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Sable antilope
Swahili Name: Pala Hala or Mbarapi
Scientific Name: Hippotragus niger
Size: 43 to 54 inches at the shoulder
Weight: 400 to 500 pounds
Lifespan: 20 years
Habitat: Light woodland
Diet: Herbivorous
Gestation: 260 to 280 days
Predators: Humans, lions, leopards, hyenas, huntingdogs, crocodiles

One of the most impressive antelopes found in East Africa is the sable. Because of habitat destruction and poaching, it is also one of the most endangered.

Physical Characteristics
The sable is a rotund, barrel-chested antelope with a short neck and a long face. It resembles the larger roan antelope, to which it is closely related. Among its distinctive features are its long horns, some 40 to 65 inches long. The ringed horns rise vertically, then sweep backwards in a pronounced curve. They are found in both sexes, but the male's horns are slightly larger and heavier than the female's. Both males and females have manes on the neck, and when they arch their necks and stand with their head held high and tails outstretched, they resemble horses. This flexed-neck position makes sables appear larger than they really are. The males maintain this position even when they gallop, as the arched neck is an important manifestation of dominance.

As they become older, sables change color. The calf is grayish-brown and almost without marks, making it very inconspicuous. As it matures and begins to take its place in a herd, its coat becomes a rich reddish-brown, with the belly, haunches and facial markings in greater contrast. At this time the face is largely white, with a wide black stripe running from the forehead to the muzzle, and black stripes from the eye to the muzzle.

Once adult, the female's color changes gradually with age and status. The facial markings form a mask that contrasts with the neck, shoulders and mane as they become darker. Eventually only the rump is red. The darker color heightens the line of the face and the front quarters, emphasizing the sweep of the long horns.

The color change in the adult male is more dramatic-all parts that were previously red become black, and so contrast even more with the facial mask and light underparts.

Sables live in areas of light woodland-especially "miombo," a mixture of bush and grassland-but usually avoid open, grassy plains.

Only a few of the most dominant of the mature males are able to obtain and hold territories. They try to set them up on the best grazing grounds because the more nutritious the feed, the more females are attracted to the area. The changing color of sables as they grow older signals their age to others, thus granting them status and dominance in their social system.

Mating occurs inside the territories, so males with the best territories have the best success rate. Small female herds, varying from five to 20 individuals (but sometimes as many as 60 in the dry season), use home ranges that encompass the several male territories. Once a female group wanders into a male's territory, he tries to keep it there, especially if any females are in estrus. He permits other males to graze in his territory, but only if they remain subordinate, show him the proper respect and take no interest in the females.

Fights may occur if the territorial male is challenged by another male. Combat begins as both bulls slowly circle each other, pawing the ground and lashing their tails. Soon they face each other, shake their heads, drop to their knees and clash horns. As this is usually a pushing contest of strength, fighting to the death is rare.

Sables mostly eat grass but at times will eat herbs and leaves from shrubs and trees. They are never found very far from water and are especially dependent upon it during the dry season.

Caring for the Young
In some areas breeding females give birth during a two-month period, the timing of which changes slightly from year to year. When ready to give birth the female, often in the company of several other pregnant females, leaves the herd and seeks a secluded place in the bush. After birth she leaves the calf hidden in the tall grass or bush, returning once or twice a day to suckle the infant. After a couple of weeks, when the calf is strong enough, she takes it back to her herd.

As the calves obtain adult coloration, the territorial males and the females push the young males from the natal herd. The young females remain, taking their place at the bottom of the hierarchy.

The young males are most vulnerable to predators during their transition to a bachelor male herd. Lions, leopards, hyenas, hunting dogs and crocodiles are their most frequent predators. Once the sable is fully grown it is seldom bothered by the animals; humans are then its most likely predator.

Did you know?
  • A male regularly patrols his territory and engages in ritual displays. He paws the ground, deposits dung and horns the ground, spreading his scent around to make his presence known.
  • Sables live in groups consisting of herds of females with their young, male bachelor groups and solitary dominant males. Age determines rank in the hierarchy.

                                                       copyright: Paul Janssen