the white facial markings that distinguish the giant sable from more common antelopes. The regal adult male is missing from the pictures, but with at least two of the cows pregnant, Vaz Pinto was confident that the herd was thriving.

"If they survived 30 years of war under those difficult circumstances, I'm sure they can continue to thrive," he said.

News of the giant sable's survival was a welcome diversion in Angola, where more than 150 people have died in recent months from a rare and incurable haemorrhagic fever.

Vaz Pinto warned that rediscovering the Palanca Negra also brought a host of new challenges, not least putting in place some form of protection for the animal, which could fall victim to agricultural encroachment, unscrupulous breeders or trophy-hunters, and poachers.

Not only local people in Malanje but Angolans across the country view the antelope as a mystical, almost sacred creature, and had helped to protect it from poachers.

"Most locals worship the giant sable - they would not have survived if that were not the case. People really protect it; it is a sacred animal," Vaz Pinto said.

There is hope that proper protection and a comprehensive survey to determine how many are left could lead to much-needed employment and income generation in an area desperate for development.

"This is a unique situation, in which you have something really special; where it doesn't matter how difficult it is to get here, people will come. Tourists will come running to Angola - this can really help local development," Vaz Pinto said.

Describing the giant sable's survival as "almost a miracle", the next step is to involve the Angolan government and international conservation organisations in developing a strategic plan to safeguard the animal, considered by many to be the most beautiful antelope in the world.

"The worst has passed for the giant sable," Vaz Pinto said. "Now we need to secure its future."

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