Hunting for Phantoms in Angola

Africa | | August 22, 2010 at 12:05 am


Perhaps it is the layer of days-old grime on the Land Cruiser’s window, but I could swear I saw a face peeking out at me through the foliage.

And there it is again.

My last therapist certified me as sane, so I’m pretty damn sure it’s not my mind playing tricks on me this time. I asked the driver to stop in as calm and as rational a voice as I could. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a few fries short of a happy meal. And then again, the face poked out from the leafy beyond, the face of a Forest Phantom. I tried to snap a photo of it as quickly as I could but he (she?) was a slippery one. I see where they get the name from now, and I could consider myself lucky. Few others had ever seen one before

Angolan Giant Sable

From what I could tell, his skin had a velvety texture to it. Perhaps suede? They certainly knew how to be stylish, those Forest Phantoms, but not at the cost of being utilitarian. Their ears, in the brief glimpse I got of them, were almost certainly meant to swat at intrusive tsetse flies and don’t even get me started on the horns. They’re the reason people hunt them down in the first place and I can see why; the horns are vast enough to be coveted as trophies by unscrupulous hunters. I managed to notice that they reached for the skies as if to grab at the heavens before arching backwards. Speaking of arching backwards, it seems my little furry friend is camera shy, for he scampered off within a few seconds of me stumbling upon him, and I have no photos to show for it save the vicarious descriptions of the raconteur.

“They’re the stuff of legends and fables, almost like living specters”, said the conservationist with me. Pedro Vaz Pinto was the first to offer up evidence of their existence in 2005, the first to prove that the myth was very real and very alive here in Angola. By all accounts, they should be extinct. But in its survival is a tale to tell of having survived generations of hunters and collectors gaze. Around it, civil war has come and gone but hunters remain, these ones with more humble intentions. In a land where food is a rarity, people do what they can to get by and so it is with the elusive Phantom. Arguments abound that early hunters were thrown off the track by local tribes in order to protect the creature.

 Giant Sable

I don’t think it needs much protecting in recent times though. Despite its rarity, the Giant Sable is revered across all of Angola and is a national icon. It’s why it survived despite poverty, hunger and poaching that thinned the numbers of several species. Once the unrest was over, it took 3 years for the Giant Sable to be found again. I guesstimated that it would take me as long to find it, or maybe slightly shorter than that. The landscape changed outside my window, but the hunt to re-find the elusive creature went on. Pedro tells me of how there are a hundred, perhaps even fifty of what once roamed in thousands and time was now a luxury for conservationists.

A bold effort is underfoot to save the magnificent creature, but your guess is as good as mine as to whether that will be enough to save them. The aim is to create a breeding pool of Giant Sable’s that will swell the numbers and Vaz Pinto accompanied by his peers have been busy ferrying females to an enclosure within Candangala National Park. But bulls were harder to find within the reserve, and so the net was cast wider to include Luando Integral Reserve. More success was to be had as eight bulls were flown over (first class with champagne and everything, I assume) and one was even escorted by the Angolan Air Force to Candangala. No bull.

Finally, after what was close to 12 hours of the tapestry of terrain rolling by, we were at the doors of Candangala and Russian T55 tanks remained as steely reminders of the war not long past. Candangala was uniquely magnificent with an ecosystem sprawled across the sub-tropical to the more coastal regions of Mozambique. As is the norm, shepherds traveled with us with the intent of not merely accompanying us but also keeping an eye out for poachers. The fact that they are no ordinary shepherds is proven by the AK-47 cradled in their arms lovingly as one would rock a child. Markhousq is ex-militia, and he is trying to make a clean break of it and reintegrate into society. Were it not for this piece of news filtering to me, he would not seem very dangerous. But when he smiled and talked about the Sable, genuine warmth was exuded.

 Giant Sable

“I’m very happy the palanca survived, it is our pride and very special to us. And now, it is my means of livelihood. I am its sworn protector.”

We neared the locked enclosure in the Land Cruiser as silently as we could, Pedro, Markhousq and try as I might, we weren’t allowed to leave. It took Joao, a second shepherd, to point out the Palanca to my untrained eye. All I saw was a blot of brown in a sea of green, a tail flitting around a bush. Their chameleon like abilities is what has helped them survive across generations of evolution but the best part of it all was witnessing the arrival of the bull.

His neck was Schwarzenegger like in its muscularity and his coat of jet black was as inky as the night itself. He was on a very specific steroid diet, and it was clearly working. I for one was keen to ask him about his fitness regimen but Arnie was hard to find over the next few days, although I did get occasional sightings. It seems as if he had graced me with one good look at him, and that was it. Still, I considered myself lucky to have seen one, and I have more tales to tell now than some of the biggest liars I know. Center of every party discussion, here I come.

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