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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Review: A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola

"Five years later, the IUCN still had not undertaken a giant sable survey.  It had been postponed every year for 'security reasons' until it had been permanently shelved in disgust at the turn of events.  But I was going to Angola anyway."

When many people are asked to name the most majestic wild animal on the African continent, they probably think of lions or elephants.  My vote, however, goes to a considerably less-famous animal - the giant sable antelope, a heraldic black-and-white beast found only in the miombo forests of central Angola.  The sable may be relatively unknown to many Americans, but I know I'm not alone in my vote.  Since its discovery (to the western world, anyway) in 1916, the sable - especially the males, crowned with sweeping horns that may surpass five-feet in length - have been one of the most desired, sought-after animals in the world.  That has become their downfall... and it might be their salvation.

In A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola, John Frederick Walker explores our shared history with the most spectacular subspecies of what many consider to be the world's most spectacular antelope.  The sable was first described by British engineer Frank Varian, who was building a railroad through the then-Portuguese colony of Angola.  As soon as word of the antelope spread, it quickly became the most coveted trophy animal in Africa, with hunters from around the world coming to Angola to get a record-setting pair of horns.  

The giant sable occurs only in Angola, and so the story of this antelope is also a story of that country.  Walker weaves the history of Angola effectively through his narrative, from the Kongo Kingdom which predated European settlers to, most importantly, the long, bloody, and chaotic civil war which ravaged that country for decades and drew in such disparate players as Cuba, South Africa, the Soviet Union, and the United States.  Caught in the middle of the war was the giant sable, the home range of which lay smack-dab in the middle of the lands ruled by rebel warlord Jonas Savimbi (natural history aside, the biographical elements of the brutal, mercurial Savimbi alone make this a worthwhile read).  

Throughout the war (which resulted in an explosion of poaching as armies sought to fund their operations and feed their troops), the question that circled around the conservation community, in Africa and abroad, is "Could the giant sable have survived?  And if so, how much longer can it hold out?"

I won't give away any endings, but Walker's book captures the struggle of different groups, all of whom want to save the sable (if it's still out there), but can't agree how.  Strict preservationists, who want to try and salvage the habitat?  Zoos, who advocate captive breeding programs safely removed from war-torn Angola?  Trophy hunters, who claim that only the revenue they bring can fund conservation?  Angolan politicians and generals, who want to relocate sable to lands firmly under their control?  And atop all of it, a geneticist who drops a major bombshell - there might not even be such a thing as a giant sable!

A Certain Curve of Horn offers up one of the most common conundrums concerning high-profile endangered species.  Everyone wants to possess it... but who can actually save it?

A Certain Curve of Horn at


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