I stood as still as a statue in the deep, dappled shade of the miombo woodland scarcely daring to breathe. Exactly 174 metres away, through a latticework of thin, brachystegia, I watched the seven enormous sable bulls ghost silently past in the opposite direction in the gray early morning light, the bottom half of each animal obscured by thigh high wild ginger plants. Through my 10×42 Leica Geovids I could make out the clear, short, white facial markings of the three leading bulls – exactly the same as those of royal sable – and estimated their horns at between 47 and 50 inches in length – a massive five to eight inches longer than the minimum entry level into Rowland Wards Record of Big Game. I was in awe. They were everything and more that Peter Fisher, the fourth generation Zambian to own Nchila Wildlife Reserve, had promised.
As they disappeared from view, I remembered a Saturday morning over 30 years ago in London. I was at a loose end and took a taxi to the Natural History Museum. In the entrance hall, the bust of my hunting hero, Fredrick Courteney Selous, caught my eye in the far left corner at the foot of the stairs leading up to the second level. I walked over and, after looking my fill, followed the stairs up and to the left, wandered along and to the right and unexpectedly arrived at three dioramas prepared by that greatest of all taxidermists, Rowland Ward. I stopped in my tracks and simply gawped open mouthed at the right hand diorama. It was my first sight of a royal sable in all its glory. From that moment I was smitten and, all these years later, still think that this is the greatest of all Africa’s hunting icons.
I subsequently found and read, Some African Milestones, by H. F.Varian, after whom the royal sable (Hippotragus niger variani) was named. He had come across the animal during the course of his time in Angola where he had been the chief resident engineer for the construction of the Bengeula Railway and presented a head and skin to the curator of the Natural History Museum, Mr. Oldfield Thomas. He suggested that this animal, "might be a link between the common sable and the 60 inch single horn that had puzzled Selous when he saw it in the museum at Florence, the record measurement of the ordinary sable being then about 51inches."
In 2002, John Frederick Walker published, A Certain Curve of Horn, to date, the most complete book on all aspects of the royal sable. He wrote that, "On one of his return trips from Africa, Selous visited what is now the zoological collection of the Natural History Museum of Florence … he was taken aback by a single five-foot-long horn, a huge half-loop of ringed thickness trailing off into a perfect point. What animal grew that great arc of ridged keratin? It looked like an immense sable horn, but it hardly seemed possible. The best sable he’d ever shot was from Mashonaland (in today’s Zimbabwe) and carried horns of forty-four and a half inches. "I measured this phenomenal horn," he wrote, "and I am sure that there is no mistake about its length of 61inches, though where it came from nobody knows."
The hunter never forgot it. "For years he tried to find out where it came from," Millais wrote, "without success." Walker continued, "Selous had a special regard for sable; like many, he regarded them as the most "high couraged" of all the antelope tribe, and was impressed by their tenacity when pursued … but it was more than fierceness that drew Selous to the sable. "Where they have not been much persecuted, sable antelope are amongst the least shy of wild animals; and the bold and noble bearing of a herd of these antelopes, standing on the slope of a wooded hill, gazing with curious though fearless eyes at the first mounted man to invade their haunts, could not fail to strike the least impressionable of hunters."
Written over 120 years ago, these words are as true today as they were then and have inspired hundreds of hunters to seek out these majestic and magnificent animals.
Last year Peter Fisher sent me pictures of three sable bulls on his property in the far northwestern corner of Zambia, some four kilometres from the Congo border and 28 kilometres from Angola and almost on the same latitude as Cangandala (but more about that later). As soon as I saw them, my heart skipped a beat. The facial markings looked exactly the same as those of the royal sable from Angola and the horns of one of the bulls looked to measure at least 50 inches. Within days the telephone lines were buzzing between myself and Peter and the upshot was that I booked the first available hunt of the 2009 hunting season.
We followed in the footsteps of the Magnificent Seven but, despite walking all day until dark almost overtook us, could not catch up to them. As the hot, healing waters of the shower washed away the dirt and disappointment, my overriding emotion was one of elation at the sight I had seen and my hunter’s perennial optimism re-asserted itself. I was eager for the morrow to arrive.
As I lay awake in the early morning – the luminous dial on my watch reading 04h23 – I remembered an attractive, dark haired woman coming to see me in the late 1990s. She explained that a certain Professor Van Hoven had told her he had seen royal sable during the course of a low level flight over north central Angola and had asked for help in raising funds to verify his sighting. She asked whether I thought there was any likelihood that any of these animals had survived the bitter, long lasting, civil war that was still ravaging the country. I replied by asking her, in return, whether the good professor had had a camera with him and, if so, whether he had the taken any photographs. The answer was, yes, he had a camera but had been too excited to use it. The cynical corporate lawyer in me reared its ugly head and scepticism fought against my strong hope that this magnificent animal had somehow survived.
On my return to South Africa, I and a few friends questioned our contacts in Angola, including various embassy staff members, who were uniformly negative about the chances of survival of any of these iconic beasts. They pointed out that the area between the Cuanza and Luando Rivers (which housed the original herds of royal sable) had seen much fighting and been occupied, at different times, by both the MPLA and UNITA forces. The latter was known for its ability to live off the land, not to mention the ubiquitous land mines in the area. I advised Ann Donaldson accordingly but her inherent human hope was stronger than mine and she raised substantial amounts of money which were forwarded to Professor Van Hoven.
I started to fidget and, eventually, got up, dressed, went outside and rekindled a fire from the previous night’s embers. As I sat there I recalled a conversation with a good friend of mine, Brendan O’Keeffe, the former chairman of AGRED. He had accompanied three missions to Angola to search for royal sable and had raised substantial funds from two members of the Shikar Club and Dallas Safari Club for this purpose which funded the 2004 expedition and supplied four still cameras with infrared triggers. It was one of these cameras that in March, 2005, took the first pictures of the seven royal sable cows in Cangandala National Park which lay to the north of the confluence of the Cuanza and Luando Rivers. Along with Luando National Park, which lies between the two rivers, these parks housed the two royal sable population groups estimated by researchers such as the world famous Richard Estes and Brian Huntley to amount to no more than 2000 to 3000 animals.
These pictures were announced to the world by Mr. Pedro Vas Pinto, who accompanied the original mission as well as the 2004 expedition as an interpreter in his position as an adviser to the Catholic University in Angola on conservation projects. At no stage, however, did he acknowledge the contributions of O’Keeffe or those who had funded the expedition.
It seemed to take forever but, eventually, Peter arrived with two experienced trackers, Kenneth and Rhodes, and we left in the early morning charcoal for round two. We had barely entered the first fringe of forest when Kenneth excitedly drew Peter’s attention to a herd of sable to the east of us. As I chambered a round and look for a rest, I heard Peter say, "There’s your bull!"
I found the animal in my scope but, backlit as it was by thin, finger-like rays of light filtering through the slender tree trunks, I could not make out any facial features of the animal standing at a 45 degree angle away from me. "Are you sure, Pete?" I asked as I checked the intervening space for branches, twigs and other obstructions. I could see that the horns were similar in shape – rising vertically from the skull and high in front before curving gracefully backwards to end in long, slim rapier-like tips but I knew how easy it was to make mistakes when judging horns from behind.
After Peter’s third assurance I let the shot go. At 162 metres it was not a gimme. Somehow the bullet remembered where to go and found a pathway through all the plants, shrubs, twigs and branches. It entered behind the right rear rib, traversed through the stomache, the right lung, cut the vessels above the heart and exited just in front of the left foreleg. If it sounds easy now, at the time, if I’d made the same breathing sounds over the telephone to a lady, I would have been arrested.
The sable fell in a heap. Even so, I re-chambered a cartridge, wound the scope down from six to one and a half and ran forward – ignoring the wild ginger plants that slapped against my trousers – at one and the same time. I was the first to arrive and wished I hadn’t been. It was not the bull. It was a wonderful, representative, typical or common sable bull (Hippotragus niger niger) with the 41 ½ inch horns that would have made any hunter proud but it was not THE one.
Before I could say anything, Peter arrived, took one look and said to me,
"My mistake, it’s not the one. I will call the recovery team. Let’s go and find your bull." In the brief time that I had come to know him, his response was what I would have expected but, even so, it was a relief to have my earlier judgment of the man confirmed.
Altogether there are currently five sub-species of sable recognized by science, namely, royal sable from Angola, hippotragus niger kirkii from Kenya, Hippotragus niger rooseveltii from in and around the Selous Game Reserve in the south western corner of Tanzania, Hippotragus niger anselli from Malawi and eastern Zambia and common sable from most of southern Africa including, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mocambique and Tanzania. There are still question marks over the sable from Malawi and Mozambique as insufficient or no samples have been obtained from sable populations there although the best guess is that the ones from Mocambique are probably typical or common and not Roosevelt and those from Malawi may well be the same as or similar to the Ugalla specimens from Tanzania. Time will tell.
Yes, all the monster sable from the west of Zambia whose DNA has been tested, including those from Nchila Wildlife Reserve, some of which bear similar facial markings and skull shapes to the royal sable, are all common sable. Having said this, however, to date the tests have focused only on their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and nuclear DNA testing has not been done. In layman’s terms, what this means is that scientists in South Africa have only been able to establish where the mothers of the tested sable have come from but not the fathers.
But the fact of the matter is that the merest glimpse at Rowland Wards Records of Big Game will show that the biggest royal sable measured 64 7/8 inches and was shot in Angola in 1949 by Count de Yebes. A picture of this awesome beast can be seen at page 379 of James Mellon’s magnum opus, African Hunter, along with other magnificent specimens on the preceding pages.
More importantly, the next 25 royal sables recorded in The Book all measured over 60, yes 60, inches! On the other hand, not one of the typical or common sable entered in The Book over the 117 years of its existence (the oldest book recording game animals in the world) measured 60 or more inches with the biggest, shot in 1898 in Tshokwane, South Africa by S.W. van Ee, stretching the tape to a mere 55 3/8 inches.
As of now, no sable tested (outside of those from Angola), have shown royal sable DNA. Those that look like royal sable, other than those from Western Zambia (of which the Nchila animals are the best examples according to the experts), seem to have been selectively bred from typical or common sable much like those people trying to re-create the quagga from animals that most look like them.
Midday found us walking silently back to where we had left the vehicle. The sable were bedded down and, if we persisted in following their tracks, we would only blunder into and spook them. We were both silent and, I suspect, Peter was thinking about the common sable bull as much as I was. My thoughts were not cheerful and I’m sure his weren’t either. To make matters worse, we had somehow lost touch with our trackers and Peter had whistled and called loudly for them at regular intervals. I did not know him well enough to ask him to stop. Each shout and whistle had nearly taken off the top of my head and I was sure that the noise would have caused any self respecting sable to emigrate to the Congo. How wrong I was!
The truck was in sight, however, and I was looking forward to a long, cool drink of water when I’m heard a noise behind us. Turning to look, I saw the diminutive figure of Rhodes between the tree trunks windmilling his arm. It could only mean one thing – they had found the sable.
We set off at a cracking pace and I battled to keep up. Peter is almost seven feet tall and I had to jog occasionally to keep pace with him. After a kilometre or so I was breathing hard and my heart was hammering in my chest. For some time I had been wondering what would happen if we walked onto the sable as I was in no condition to make a calm, calculated shot. And that was exactly what happened. Suddenly, Rhodes stopped, pointed and turned to look at us. Over his shoulder, some 300 metres away, I could make out flashes of black and white flitting between the burglar bars of the miombo woodland tree trunks.
Not a great one for crawling because of all the knee damage he has suffered, Peter walked boldly forward and closed the gap, possibly thinking that the sable would find it as difficult to see us. Not a chance! At a distance of about 200 metres, he stopped, glassed, turned to me and repeated his words of that morning, "There’s your bull!"
The sable’s black and white face was picture framed by vertical and horizontal branches but his chest was clear as he stood face on to us at red alert. Bent over at the waist and taking an uncomfortable rest off a dead, diagonal, iron grey tree trunk, I risked the awkward shot and, predictably and fortunately, missed completely.
The herd of bulls clattered off over the Kellogg’s Cornflake leaf clutter and, distraught at my pathetic attempt, thought our day was done. The trackers were not so easily deterred, however, and they followed rapidly after the bulls whose tracks were gouged deeply and crisply into the black loam beneath the leaf covering.
I was distracted and, as usual, replayed the missed shot over and over in my head. I am not sure how long we walked but it was not far before I almost walked into Peter’s broad back. We were in a small clearing and he stood with his green Swarovskis glued to his face. Without removing them, he pointed silently. The bull jumped into the crystal clear picture of my Leicas and I ranged the magnificent animal at 148 metres. The huge bull was standing facing me, tense and ready to run, at a slight angle to my left.
There could be no mistake. The huge horns towered above the bull’s highway man mask and the long, elegant tips splayed out on either side of its flanks. The problem was not one of identity but where and how to take the shot. From past experience I knew that I had a maximum of ten to 15 seconds. As the clock ticked I extended the bipod attached to the reinforced front sling swivel of my rifle. Tick tock. Too low. I could not see over the wild ginger. Tick tock. No tree trunks within a radius of fifteen paces for use as a rest. Tick tock. Nothing for it. I would have to kneel and shoot off my knee. Tick tock.
The recoil wrenched the bull’s chest from the circular sight picture before I was consciously aware that I had completed my trigger squeeze. As I looked up, I was aware of Peter aiming his scoped .458 in the direction of the animal which I could no longer see. "Yup, yup, you’ve hit him" were the welcome words I heard as he turned to look at Rhodes for confirmation. Our small tracker nodded his head vigorously and, as I stood, I saw a flurry of dust and leaf particles in the distance. My old, much repeated rhyme rumbled through my head: "If the animals fall and run, the fun has just begun. If the animal runs and falls, that animal is all yours." And so it turned out to be. The shot had been perfect – through the right shoulder, the top of the heart and out through the ribs. The majestic animal had not suffered at all and had barely run 30 metres.
I knelt for a long time next to the sable’s head and found myself involuntarily smoothing the shiny black skin along his neck and plucking small ticks off his long, narrow muzzle. For the longest moment I could not speak and even then could only repeat, "Awesome. Awesome animal." Not that anyone seemed to mind.
The bull looked exactly like a royal sable. It had the facial markings and cranial bump or swelling between the horns. What it did not have, however, were 60 inch horns – they were later found to be one eighth of an inch short of 47 – still truly magnificent and the haunches were a shiny brownish black but not pure black. Close. According to experts about the closest you can get to a royal sable but no cigar.
And what of the royal sable left in Angola? Since 2004 when the first photographs were taken of the seven royal sable cows, what has been done by this country to try and preserve or conserve this majestic animal which is, after all, its national animal, known there as palanca negra and which appears on the tail plane of its national carrier. The short answer is not much.
And then, just when I and almost everyone else interested in royal sable were about to give up the ghost, fantastic news arrived from Angola courtesy of Jeremy Anderson. A Botswana game capture pilot, accompanied by a South African trained vet, had not only spotted the seven royal sable cows near Cangandala but had darted and collared two royal sable bulls in Luando National Park. In time, the news became better still. The cows and at least one bull were caught and transferred to a 400 hectare, fenced enclosure in Cangandala. At last there was some certainty that these majestic animals, the icon of all African game icons, could begin their slow but certain retreat from extinction.