The Giant Sable Antelope still exists. For many decades, the animal with the impressive horns which occurs exclusively in Angola, was lost. Scientists feared that it had became extinct. Now an international team of researchers led by scientists from the Berlin-based Leibniz-Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) demonstrated that the rarest antilope of the world survived 30 years of civil war and unrest in Angola. The team headed by Professor Christian Pitra examined pictorial evidence from camera traps and genetic material from droppings and compared it with DNA-samples that came from museum specimens.
"Our findings are of great importance for conservation", say Professor Pitra of the IZW. He adds: "The Giant Sable Antelope is not only the national symbol of Angola, it is also a ,flagship species' for conservation." The term is used in biological conservation when conservation measures for the particular species also benefit the conservation of other species or whole ecological systems.
The Giant Sable Antelope is extremely endangered because of the decade-long civil war in Angola and because hunters are extremely interested to acquire trophies. Giant sables have extremely long horns, up to 1.65 metres in length. However, game hunting is dangerous in war-torn Angola. Thus, the owners of game ranches in South Africa already offer up to one million US dollars for a single live animal, says Professor Pitra. The ranchers hope to breed antilopes with longer horns by interbreeding the Angolan subspecies (Hippotragus niger variani) with their own stock of South African Sable Antelopes (Hippotragus niger niger). Then ranch owners could sell the right to hunt such antilopes for very substantial fees.
Biologically, interbreeding is in principle possible because both subspecies are closely related. The analysis of the DNA by the Berlin scientists suggests that the Angolan Giant Sable Antelope may have become a subspecies because its populations are geographically isolated from the nearest relatives in South Africa and Tanzania.
Asked whether interbreeding would be a harmless affair, Professor Pitra says "no, not at all". He stresses that there are quite distinctive features in the Angolan population. Only the Angolan animals carry those famous long horns and they show a unique white eye-to-eye nose line. Professor Pitra adds: "You cannot base the distinction of species only on molecular data. The morphology has to be included."