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Angola's antelopes struggle in post-war environment

As the national symbol of Angola, the giant sable antelope appears on everything from stamps to passports. But one place it is not found in abundance is in its natural forest habitat.

There are only 100 giant sable antelopes left in the wild in Angola. That's a very low number by any standard - but even more so in light of their almost mythical importance in the country.

Originally discovered in the early 1900s and prized for their beauty and long, curved horns, killing them is something of a cultural taboo. But that doesn't mean this doesn't happen. Even the 1920s, when there were some 2,000 animals in the country, conservationists started a movement to protect them from hunting.

Such efforts continued throughout the 20th century, but were hard to maintain during the country's nearly three-decade-long civil war. People needed to eat, and took what they could in the name of survival.

In 2002, when the war ended, the antelope's path to extinction solidified. As people began to resettle in areas where the giant sable roamed free, the animals again became fair game for the hungry population. This time, they were almost entirely annihilated.

"I suspect the three or four years after the war were probably the worst for the giant sable," said Pedro Vaz Pinto, a conservation biologist with the #link:http://angolafieldgroup.com/tag/pedro-vaz-pinto/:Angola Field Group#. "The priority was not the environment, understandably."

Breeding problems

It was during that period that Vaz Pinto began the challenging task of tracking the antelope many believed no longer existed. He set up cameras in #link:http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sitefactsheet.php?id=6005:Cangandala National Park# in the north of the country, and waited for more than a year for a sign of their continued existence.

Photo: A giant sable antelope running (Source: Pedro Vaz Pinto)

Angola's giant sable antelope is on the brink of extinction but conservationists are making last ditch efforts to save it

In 2005, he was finally able to publish first photos proving that the animal had survived. But it wasn't all good news: All nine of the giant sables found in the park were female.

"They were hybridizing with other species, and making bizarre hybrids out of desperation," Vaz Pinto said. "It was extinction taking place."

In 2009, he began a captive breeding program to mate those nine females with a few bulls from the Luando Strict Nature Reserve, which stretches across much of eastern Angola. Since then, his breeding program has increased the population of giant sables to 100. Many of the animals are tagged with GPS or radio collars, so researchers can learn more about their daily habits.

The program is supported by the Kissama Foundation, a conservation organization funded by revenue from Angola's state-owned oil company, Sonangol. Since Vaz Pinto has been working with Kissama, he and foundation members have been able to train local employees to serve as shepherds in giant sable habitats. Their project in the Cangandala National Park has proven so successful that Angola's environment ministry has taken over the training, promoting the shepherds to park rangers.

However promising, these measures have only gone so far in protecting the giant sable, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) still categorizes as critically endangered.

Bushmeat to blame

This status is primarily due to the reemergence of the bushmeat trade, which Vaz Pinto describes as a commercial, well-organized and highly illegal industry.

"We're not talking about poor people or starving children, rather guys with motorcycles and military weapons who go out hunting for a few weeks," he said, adding that they're not targeting the sable in particular. "It's just collateral damage."

The GPS and radio collars worn by the giant sables have helped rangers identify which watering holes the animals use - which gives them the chance to remove any traps set by poachers. About one in five of the animals tagged by Vaz Pinto and his team have serious injuries as a result of these traps. And the problem shows no signs of abating.

"Bushmeat is a really massive threat across western and central Africa," said Dan Bucknell, executive director of the conservation organization #link:http://www.tusk.org/index/us:Tusk#.

The Congo Basin is an epicenter of this problem, where nearly 6 million tons of bushmeat are #link:http://www.cifor.org/library/3580/empty-forests-empty-stomachs-bushmeat-and-livelihoods-in-the-congo-and-amazon-basins/:extracted each year#. Bucknell says demand is greatest in big cities, among people who have lost ties to their rural past, and desire to consume bushmeat as a way of getting back to their roots. "It's a crisis that's likely to keep on growing, as long as forests open up and are more accessible to hunters and traders."

Photo: Group of conservationists with an antelope (Source: Eddy Brock)

Cameras, GPS and radio collars help conservationists track giants sables in Cangandala National Park

Forests becoming more accessible to humans may in fact turn out to be the biggest future threat to the giant sable. In the past five years, there has been speculation about the start of state-controlled alluvial diamond mining in the Luando Reserve. While that is an environmentally less intensive form of extraction, it would also, Vaz Pinto concludes, lead to miners relying on local vendors for food - some of whom would likely be selling meat fresh from the forest.

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