What has happened to this year? And what a year! About the only good thing which has come from it for me has been that, with all the time on my hands during the effective house arrest that this damned virus has sentenced most of us to in the United Kingdom, it has given me time to get stuck into Hunting the Hippotrages and I thought, seeing as a few of you have asked in recent times, to give you an update on progress.
First, the bad news. Peter Bosman, the highly experienced and talented book designer who has worked on the last four of my books, has taken on full time employment and he and his team of helpers will not be available to help produce this book. I will miss his calm, creative skills and advice enormously. However, he kindly suggested I use one of his former colleagues at Struik Publishers, Danie van Vuuren and his team at Flame Design and, in particular, Deidre Wessels.
We have already had a couple of productive Zoom meetings and the first product of these chats has been the design of the book cover – see below – using a photo taken by Dick Estes, one of the research pioneers into sable, in general, and the Royal or giant sable, in particular. As usual with these old photos, the quality is not nearly as good as those produced by modern digital photography but the picture just captured my imagination and took me back to the time it must have been taken and even further back to what it must have been like to be one of the first people to set eyes upon such a magnificent, truly iconic animal. It is breathtaking don’t you think?
So, I apologise if the cover photo is not as diamond cut sharp as my previous covers but I just could not pass it up. What an animal! And to think that the IUCN will not help fund the anti-poaching efforts to protect the critically endangered few that are left because it is ONLY a subspecies quite simply boggles my brain. Not to mention the curious indifference of the Angolan government itself to the emblem on the tailplane of its national carrier, the animal after which its national football team is named or the fact that its image is on the national currency. But then I suppose as the Royal sable doesn’t provide an opportunity for bribery and corruption it is of no interest. The phenomenon is called AWA. Africa Wins Again!
In recent years, new research has been published about sable and roan. In the latter case, the research suggested there were only two kinds of roan – those from north western Africa and the rest. I am a joiner by nature and have written more than one article in the past agreeing with authorities like Selous who said more or less the same thing, as opposed to those who claim a multiplicity of subspecies based essentially on colour variations in the supposed subspecies which, if you have hunted widely across Africa, you know you can often find present in the same big herd.
Pedro vaz Pinto published his doctoral thesis in 2017 and, based on some 266 DNA samples, has thrown a handgrenade into the pond of sable subspecies. Here is a section from his thesis entitled, “Evolutionary History of the Critically Endangered Giant Sable Antelope (Hippotragus niger variani) – Insights into its phylogeography, population genetics, demography and conservation”, dealing with the various subspecies, for those that are interested.
In essence, he claims that there are six or more subspecies as opposed to the traditional four – Royal or giant, common, Kirk’s and Roosevelt’s. In addition, there is, according to him, Ansell’s and an as yet unnamed possible subspecies predominantly from western Tanzania. He also casts doubt on where some subspecies can be found, particularly Roosevelt’s sable.
I wrote the following rough draft in the Introduction to the book:
“The problem is that this is his opinion, albeit based on his studies and research. But there have been contradictory opinions expressed over the years by other scientists, including eminent ones such as Groves, Ansell, Dowsett, Swynnerton, Hayman, Grubb, Siege, Baldus, Robertson and Jansen van Vuuren to name but a few which, in fairness, Vaz Pinto mentions in his thesis. Each generation, particularly in this field, seems to throw up scientists who delight in being able to disprove or debunk the work of those who have preceded them and preferably those who are dead because they cannot argue back.
This book is not a scientific treatise and, in my humble opinion, for the most part, these scientific debates do little or nothing for the conservation of any of the hippotrages, although I have recently learned that the IUCN refused to help fund anti-poaching efforts to protect the few remaining Royal sable because they said it was ONLY a subspecies. Why this should prevent them from helping to conserve one of THE most iconic mammals in Africa is beyond me. It is allowing sophistry to triumph over common sense. And the fact that they have previously contributed to funding the conservation of other subspecies seems to have escaped them, but then I have learned over the years that, seemingly, the more noble the end objective, the more vicious the politics.
And how does any of this help the sable or us hunters for that matter? Of course we want to help conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat. All genuine hunters do. But it goes without saying that we do not have the ability to run DNA tests in the field while on safari to determine in advance which subspecies we may be hunting, especially when these scientists are themselves uncertain as to where the one subspecies begins and the other ends! Yes, we can contribute to scientific knowledge by taking and submitting samples for analysis later but, even then, if my experience is anything to go by, it can be months if not years, before you learn the result of these tests and sometimes never, no matter how often you ask.
At any rate, for purposes of this book, I do not intend to become involved in the current debate of what constitutes which subspecies as regards any of the hippotrages in this book, but rely instead on the age old divisions which we hunters have become comfortable with over many years as a result of actual, feet-on-the-ground, physical, field observation. And I do not think we shall offend any of the animals as no one has told them to which subspecies they belong and, even if they knew, it would make no discernible difference to any of them.”
Twenty two authors, including people like Jeremy Anderson, Craig Boddington, Rolf Baldus, John Coleman, Kai-Uwe Denker, Stewart Dorrington, Wayne Grant, Mark Haldane, Robin Hurt and Salmon Joubert have contributed brand new articles for the book and I have been so impressed by their quality. For the most part, these are not the usual 1 500 word, short, uninformative magazine articles of today. They are in depth stories written by men who have a deep understanding of and love for the wildlife they pursue and the wildlife habitat in which they are found and none more so than Kai-Uwe Denker’s evocative story.
Next step for me is to complete the editing of all the articles I have received and make a final decision on which ones to include. This is a very difficult task given the quality of the articles and is limited more by the size of the book than anything else which, as things stand, is over 140 000 words i.e. the biggest book have I produced to date. I must also make a decision whether to include articles on scimitar horned oryx and addax because they can no longer be hunted on licence in Africa in their natural habitat, although they are found on some game ranches in South Africa, Texas and, probably, elsewhere. And what about Arabian oryx, a full member of this species but not found naturally in Africa, although also present on some game ranches in South Africa where I shot the only one I have? And then there is the blue buck, the first antelope species to become extinct in South Africa in recent times? What about a few paragraphs on that?
Then it is time for me to buckle down, research and write the scientific chapter on oryx. No-one I asked was prepare to do it, so, guess what? That left only me. Last of all there is the time consuming job of choosing a selection of photos to illustrate each article, probably some 1 200 plus photos will be required and from which about 600 will make it into the book to be laboriously corrected, sized, placed in the text and graded – a hugely expensive and time consuming project and the one I like least about book production.
Enough already. The manuscript must be delivered to the book design team in March and printing will begin in June/July. As such, you should have your books before Christmas next year. Just under half of the books have been subscribed for to date, so I will advertise the book sparingly in one South African and one American magazine. So, please remember, this is a subscription only book and, if you have not subscribed for the book before it goes off to print via my website, there will not be any to buy anywhere unless subscribers sell there’s and then only at a much higher price I would imagine. Of course, you will not be called upon to pay for your book until it is ready to be posted.