For World Environment Day 2016, three endangered Giant Sable Antelopes were named and fitted with GPS collars to help conservationists in Angola to protect the last surviving herds from poaching and habitat loss.
A year on, one of the three – a magnificent territorial bull called Avante – is dead, perhaps shot by poachers harvesting bushmeat. But the others continue to provide a steady stream of data that will help us learn about this little-known species and save it from extinction.
Avante was among the three most popular names proposed and voted on by hundreds of people for last year’s World Environment Day, which was hosted by Angola. The other winning names - Milele and Samrakshaa – went to female antelopes.
Both females calved last year, and in September conservationists using a drone shot rare footage of several dark, long-horned bulls courting Samrakshaa and other females in the presence of their calves (shown in the photo above).
The photos were taken just as data from Avante’s collar showed his movements accelerating as the antelopes, which survived decades of civil war in the remote wooded hills of central Angola, entered the breeding season.
“Bulls usually go crazy during September and October, when they can easily double or triple their movement mileage. In November and December they tend to be exhausted,” said Pedro Vaz Pinto, who leads the project to conserve the antelopes.
But Avante slowed down too soon.
“Between 2 October and 20 October he had three or four periods in which he moved very little for two or three days, which we thought was a bit unusual,” Vaz Pinto told UN Environment. “On the 27th, between 1pm and 5pm he made a sudden 4 km eastward movement, and became stationary forever.
“It is still difficult to say for sure what caused his death, but I am convinced it was a poaching incident. Most likely he was shot and wounded and then died.”
In all, Vaz Pinto’s team collared 15 Giant Sables after tranquilizing them with darts shot from a helicopter during an aerial census of the Luando Strict Nature Reserve last August. The census established that there are about 150 antelopes in five different herds, including about 30 solitary and territorial bulls.
The GPS data helps biologists understand how their movements change seasonally and in response to water availability, climate change, deforestation, age and territoriality.
Vaz Pinto says the monitoring will also help identify abnormal situations caused by direct human interference, particularly poaching, and make it easier for nearby rangers to respond.The conservationists have already identified important water holes that the animals used at the end of the dry season in August and September, just before Avante’s death.
“This will allow us to ensure maximum security around those locations in the next dry season so the herds can avoid the traps that inflict so much death and pain,” Vaz Pinto said.