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The sable antelope

11 September 2015


The short, stocky build of the sable antelope Hippotragus niger resembles that of a horse. This is reflected in its scientific name Hippotragus which is a based on a combination of the Greek words hippos for a horse and tragus for a goat, while the name niger is Latin for black. Literally this name therefore means a black horse-like goat. William Cornwall Harris first described the sable antelope scientifically based on a specimen that was shot in the Cashan Range (Magaliesberg), but Sundevall coined the name Hippotragus in 1845 for the blue buck, sable and roan antelope.

Fossil forms of Hippotragus lived in North Africa 1 million years ago and fossils have also been found in the Western Cape at Langebaanweg and Elandsfontein. There are four living subspecies of Hippotragus niger in Africa, with Hippotragus niger niger occurring in southern Africa including the sable antelope of western Zambia based on its genetics.

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An adult sable antelope bull has a mean shoulder height of 1.35 m and a weight of 230 kg as opposed to 1.25 m and 210 kg for a cow. The coat of an adult bull is pitch black and it has a characteristic white and black mask over the face and a black band from beneath the eyes to some 50 mm above the nostrils, and a white belly. The band from the eyes does not occur in the sable antelope from western Zambia as it is a localized colour variant or ecotype. There is a black mane of hair from the ears to the shoulders and the long tail ends in a tuft of hair. The coat colour of an adult cow usually varies from reddish to black, but is liver-coloured in the giant sable antelope. Reddish-grey cows have a copper deficiency but the colour of the coat normalizes once copper has been supplemented, and the coat of an old bull has a satin sheen. Both genders have long, sable-like horns.

The habitat is the open savannas of southern and East Africa, but the giant sable antelope only occurs in a limited part of northern Angola between the Cuando- en Luando Rivers. The habitat basically consists of open bushveld with palatable medium to tall grasses near wetlands, but dense woodlands are avoided. In cold regions, old cows and calves often lose the tips of their ears due to frostbite when they do not have sufficient cover and the habitat mostly consists of poor grassland. The sable antelope is dependent on water and drinks about 7 litres of water per day. It prefers waterholes which large herds of other herbivores do not frequent. The diet mostly consists of grasses and herbs but it also eats leaves and wild fruits. As a selective feeder the sable antelope prefers palatable grasses such as Guinea grass Panicum maximum, red grass Themeda triandra, spear grass Heteropogon contortus and common thatching grass Hyparrhenia hirta. It avoids large herds of short-grass grazers and prefers to graze in wetter parts where the grasses remain green for a long time in the dry season.

Large, temporary herds of up to 200 animals may be formed at times, but on a wildlife ranch with limited space a breeding herd of some 14 animals will be protected by a territorial bull who will keep other herds out of a range of some 400 ha. The bull is territorial and moves around the periphery of the breeding herd, but his territory size will vary with the quality of the habitat. The dominant bulls break the branches of woody plants with their horns and strip away the bark to mark their territories. Bulls without territories form bachelor herds. In the breeding herd a dominant cow will lead the herd to water and food sources. The sable antelope is especially active by day.

A bull becomes sexually mature at an age of five to six years and a cow when she is two years old. The mating season varies regionally but in South Africa it is from May to July, with births occurring from January to March after a gestation period of 230 to 240 days. A reddish-brown calf weighing 13 to 18 kg is born in isolation and lacks the bands on the face. It is hidden for the first two to four weeks of its life, and several calves can be hidden close to each other. Older calves form nursery herds where they are protected by adult cows and bulls. A calf is weaned when it is 240 days old, and in the wild the cows can calve until they are about ten years old after which their teeth have worn away to such an extent that they lose physical condition. However, in intensive production systems a cow can still calf for several more years provided that she is given a special diet. A bull stops to breed when it becomes about ten years old and a younger bull displaces it from a breeding herd. It then joins a bachelor herd. In the wild, the mortality rate of calves younger than a year is as high as 64 per cent, the life expectancy is 13 to 15 years and the population growth rate is 12 to 28 per cent per year.

Because sable antelope are creepers a normal wire wildlife fence should be supplemented with an electrified strand 250 to 300 mm above the ground and 225 mm away from the fence. The sex ratio in the wild is three adult cows per adult bull, but in intensive production systems it can be as many as 12 cows per bull. Fertile hybrids between single roan antelope bulls and a breeding herd of giant sable antelope have been documented in the Cangandala National Park in Angola. This is a danger on wildlife ranches and the reverse can probably also happen.

A sable antelope can be captured chemically, but because these animals are expensive and the drugs are dangerous for humans it should rather be done by a wildlife veterinarian. All sable antelope should be transported under tranquillization, the adult bulls in single crates and the cows, young bulls and calves in a mass crate over long distances. For short-term tranquillization haloperidol can be used, and for the long term perphenazine enanthate. All the sable antelope should be fitted with pipes over the horn tips and there should be 0,90 m2 of floor space per animal in a mass crate containing seven to eight animals. Single crates should be 1.8 m long x 0.6 m wide x 1.8 m high.

The minimum size of a pen for sable antelope is 20 x 50 m. Adult bulls are kept separately in pens and tranquillization is required for nervous and aggressive animals. Too many antelope pellets can cause lethal acidosis and the diet should be supplemented with lucerne. Based on its weight, an adult sable antelope is equivalent to 1.16 Grazer or Browser Units, but based on its diet it is equivalent to 0.99 Grazer Units and 0.17 Browser Units.

Sable antelope are often introduced from other regions but the calves of ecotypes such as the western Zambian sable antelope usually lose this unique appearance when they interbreed with indigenous sable antelope. It is better to improve the quality of indigenous sable antelope by rehabilitating and improving their habitat. In the bushveld of the Gravelotte region the population of sable antelope has, for example, been improved and built up considerably in this way. This included the removal of cattle and short-grass grazers such as the blue wildebeest and Burchell´s zebra that occur in large herds, the control of ticks, the improvement of the composition of the grasses and the provision of waterholes of good quality.

In the more northern parts of southern Africa where sable antelope are relatively abundant, they are sometimes hunted as rations, and the carcass of an adult sable antelope will yield some 99 to 127 kg of meat. Sable antelope are currently popular on live wildlife auctions in the northern parts of South Africa. The weighted mean on 83 official live wildlife auctions in 2014 was R237 933 for an indigenous sable antelope, but some exotic variants were sold for a mean price of R875 000 per animal. However, there is no evidence that these variants will be a sound investment in the long term. The Rowland Ward record sable antelope was in fact an indigenous sable antelope that was collected in 1898 near Tshokwane in the current Kruger National Park.



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Jansen van Vuuren, B, TJ Robinson, P VazPinto, R Estes & C Matthee 2010. Western Zambian sable: are they a geographic extension of the giant sable antelope? South African Journal of Wildlife Research 40(1): 35 – 42.

Kriek, JC 2005. The sable antelope. In J du P Bothma en N van Rooyen (Eds), Intensive wildlife production in southern Africa. Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Rabie, J 2011. Die herlewing en genetiese herstel van die swartwitpens. Game & Hunt 17(3): 53 - 57.

Skinner, JD & CT Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, derde uitgawe. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.

Van Rooyen, N & J du P Bothma 2016. Veld management in the African savannas. In: Game ranch management, sixth edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik.


article by Prof J du P Bothma



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