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The social behaviour of the sable antelope

30 June 2016

 

Appearance and habitat

The name sable antelope describes the colour of this stocky but graceful antelope with its long, sweeping horns that curve far backward. The adjective sable is an Old French word for black although the fur of the sable Martes zibillina, a type marten from the East, is actually dark brown. It is consequently an incomplete name and semantic error to refer to the sable antelope merely as a sable as has become common in English usage in South Africa.

The sable antelope Hippotragus niger occurs along the eastern parts of Africa from south of the equator in Kenya southwards. In its natural distribution in South Africa it was confined to the north-eastern parts of the North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces. In other parts of Africa it was once so abundant that it was hunted for its meat to feed hunting expeditions, missionaries and soldiers.

The sable antelope is gregarious and usually forms breeding herds consisting of ten to 30 adult cows, young animals and calves that are attended by a dominant bull in a territory that encircles a breeding herd. However, in prime habitats in open woodlands that also have an abundance of water in the form of wetlands and a good cover of tall, palatable grasses, herds of up to 200 animals are known. Apart from the breeding herds and their territorial bulls, the sable antelope also forms bachelor herds that contain young bulls and older bulls that have been evicted as territorial, herd bulls.

 
 




 
 

Hierarchy

A territorial bull establishes a territory around a breeding herd when he becomes five to six years old and weigh at least 200 kg. Such a bull remains territorial until he is evicted by a younger bull when he grows too old to defend his territory physically. Territorial defence occurs through displays which are designed to intimidate an opponent, but sable antelope bulls will also fight to the death. In a typical display the neck is held stiff and the head erect with the chin tucked in and the neck muscles contracted. The bull may also present his body laterally to an opponent with his twitching tail held out stiffly. When fighting, a sable antelope bull will drop onto his knees while sparring with his opponent with his horns. This may be accompanied by bellowing and clashing of the horns while slashing at the opponent with the long horns whose tips are sharp and form deadly weapons. Unwary hunters may also fall prey to attack when a wounded animal that feigns death is approached to closely before ascertaining that it is indeed dead... (Become a subscriber for more)

 

References:

Bothma, J du P & J G du Toit (Eds) 2016. Game ranch management, sixth edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Kriek, J C 2005. The sable antelope. In: J du P Bothma & J G du Toit (Eds), Intensive wildlife production in southern Africa. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pages 138 - 146.

Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pages 663 - 666.

article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

Other sable antelope articles:

 

 

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