A truly good-looking member of the bovidae family is the sable antelope (Hippotragus niger). Mature males are a striking jet-black in colour, with long ridged horns curving towards their backs, ending in smooth sharp tips (Mills and Hess, 1997). Although slightly smaller than the closely related Roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus), they weigh in at an average of 230 kg, standing about 1.35 m tall at the shoulder (Wilson and Herst, 1977; Skinner and Chimimba, 2005).
This mammal species inhabit open wooded savannah, preferably close a water source (Mills and Hess, 1997; Thompson and Monfort, 1999). Male sable antelope are predominantly solitary, whilst females are found in small herds consisting of a dominant female and recent offspring (although sometimes accompanied by a single male), whereas young males often travel in small bachelor herds (Jarman, 1974). They are predominantly grazers, feeding on fresh growth at a relatively high level off the ground (Wilson and Herst, 1977; Skinner and Chimimba, 2005).
Females are sexually mature around 2 years of age and reproduction occurs when food is most abundant, with females typically leaving the herd to calve (Skinner and Chimimba, 2005). There is a loose association between mothers and calves, with mothers often travelling up to 2 km away from the young, hidden foal, but the cryptic coloration and lack of odour serves to make the foal almost invisible during this vulnerable period of its life (Wilson and Herst, 1977).
Their distribution ranges from central Tanzania, down to the north of South Africa and extends west to the south-eastern corners of Angola (for map, see http://maps.iucnredlist.org/map.html?id=10170). They are listed as least concern by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with large numbers reported in protected areas. There is an estimated 75,000 wild sable antelope, with numbers increasing on private game farms and conservancies.
Hippotragus niger lives in the southern savanna of Africa from southeastern Kenya, eastern Tanzania, and Mozambique to Angola and southern Zaire, mainly in the Miombo Woodland Zone. Good places to view sable antelope include- Shimba Hills National Reserve, Kenya; Ruaha National Park, Selous Grassland Reserve, Tanzania; Kafue and Mweru- Wantipa National Park, Zambia; Matetsi Safari Area, Hwange, Zambezi, and Kazuma Pan NP, Zimbabwe; Kruger National Park, South Africa (Estes 1993).
Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )
This stunning antelope rivals even the most handsome kudus and is a popular zoo animal. Hippotragus niger has a powerful, robust build and a thick neck outlined by a vertical mane atop sturdy legs. Males and females are strikingly similar until 3 years old, when males become darker and develop majestic horns. Males weigh around 238 kilograms at a height of 116-142 centimeters. Females weigh 220 kilograms and are slightly shorter than males. The horns are massive and more curved in males reaching lengths of 81-165 centimeters, while females' horns are only 61-102 centimeters in length. Coloration in bulls is black, females and young are chestnut except in southern populations, where females turn brown-black. Most sable antelope have white “eyebrows”, a rostrum sectioned into cheek stripes, white belly and rump patch. Young under 2 months typically are light brown and have slight markings (Estes 1993).
Range mass: 220 to 238 kg.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Habitat and Ecology
Favorable habitat is a mixture of savanna woodlands and grassland. Woodlands consist of fire-resistant, broadleaf deciduous trees scattered over an under story of sparse grasses that are grazed during the rainy season. Dry season feeding grounds are grassland areas that were once flooded, then burned, subsequently producing new growth. If possible, Hippotragus niger avoids extensive open lands (Estes 1993).
Typically, sable antelope are specialized grazers feeding on foliage and herbs, especially those growing on termite mounds. During the dry season they are less reluctant to browse (Estes 1993). One of the reasons for declining antelope numbers could be their very specific feeding pattern. Typically they will feed on grasses (up to ninety percent of their diet) at heights of 40-140 millimeters from the ground taking only the leaf. In a savannah setting, sable antelope are the last to feed on the new grasses available during the late dry season when food availability is vital (Spinage 1986). In the paddock setting, where grasses are tall (above 140mm), feed is high in protein and low in fiber, and sable antelope quickly lose weight. In a particular enclosure study, sable antelope fed primarily on Brachiaria nigropedata, which only had a frequency occurrence of 3.9% across the study area (Wilson and Hirst 1977). The correlation of neck length, angle of the jaws and selective feeding habits serves to separate Hippotragus niger from other grazers and suggests why they are habitat limited (Spingage 1986). Water is visited at least every other day and no sable antelope will travel more then 2 miles from a watering hole or river. Salt licks are visited periodically and they will chew on bones to get trace essential elements not present in mineral-deficient soil (Estes 1993).
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )
Sable antelope help to cycle grass/plant nutrients into other areas and the young are prey for large predators.
Lions seldom attack adults, because of their size and the formidable fighting abilities of these antelope. Humans are the only real threat to adult sable antelope and their populations (Spinage 1986). Young Hippotragus niger are susceptible to predation by lions, leopards, hyenas, African hunting dogs and crocodiles.
- lions (Panthera leo)
- leopards (Panthera pardus)
- hyenas (Hyaenidae)
- African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus)
- crocodiles (Crocodylidae)
- humans (Homo sapiens)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Sable antelope in the wild can live up to 16 years and over 19 years in captivity ( http://www.marwell.org.uk/anim-25.htm).
Status: captivity: 17.0 years.
Status: captivity: 19.8 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Dominant males defend harems of females and their immediate foraging territory extending 300 to 500 meters out from the herd. These dominant males mate with females in their harem and vigorously defend them against intruding males (see behavior section). Males may drop to their knees and engage in horn wrestling in fights. Fatalities from these fights are rare.
Mating System: polygynous
Hippotragus niger females usually undergo only one estrous cycle per breeding season that last from May to July, with a peak mating in June. Gestation lasts 8 to 9 months, allowing for birth at the end of rains. Normally one calf is born during the end of the rainy season when long grass is available for cover. The mother stays concealed for the first week of the calf’s three-week hiding phase. After the first week, the mother joins a maternal group that the calf will eventually join. Yet, the calf will seek out the mother only for nursing. In fact, the mother-offspring bond is so feeble, even small calves will spend days apart in a divided herd. Weaning takes place six months after birth, usually towards the end of the dry season when “sourveld” vegetation is lowest in protein and other nutrients (Wilson and Hirst 1977). Females start to breed at 2.5 years old and congregate in social groups that are a rank hierarchy based on seniority. Males are subordinate to females until they are bigger. At 3 to 4 years of age males are evicted from female social groups and live in bachelor herds until they reach sexual maturity at 5 years (Estes 1993).
Breeding season: Mating occurs from May to July, birthing occurs from January to April.
Range number of offspring: 1 (low) .
Average number of offspring: 1.
Range gestation period: 8.63 to 9.07 months.
Average gestation period: 8.87 months.
Range weaning age: 6 to 8 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 2.5 to 5 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2.5 to 5 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); viviparous
Average birth mass: 16375 g.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Females care for their young primarily by nursing them and hiding them from predators. Young are weaned at 6 months of age.
Parental Investment: altricial ; female parental care ; post-independence association with parents
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Hippotragus niger
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Hippotragus niger
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 1996Lower Risk/conservation dependent (LR/cd)
IUCN lists Hippotragus niger as lower risk and conservation dependent, but declining numbers could lead to a threatened listing in the near future. The subspecies Hippotragus niger variani is listed as endangered due to habitat loss and trophy hunting. Studies in the past show that a complex blend of factors such as disease, malnutrition, and habitat quality compounded by interspecific competition and attempts to manipulate populations have limited sable antelope numbers. Historic data has demonstrated their tendency to be dense in some regions and practically nonexistent in others, even in well managed national parks (Wilson and Hirst 1977).
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i; no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
Total numbers of the Giant Sable surviving are estimated (2007) at 200-400 (P. vaz Pinto in litt to ASG, 2007).
Like other ungulates of the miombo woodlands, the Sable occurs at low density in comparison with ungulate densities in semi-arid savanna. Wilson and Hirst (1977) estimated density at 4/km in the Matetsi area of SW Zimbabwe, which they considered the best Sable habitat in southern African.
The survival of the Giant Sable through more than 20 years of civil war is highly encouraging, but its survival remains precarious as many Angolans who fled the Luando Reserve during the mid-1970s flood back to areas they had formerly evacuated. There have been recent incidents of hybridization of Giant Sable with Roan Antelope in the Cangandala N.P. (Vaz Pinto 2006).
Inbreeding, evidenced by increased calf mortality, is a major risk in many of the smaller, privately owned herds (Grobler and van der Bank 1994).
Luando Reserve and Cangandala N.P. are the essential strongholds for Giant Sable (East 1999). There have been calls for the establishment of a Giant Sable National park to encompass both these protected areas (Walker 2002).
Sable are held in captivity, although no individuals of the Giant Sable subspecies are held captive.
Hippotragus niger variani is listed on CITES Appendix I.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Sable antelope have no negative affects on humans.
Sable antelope are found in parks all across eastern and southern Africa offering an attraction to the ecotourism industry. Sable antelope are prized trophy animals to many big-game hunters and some are willing to spend thousands of dollars to hunt them. However, declining sable antelope numbers calls into question the advisability of hunting them.
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism
Hipotrachus niger has four subspecies:
- Hipotrachus niger niger or Black Sable (also known as the Matsetsi sable and Zambian) is regarded as the ‘typical' sable as it was the first to be described and named in 1838. Often referred to as the black sable because it tends to have the darkest coat, this subspecies occurs south of the Zambezi River, particularly in northern Botswana and large numbers in the Matsetsi valley of Zimbabwe but is also found in Southern Africa. In South Africa most of the commercial sable farmers crossed their Matsetsi sables (Indeginous to South Africa) with western Zambian sables in the hope to move nearer to the nearly extinct giant sable (that was larger with bigger horns.) Currently the believe is that there are only about 15% pure Matsesti sables in South Africa. The Matsetsi sable population in Zimbabwe is only 450. (was 24,000 in 1994).The sable population in South Africa is about 7000 (Commercial and in reserves). Therefore it can be concluded that the Matsesti sable population is less than 1500 and declining daily. Fortunately most of the sables in the reserves are pure Matsetsi sables. Anglo- American recently started a program of breeding pure Matsetsi sables commercially and keeping them pure.
- Hipotrachus niger variani the Giant sable antelope or royal sable is so named because the horns of both sexes are recognisably longer. Found only in a few remaining localities in central Angola. It is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List, and is listed on Appendix I of CITES.
- Hipotrachus niger kirkii the common or southern sable or West Zambie sable of central Angola , western Zambia and Malawi has the largest geographical range, which extends north of the Zambezi River through Zambia, south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi into south-western Tanzania. It is classified as vulnerable 
- Hipotrachus niger roosevelti the eastern sable or Shimba sable is the smallest of the races. It occurs in the coastal hinterlands of southern Kenya, particularly in the Shimba Hills National Park, and ranges through the region east of Tanzania's eastern escarpment and into northern Mozambique.
The sable antelope is sexually dimorphic, with the male heavier and about one-fifth taller than the female. The head-and-body length is typically between 190–255 cm (75–100 in). Males reach about 117–140 cm (46–55 in) at the shoulder, while females are slightly shorter. Males typically weigh 235 kg (518 lb) and females 220 kg (490 lb). The tail is 40–75 cm (16–30 in) long, with a tuft at the end.
The sable antelope has a compact and robust build, characterised by a thick neck and tough skin. It has a well-developed and often upright mane on its neck as well as a short mane on the throat. Their general colouration is rich chestnut to black. Females and juveniles are chestnut to dark brown, while males begin darkening and turn black after three years. However, in southern populations, females have a brown to black coat. Calves below two months are a light tan and show faint markings. The underparts, cheek, and chin are all white, creating a great contrast with the dark back and flanks. Long, white hairs are present below the eyes, and a wide, black stripe runs over the nose.
Both sexes have ringed horns which arch backward. In females, these can reach 61–102 cm (24–40 in), while in males they are 81–165 cm (32–65 in) long. The average lifespan of the sable antelope is 16 years in wild and 19 years in captivity.
Ecology and behavior
Sable antelope live in savanna woodlands and grasslands during the dry season, where they eat mid-length grasses and leaves. Sable antelope visit salt licks and have been known to chew bones to collect minerals. They are diurnal, but are less active during the heat of the day. They form herds of 10 to 30 females and calves led by a single male, called a bull. Males fight among themselves; they drop to their knees and use their horns.
In each herd, the juvenile males are exiled from the herd at about three years old. All of the female calves remain, however. When the herd gets too large, it divides into smaller groups of cows and their young. These groups form new herds, once again with only one adult bull. The young males, which have been separated from the herd, associate in "bachelor groups" of up to 12 individuals. Among the bachelors, the most dominant is the first individual to join a new group of females when the position is open. Very seldom, during their fights for dominance, are they able to inflict bodily harm to the contender.
When sable antelopes are threatened by predators, including lions, they confront it, using their scimitar-shaped horns. Many of these big cats have died during such fights. Numbers have been reduced severely as part of regional tse-tse fly control programs.
The grassland habitat of the sable is being reduced by habitat destruction for agricultural development. Antelope are important to their habitats as grazers and browsers. They are also important as prey for carnivores.
- IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group (2008). Hippotragus niger. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved November 2008.Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of Least concern.
- Nowak, R. M. (1999). Walker's Mammals of the World (6th ed. ed.). Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 1174–5. ISBN 0801857899.
- Huffman, B. "Sable antelope". Ultimate Ungulate. Retrieved 6 March 2014.
- R. D., Estes (1999). The Safari Companion : A Guide to Watching African Mammals, Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, and Primates (Rev. ed. ed.). White River Junction: Chelsea Green Pub. Co. pp. 98–100. ISBN 1890132446.
- "Hippotragus niger (mbarapi or sable antelope)". University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved 6 March 2014.