Sable: The Antelopes of Africa, 2 of 35 (and the Critters that Eat Them)

Following on from yesterday's "The Antelopes of Africa and the Critters that Eat Them" on roan antelope is today's feature on another spectacular species from the same subfamily, the stallion-like Sable Antelope.




Distribution + Phylogeny (family history):

Four subspecies. The most common, the animal in these photos, is the Southern, Common, Black, Matsetsi or South Zambian sable, Hippotragus niger niger, has the darkest coat of the sables and occurs south of the Zambezi River, in northern Botswana, the Matsetsi Valley in Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Approx. 1,500 left in the wild and declining, down from 24,000 in 1994. H. n. variani, the Giant or Royal sable, is now only found in isolated parts of central Angola, and classified as critically endangered. The Zambian or West Tanzanian sable, H. n. kirkii, is the most widespread, found in West Zambia, Malawi, Congo and southwestern Tanzania. The Eastern or Shimba sable, the smallest of the four subsp., H. n. roosevelti, occurs between southeastern Kenya and northern Mozambique. *Like the roan it also belongs to the Hippotraginae horsily-built subfamily.


Name Meaning:

The name "sable" derives from an old English word meaning "black", and has been associated with / given to both the sable antelope and the northern Asian sable, a small dark-furred carnivore in the family of "martens", similar to mongoose. Their scientific name Hippotragus (goat-like horse) niger (dark-coloured) also reflects their colour.


Size / Body Features / Body Colour:

After roan and the eland, greater kudu and bongo, sable is one of the largest antelope (5th) in the world. Males weigh around 200-250kg, shoulder height up to 140cm, length to 255cm. Horns are ringed as in oryx/roan though form more of a backward-curling sickle shape, reaching 1.65m in males, less in females. While both males and females have horns, they are labelled "sexually dimorphic" (different body features between sexes) as males are larger and have a dark-black coat while females are a lighter rich chestnut to dark brown. White facial mask and white underbelly. Slightly dipped spine. Like roan they are especially horsey, including their erect mane/beard.



Found in savanna woodlands and grasslands (like roan), mainly in tropical and subtropical regions.


Food / Eating Habits:

Sable, like roan, are grazers (eat grasses etc) and eat mid-length grasses, as well as some browse (leaves). Diurnal (daytime eaters).


Group Structure / Sexual Habits:

Sable antelope form harem groups of 10-30 animals, led by a dominant male bull. Males commonly fight for dominance of their herd, clashing horns and often moving the fight to their knees.



Reach sexual maturity by 2.5 to 3 years, gestation last 9 months (long for an antelope). Lifespan to 19 years.



Limited to larger predators, predominantly lions, though weak/injured/young animals could fall prey to leopards, cheetah, wild dogs and spotted hyena. Their long horns make them a formidable match, and can quite easily impale lions and other predators.



Their spine arches/dips slightly, much like a horse/zebra, and from observation their tracks appear to partial-register - their dipped/slightly sloped back causes their rear foot to not "direct-register" within the track left by the front foot while walking. Ungulate, two-hoofed animal, dewclaws may register in deep sand/mud.


IUCN Red List (Conservation) Status / Threats:

Least concern, 50-60,000 individuals - though individual subspecies classifications range from critically endangered to vulnerable, and their populations seem much less stable than this number, so the blanket IUCN classification is inaccurate. Threats incl. urban development, agriculture conflict/competition for grazing land and poaching for bushmeat.


*My personal experiences with sable antelope:

The particular subspecies in these images is H. n. niger (Matsetsi sable), one of the four subspecies, seen in Chobe NP, northern Botswana, in Feb 2016. I have also seen sable in Kasanka NP, central Zambia, and in Busanga Plains, the northern private section of Kafue NP, western Zambia, though this was the subspecies H. n. kirkii (West Zambian sable).


**Sable may be visible on my 12-day Best of Botswana Safari. For more information visit www.raw-worldwide.com


***Short video on sable antelope: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GHJTw2WA50


The Field Guides Association of Southern Africa Chobe National Park, Botswana Chobe National Park Chobe Game Lodge Chobe Safari Lodge Botswana Zambia Kafue Kafue Shikoswe Department of National Parks & Wildlife Department Of Wildlife & National Parks Kafue National Park Kafue National Park Kasanka National Park Ulovane Environmental Training AfricaLiving Giant sable antelope