Travel to the African nation of Angola and you'll see representations of the giant sable antelope (Hippotragus niger variani) everywhere you turn: on the country's currency, on stamps, and on company logos. But unless you look really hard, you probably won't find any actual giant sable antelopes. Fewer than 100 of the iconic animals are believed to exist following the devastation of Angola's bloody 27-year civil war. Now a new project hopes to reverse that and create some hope for this critically endangered species.
It took six years of careful monitoring and tracking, but scientists at the Catholic University of Angola in Luanda have finally managed to capture 10 purebred antelopes, which will now form the core of a breeding program to save the species from extinction.
Finding purebred sable antelopes wasn't easy. The species became so rare that it started mating with roan antelopes (Hippotragus equinus), creating hybrid beasts that are genetically useless for conservation purposes.
But one of the hybrids did prove otherwise useful. By monitoring a GPS-tagged female hybrid, scientists were able to track her and locate nine nearby female purebreds.
Finding a male took longer—in fact, it took so long that the team had given up hope of ever locating one. But two males finally turned up in a remote area of the country. They captured one of the males, and now all 10 antelopes are gathered in a single enclosure, just in time for breeding season. The team hopes to have a half dozen calves by next spring.
"I don't think the giant sable will ever be nonendangered, because it's only found in such small areas, but I hope we can upgrade it from its critically endangered status," project leader Pedro Vaz Pinto told the Agency France-Presse news service.
The project still has a long way to go. It needs more funding, and the team leaders say the Angolan government needs to step up its conservation efforts, but this is a good start for a species that would not have had a chance without this intervention.
Image: Sable antelope (a related species to the giant sable antelope), via Wikipedia