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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.




Sable antelopeA 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.

Sable antelopeThe breeding herd consists of adult cows, and juveniles and calves of both genders. Young heifers may remain with their natal breeding herd throughout life, but young bulls are evicted from the breeding herd by a dominant bull at the age of about three years when he joins a bachelor herd. The evicted bulls join the bachelor herds or at times remain solitary. The breeding herds move through the territories of various territorial bulls and such a bull will attempt to retain a breeding herd within his territory during the rut by herding the herd with loud snorts and vicious sweeps of the horns when any adult cow seems to stray. When a breeding herd moves out of the territory of one territorial bull it will receive a similar treatment by the next territorial bull being encountered.

In a breeding herd one or more adult cows will establish dominance while the other cows follow them in a strict social hierarchy, to be followed in turn by the subadult bulls, the subadult cows, the yearling bulls, the yearling cows and lastly by the calves. The dominant cows lead the breeding herd to food and water sources but they are always subservient to the dominant bull. Dominance among the adult cows and young animals is displayed by a stiff-neck attitude, while the young will also chase each other around and spar with their horns, but serious fighting does not occur in the breeding herd. When a bull becomes five to six years old in a bachelor herd, he will start to challenge a dominant bull for his territory or he may establish his own new territory in a vacant area. The bachelor herd therefore plays an important role in the social life of the sable antelope population.




Range and behaviour

Sable antelope

The size and nature of the ranges of sable antelope herds vary with the quality of the habitat. In some regions the ranges of the breeding herds may overlap by some 20 per cent. In the northern Limpopo province a breeding herd uses a mean range of some 9.23 km2, in northern Mpumalanga province one of 17.7 km2, in northern North West province the ranges vary from 14 to 44 km2, and in Kenya from 10 to 24 km2. Sable antelope breeding herds tend to spend a few days in a relatively small area of their total range before moving to another such area. At 25 to 40 ha, the ranges of the territorial bulls are much smaller than those of the breeding herds and they usually do not overlap. These ranges may be occupied permanently for up to two years.

Territorial bulls will break tree and shrub branches and strip the bark off with their horns. This may be a way of marking their territories. The sable antelope is most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Most of the breeding herd members will rest during the middle of the day, especially on hot days, but some individual animals may continue to graze without resting. When a sable antelope rests, it lies down or stands up in the shade of a tree, often while ruminating. When the breeding herd rests the young animals and calves may often congregate but the reason for this behaviour is not yet clear.

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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


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