A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola
John Frederick Walker
A compelling story of exploration and adventure, politics and war, told through the quest for one of the most purely majestic of Africa's animals, caught amid the upheavals and brutal savagery of Angola's wars
The great animals of Africa have long been under siege—once routinely slaughtered as trophies by big-game hunters, their habitats are now slowly being choked off by the relentless encroachment of human development, and increasingly the efforts to preserve them are hostage to the warfare that ravages the continent. In A Certain Curve of Horn, veteran journalist John Frederick Walker tells the story of one of the most revered and endangered of these regal beasts: the giant sable antelope of Angola, a majestic, coal-black quadruped with breathtaking curved horns over five feet long. It is an enthralling and tragic tale of exploration and adventure, politics and war, the brutal realities of life in Africa today and the bitter choices of conflicting conservation strategies.
A Certain Curve of Horn traces the sable's emergence as a highly sought-after natural history prize before the First World War, and follows its struggle to survive in a war zone fought over by the troops of a half-dozen nations, and its transformation into a political symbol and conservation icon. As he follows the trail of this mysterious animal, Walker interweaves the stories of the adventurers, scientists, and warriors who have come under the thrall of the beast, and how their actions would shape the course of the history of the giant sable antelope and the history of the war-torn nation that is its home.
Culminating with a heart-pounding voyage into the heart of rebel-held Angola in search of the first scientific confirmation of the animal's existence in decades, A Certain Curve of Horn is a thrilling blend of history, natural science, and adventure—and a fascinating look into the world of a magnificent beast that has haunted the imaginations of hunters and naturalists around the globe for generations.
but under me you never did this kind of thing.” He fled north, and was reduced to taking poison when he heard that the last of his warriors had surrendered. Another revolt in 1896—actually a war for independence—was equally unsuccessful. Selous, who at that time was newly married and farming in the colony with his young English wife, certainly shared Rhodes’s imperialist attitudes. Yet he could not help sympathizing with the Matabele, wondering at one point “why they shouldn’t try” to recover
(The Thinker), had been stolen, like most of Angola’s patrimony. I instructed Dodo to take me to the Agostinho Neto monument. By this time, Dodo’s endless cell phone conversations were getting on my nerves. Sometimes they seemed businesslike, but now he was making back-to-back hysterical calls, moaning in distress and shrieking tearfully and banging on the dashboard for emphasis. Oddly enough, he seemed perfectly calm when he got off. I asked if he was in trouble. “Girlfriend trouble, Mister
to espouse dialogue to end the conflict while initiating armed clashes with the government, and to accuse dos Santos and his cronies of bottomless corruption while enslaving whole villages and terrorizing the countryside. It was confusing on purpose, of course. “I like confusion,” Savimbi once said. “Lots of it.” Angolan state television announced further military breakthroughs by the middle of June, disclosing that after the fall of Andulo, government troops had pushed rebel forces back from
The impression these photographs made awakened in me the inchoate desire to seek out the animal. So did the text, and one passage in particular left me wanting to know more: It was only just before the last great war that its origin was discovered by H. F. Varian, an English engineer engaged in building the new railroad inland from Lobito Bay in Angola to the Katanga copper mines. Between the Cuanza and Loando Rivers in Angola, Varian found a new species of antelope with immensely finer horns
become one of the creeds of the museum. A year later, its president, Henry Fairfield Osborn, wrote that “only a paleontologist like myself can measure the full extent of the coming calamity to science and to art when the entire wildlife of Africa shall have vanished,” leaving only a “few remaining remnants” to linger on in a handful of preserves. At the time, this bleak prediction was largely unquestioned by naturalists, which was why securing representative specimens of the continent’s animal