Joao Batista de Matos ANGOLA
04. Palanca Report 4th Trimester
The last quarter of 2015 was the wetter I have witnessed in the giant sable areas. The rains had started early and to be accurate the first storms were felt still during September, but they steadily increased in intensity throughout the following months and by December the rivers had overflowed in Cangandala, making it almost impossible to drive around. No doubt that this climatic extreme is associated to the El Niño phenomenon, but it is the first time we see such an obvious link in our regions. If this continues we may well be restrained from entering the areas for most of the rest of the rainy season in 2016. This weather might result in more vegetation growth, less or delayed fires in the dry season, more water availability and for longer, but may also a raise in insects, ticks and other disease vectors. Probably the net balance in 2016 will be positive for the sable, but only time will tell.
In Cangandala October started with alarming news: there had been a poaching incident with shooting involved, which resulted in one of the rangers being wounded. One of our best rangers, Domingos “Pau Queimado”, who had been a sable shepherd since day 1 and one of my most trusted men, was shot and penetrated by an AK-47 bullet that entered his left upper leg near his groin and left through his buttock. During a night patrol a team of three rangers was lured into an ambush by two poachers who had left a flashlight turned on and tied to a tree next to a camp fire while waiting behind bushes. When the rangers approached they opened fire without warning and Domingos was immediately hit. A short battle followed but the damage was done and the poachers eventually escaped while our man had to be rescued. Miraculously the bullet didn’t rip through any bone, organs or blood vessels, and after surgery in Malanje and a few days in Hospital, by the end of October Domingos was recovering reasonably well at home when we visited him. This is another sad reminder that even in Cangandala poaching still remains a very real threat, and unfortunately we could not yet capture the culprits. In fact, we very much suspect that they might be the same individuals responsible for trap camera destruction and placing of snares around the sanctuary. They seem to be getting more confident and bold, but it is the general feeling among the rangers that sooner or later they’ll be caught and they have a score to settle!
Other than this tragic event, things seem to be going well in the sanctuary where at least the sable are breeding well and look healthy. The harsh ground conditions and the lush vegetation didn’t allow us frequent and prolonged monitoring of the herds, and particularly because as result of the constant rains, huge numbers of tsetse flies were hammering the animals, leaving them restless and difficult to keep up with. Nevertheless it was interesting to note, and also confirm with the trap camera record, that several calves had been born relatively late in the season and even that some cows were still pregnant in December. This is a bit unusual as giant sable tend to display a well synchronized breeding with calving peak in June, but I suspect it might be related to accelerated breeding under optimal conditions. Mercury is still very much in charge in the sanctuary, and once again the trap camera did not record our dear and crazy “Ivan the Terrible”. His last appearance was in November 2014, and considering that one year has passed without sightings, I think it is fair to presume that he is probably dead – well, at least he is literally out of the picture! True, he has surprised us in the past, but I’m not keeping much hopes for him at the moment…
Overall in Cangandala and because of the weather and ground conditions, there were not many opportunities for mammal observations, which were compensated by an abundance of insects, birds and of course frogs! We did try to revisit our friend the hippo in October before the rivers had overflowed, but we weren’t lucky. The hippo “guardians” at the village tried their best, and it was quite amusing to watch a local kid who climbed a large tree near the lake and started yelling “hipopótamo… hipopótamo!!!” while promising us he would come in response to the calling. Eventually he didn’t show and we offered the village chief the two cabbages I had bought to feed the hippo.
In Luando there was lots of action in this quarter, not necessarily for the better reasons. 2015 was confirmed as a tough year in terms of poaching in the reserve when it ended yet with another crisis. It all started in the second half of September when one of the few animals still carrying an active GPS collar, a young female named Nadia, suddenly showed a sharp change in behaviour becoming suspiciously lethargic, even if not totally still. But from moving a daily average of 4-5kms sustained over two years, it suddenly dropped the daily log to a few hundred meters or less. This unusual pattern continued for several weeks as we entered October and we soon concluded that she must have got injured. Moreover, and tracing back her movements it was found that her behaviour had changed precisely when she crossed the drainage line where a foot trap had been recovered earlier in the dry season by the shepherds. Therefore we were probably dealing with another mutilated giant sable, tragically a very young female who had been collared in 2013 when two years old, and who should now be attending her second calf. It is another animal lost for breeding, so for the population it is as good as dead. Driving our Land Cruiser into that remote area in mid-October wouldn’t be no longer possible, so we devised an emergency plan to try to reach the female with aerial means.
As always, the National Air Force (FAN) has been reliable and enthusiastic in providing support, and this time was no exception. A military Alloutte chopper was deployed to Luando and our small team that included an experienced vet, military and ministry officials, were dropped deep in the bush close to the spot where Nadia had last transmitted. Following the VHF beacon we were able to find and track and get very close to the injured female, but she sensed us and kept moving away, always maintaining a couple hundred meters distance through the very thick vegetation. We could not get as much as a visual and after a few hours we had to abort the mission for operational reasons. The disturbance forced the female to move a couple kilometres that day, but in subsequent days she became very limited in movements once again, and after a couple weeks the signal abruptly ended, likely as the batteries went dead. We believe this female is gravely injured and another victim of increasing poaching in Luando… the second in collared animals alone in 2015!
Making the most of the presence of the military chopper we also tried to locate two known herds in Luando, even if the conditions weren’t ideal this time of the year. The best we could was locating a small subgroup, composed of one bull and four females, yet three of the five animals were previously marked. The male was Gabriel, a bull handled in 2009 and estimated to be now 13 years old; and two old cows Andreia and Laura had been marked in 2013 and estimated to be currently 16 and 15 years old respectively. The two remaining cows were “new” (not previously handled) animals, one being a very old female (likely 12+) and the other a relatively young cow (possibly 6-7 years old). We found just one subgroup, and the composition wasn’t brilliant… three out of five were known animals, and four out of five are extremely old animals! On top of it the bull didn’t seem healthy and there were no calves in sight. It may not mean much, but these observations left me a sour taste.
Ending on a positive note, the military decided to step up their support to the shepherds in Luando reserve, making a few ground joint anti-poaching operations with ministry rangers, and subsequently deploying a few weapons to the shepherds who from now on will be better equipped to tackle the poachers.