The rains this year have been plenty and generous,
and I can’t remember such an extreme wet season in Cangandala since
the 2005/2006 season. This fact has several consequences which, one
way or the other, affects our work. The first and most obvious
result was the rivers flooding, which considerably reduced our
mobility inside the park. Actually, and as soon as the rains grew in
intensity around mid-January, the park main road was cut-off, and we
had to walk across with water above our knees to get in. Approaching
the animals in these conditions turned out to be almost impossible,
and the only exception was a brief observation and still photographs
taken in January.
Nevertheless, the abundant rains might be a
blessing, especially following several very dry seasons in a row. It
reduces the risk of intense drought, it replenishes underground
water resources and the soils should keep moisture for longer into
the dry season; and the lush development of the vegetation should
provide lots of grazing material. On the other hand, the constant
rains did not allow for strategically placed small out-of-season
burnings, which in previous years had contributed for a balanced
veld management and food provision for the animals. Another concern
is that the overgrown grass this year will turn into a huge amount
of dead grass – combustible material, thus increasing enormously the
risks of hot fires inside the sanctuary during the dry season.
Basically, the weather conditions this year might prove to be good
in many respects, but will demand carefully planned and assertive
management in the next few months.
As for the animals, as always there are new
developments to report, and this time a huge surprise was
registered. While observing a herd inside the sanctuary in January,
we couldn’t believe our eyes when we spotted Joana among the group!
This was a totally unexpected. Joana ‘The-Mad-Cow’ had proved to be
anti-social and had escaped under the fence soon after being
captured in 2009. She had since remained outside the sanctuary,
behaving in a secretive fashion, declining to approach the hybrids
when they were around in the first two years. Although we looked for
her, we failed to find her during the 2011 capture exercise.
Finally, even when having Ivan the Terrible was
around, they didn’t seem to ‘connect’, as they were never recorded
together in spite clearly overlapping their roaming territories. Of
course, neither of them seemed to be friendly characters, but we
always had hope that they could get along somehow… or at least meet
on a special stormy night. On the other hand, we still fear the day
Ivan will break through the fence into the sanctuary, but the last
thing we expected was Joan to decide to crawl under the fence after
4 years of deliberate isolation!
As the rainy season progressed, the animals split
into several smaller sub-herds. At one time, apparently into 4
groups, one group with old females and the old bull Duarte, a second
group with young Mercury and many young females, a third group
composed of a couple females a younger male and several calves, and
the last group mostly comprising hybrids.
Other than this we had to rely on the trap cameras
to know what was going on, and here our expectations were fully met.
Back in December we were convinced that Teresa, one of our two old
breeding cows that had conceived calves in January and February (the
other being Luisa), would produce a second calf before end of 2013.
Well, not only we could confirm that, but also surprisingly, both
cows produced the second calf by turn of the year! That was
fantastic, as both cows, in spite of their age, seem now to be well
synchronized, and producing calves every 9 months. This brought us
to a total 2013 production of 7 calves (where 2 old females alone
produced 4 of these), of which 3 were females, 2 males, and the two
youngest still undetermined (although at least one of the later
seems to be a female). Truth be said, the second male calf born,
hasn’t been seen in many months and may well have been killed. Some
degree of calf mortality is unavoidable, but if confirmed, it was
the first casualty in 3 years, and in any case it is better to lose
a male calf than a female.
By end of March, we received disturbing news,
accounting for a new fight along the fence, between Ivan and,
presumably, Duarte. Once again the fence was quite damaged, and
there were clear signs of fighting and blood, however neither Ivan
nor any other bull could be found nearby. We still don’t know for
sure if any bull got seriously injured, or if animals moved across
the fence boundary, but apparently things are back to normal and are
once again peaceful. For now…
The second trimester usually marks the transition
from the wet to the dry season. It has hardly been a favorite of
mine, as April tends to be too wet and waterlogged, while in May and
June the dead grass takes over and the bush fires start, making
field work uncomfortable and not very productive. It is never a good
time of the year to observe the animals, as our mobility is reduced,
and they have plenty of cover. If this wasn’t enough, the abundant
rains of the ending rainy season delayed the normal sequence of
events at least one month.
throughout June, we struggled to drive across the floodplain that
defines the western boundary of Cangandala National Park. Not
surprisingly, we had very few sable observations to report. The most
we could do, was to approach the young herd a few times, now proudly
supervised permanently by magnificent Mercury (the first born of our
"new" Cangandala). Attempts to approach the larger herd, comprising
old females and hybrids, were not very successful because of the
elusive nature of hybrids, dense cover, and made worse by the
conspicuous absence of ol’ Duarte. In spite our efforts, we could
not track his radio signal anywhere. Considering the fight reported
on the fence at the end of March, we fear that we may not see the
old bull again. A pity, as he had made a miraculous recovery after
last year’s challenge, however he was getting too old.
On the other hand, Ivan, as the trap cameras
confirmed, looks as strong as ever and unscratched. What worries us,
is that Mercury will be next in the succession line under Ivan’s
radar, and sooner or later might be challenged for battle… and we
cannot afford to lose young Mercury!
The biggest surprise in the sanctuary was finding a
pair of reedbuck. Over the past two decades, reedbuck were almost
wiped out in Cangandala (although in Luando they are still common),
and the last sighting had been in 2009 in a floodplain further
south. We certainly didn’t expect any reedbuck to had been caught
inside the fence perimeter, where the habitat is not the most
attractive for this species. Reedbuck in the region generally
prefers more extensive open areas associated with drainage lines.
However a careful look at the photo record, gave us some hints on
how they had ended up here. Being an adult female and a very young
male, suggests they are mother and son.
A likely scenario would be the female moving into
the woodland to give birth, precisely when the fence was being
expanded and as result she ended up imprisoned inside the sanctuary
with her calf. Even if the habitat is not their most preferred, they
will be safe inside the camp, and now bear the responsibility to
repopulate the area!
In the Luando reserve, rains had also been generous,
but the most worrying factors are insisting reports of poaching,
brought to us by the shepherds. Poaching does seem to be closely
linked with several diamond operations established along the Kwanza
River, as they create an increasing demand for bush meat, and this
remains unchallenged. And of course, well-armed poachers, who are
not only a permanent threat to the animals, but also put the lives
of our shepherds in danger. Some steps are being taken to tackle
this crisis, and I’m hopeful it may produce results soon.
Next trimester we expect to make a new aerial
survey, and place up to 20 collars on sable in Cangandala and Luando.
Dr. Pedro Vaz Pinto