The last four months of the year had been greatly anticipated, as the giant sable breeding program in Cangandala NP was entering a new and more exciting stage. After all, and as result of the very successful capture operation that took place in July and August, we had now two breeding groups in two fenced camps. In spite of our high expectations, I’m afraid there is never a smooth ride in Cangandala, and over and over again we are forced to react to unexpected events and change route. At best, these last few months had been sour-sweet.
The main culprit for our most recent headaches was Ivan “the Terrible”, that most impressive and aggressive giant sable bull that we had recently brought in from Luando Reserve. He had been released into the 2,800 ha camp with six young females and a 2-year old young male (“Miguel”), and within the first week they had all found each other. The hybrid herd was also inside this camp but both groups didn’t mix. The two males were seen together a few times, but on the second week Ivan’s irascible nature became all too obvious when he chased down Miguel and killed him mercilessly. The young male was stabbed several times and at least twice in the chest… it must have been a very quick and brutal clash. This of course was a huge disappointment for everyone, as we had assumed the young male was still too young to be seen as a threat. Territorial bulls are generally intolerant creatures, often fighting contenders, and deaths derived from fights are not uncommon. Maybe Miguel would have been tolerated by a different bull… but not by Ivan the Terrible. Anyway, and as cruel as this may sound, this young male was the least important animal and he had been brought strictly as a plan B, a replacement male in case something happened to the older and dominant bulls. Losing Miguel isn’t a crisis for the breeding program.
But Ivan wasn’t yet happy, and a couple weeks down the road he broke through the fence by brute force, opening a huge hole and escaping the sanctuary on its southernmost boundary. He took with him two of the yearling females, leaving behind a third yearling and the three 2-year old females. Why only two of the six females got away remains a mystery, although one is tempted to speculate that maybe the other didn’t approve Ivan’s manners. The escape of these animals was of course seen as a major blow to our plans. Especially as we immediately assumed that Ivan would either start migrating south in a suicidal attempt to find his old territory in Luando, or would at the very least go astray in unpredictable manner and cross the Park boundaries once and for all with the two young girls. But just as we had taken these grim scenarios for granted, that’s when Ivan started to surprise us on a positive way! It turns out that once free from captivity’s ball and chain, Ivan decided to calm down and established his new and wild territory right outside the fence. Over the last few months we have radio-tracked Ivan and he really appears settled and always within a few kms from the fence line. Unfortunately his elusive nature has kept him out of sight, and we also decided it would be wise not to push him anyway.
Although we couldn’t yet confirm, it seems Ivan has kept the two young girls with him. Just as importantly, it turns out that the area where he has based his new territory is precisely the area roamed by “Joana”, the old pure female that escaped under the fence in 2009, and since then she had been on her own. I can’t help thinking that it is more than a coincidence that Ivan settled nearby Joana… surely they must have found each other by now… and maybe her presence is what drove Ivan through the fence?! Now, that would be quite a twist in this story. If Joana manages to keep Ivan and his girls around, constituting a new breeding herd, even outside the relative safety of the sanctuary, it might even turn out as a better and more natural scenario!
Given what happened with Ivan, we decided to immediately open the smaller enclosure of 400ha, ending up now with one single large 3,200 fenced camp. It wouldn’t make sense to keep the first breeding group contained longer in a sub-optimal area, now that the second bull was out of the picture. Moreover, we had now a group of four young pure females desperately needing the company of a bull, preferably a gentle giant such as our older bull “Duarte”.
In the meantime, the castrated hybrid bull “Scar” had joined and been accepted into the pure herd. Not quite as “one of the girls”, but not quite as a stallion either… well, I’m not sure what one should expect from a castrated hybrid, but this one surely looks and behaves funny! He is now a very nervous and hesitant individual (I was tempted to say that he looks a bit hysterical at times…), but he seems quite harmless.
Sometimes he is seen running on a brief chase after a pregnant or low ranking female, as if trying to establish his position within the female hierarchy. But more often than not he follows Duarte around, and enjoys climbing up the termite mounds as if to watch guard as the herd peacefully grazes. It’s as if Scar wants to be Duarte’s personal assistant, but almost always he is completely ignored by the old bull, who certainly doesn’t see the castrated hybrid as a challenge worth wasting energy. On rare occasions we saw Scar gayly approaching the bull a bit too much, but when this happened the later, in his typical nonchalant manner, simply lowered his head showing the tip of his long horns and Scar immediately jumped and run off to a safer distance.
As expected, once the separating fence was removed, it didn’t take long for the breeding herd to take advantage of the larger camp, and the hybrid group was quickly absorbed. After all, the area was well known for the old females, and the hybrids were their own offspring. It wasn’t also a surprise realizing that the four young females from Luando weren’t accepted into the herd. Sable live in a matriarchal system, in which the herd is led by top ranking, usually older females, and “alien” females are seldom accepted into the group. Ironically, our old females feel more comfortable with a bunch of freak hybrid ugly beasts, than with these new beautiful looking young girls from Luando! I guess it doesn’t matter what people say, they will always be beautiful for their mothers!
Anyway, the fact that they didn’t all join in one single large group is not a problem, and may even be irrelevant. All we need is the bull, once and a while, to spend some “quality” time with the girls. And sure enough, Duarte was already seen leaving the larger herd and joining the four females.
As for the breeding performance of the original herd, it is still well below par and we have no new calves confirmed to announce. On the other hand and as we enter now the third year, a clear pattern is emerging. Out of the seven females, only three seems to be breeding. The star of the show has been the oldest (and also dominant) female “Neusa”, who following the natural giant sable breeding cycle has calved successfully in May (2010 and 1011, unfortunately for us males in both occasions). And sure enough, in last September/October she was again in oestrus and we could witness Duarte excitedly smelling her urine and even making a feeble attempt to mount. We only hope the breeding effort won’t be too much on her, as she was now a bit weak and limping.
Then we have two females “Luisa” and “Teresa” who also are breeding, but on a 6-month off-cycle. They have entered oestrus late and showed off-season pregnancies. This is not too much of a crisis, as long as they keep reproducing. In fact, both females were heavily pregnant in 2010, although only Luisa produced a female calf. We assume Teresa’s calf must have died soon after been born. In 2011 they were again both obviously pregnant in October and November, and in December Luisa had left the herd (assumed calving), while Teresa was showing a nervous behavior and had a remarkably swollen udder so we expect her to have also calved by now.
All this would be fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that the remaining four females haven’t yet showed any clear sign of pregnancy, although they look well fed, healthy and relaxed. So, for the second year in a row, we have one well timed breeding female, two other females breeding off-cycle and four females not breeding at all! This can’t be a coincidence and I think it is clear now that we can’t also blame the bull or any other exogenous factors. Under normal circumstances, giant sable breeding should be pretty well synchronized (most females calving at the same time, around May/ June), and the fertility rate should be at least around 90%, so something has gone very wrong.We believe the explanation for this abnormal breeding rate, is almost surely a result of a decade of breeding hybrids or non-breeding at all. Not one of the females have had a normal and healthy “breeding history”, and the consequences become now painfully obvious, with more than half of the females not even going into oestrus cycle.
If our suspicions are confirmed this needs to be tackled in 2012, possibly darting and administering hormones and thus hoping to induce oestrus on those four problematic females.
Finally I must refer that the year of 2011 ended in the most tragic fashion, when unexpectedly our dear friend Kalunga Lima, passed away. He was a remarkable filmmaker and photographer who had just about finalized his documentary on the giant sable project. We had made several trips together in the bush, both in Cangandala and Luando, and I feel privileged to have shared those moments with Kalunga. If I lost a great and true friend, the giant sable lost one of its most enthusiastic and relevant supporters. And the country lost simply the best professional in his field, one that cannot be replaced in the foreseeable future.