Known as: Sable Antelope
Spanish: Antílope Sable Negro
Latin: Hippotragus niger
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Genus: Hippotragus
Size: Body length: 190 – 255 cm
Shoulder height: 117 – 143 cm
Tail length: 40 – 75 cm
Weight: 190 – 270 kg


Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List. Four subspecies of sable antelope are currently recognised: Hippotragus niger kirkii (Zambian sable), H. n. niger (common or southern sable), H. n. roosevelti (eastern sable), and H. n. variani (giant or Angolan sable). Of these, the giant sable antelope (H. n. variani) is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List, and is listed on Appendix I of CITES.


A large, dark to black coloured antelope with an exceptionally long, upright mane along the neck. The face is white with a black blaze from the forehead to the nose. The belly and the hind of the buttocks is pure white. The front feet are larger than the hind. Calves are a light red-brown and the colour of cows ranges from a light brown to a dark chestnut-brown or brown-black. The back and saddle of young bulls are chestnut-brown, but turn black with age. The colour of the skin is also affected by the concentration of copper in the diet.

Males are black, females and subordinate males are reddish brown, both with a white undercoat and distinct facial markings. Some females are also black regardless of age. Sweeping horns that are ringed, arch back and average 32″ to 41″ in adult males; 23″ to 32″ in adult females. Both sexes have horns, with females’ usually shorter in length than mature males. Have longer tufts of hair on neck and shoulders. Tails are over 2 feet long with a brushy tip.

Four subspecies are recognized:

  1. H.n. niger the southern sable antelope found in southern Africa and eastern Africa as far north as southern Kenya
  2. H.n. variani the giant or royal sable of central Angola
  3. H n. kirkii the Zambian sable antelope of central Angola and western Zambia
  4. H.n.roosevelti the eastern sable antelope of Kenya

Genetic studies by Terry Robinson in the 1980s do not provide conclusive evidence of the sub-speciation of sable to the south of Kenya. Doubt also exists as to whether there is genetic differentiation between the northern form of the southern sable, found to the north of the Zambezi River, and the southern form, found south of the Zambezi River. At present both forms are still recognised as Hippotragus niger niger.

Giant Sable: The most notable of the sable subspecies is the giant sable, also known in Portuguese as the “Palanca Negra”. It is endemic to the Angolan peneplane and the adjacent ancient African plateau in central Angola between the Cuango and Luando rivers. This area includes the Luando Integral Nature Reserve and the Cangandala National Park. The habitat of the giant sable consists mainly of flat or gently undulating ecotones with open Brachystegia woodland and intersected edaphic grassland on sandy, acid soils where the annual rainfall exceeds 1 200 mm. It also includes extensive seasonal floodplains along the Luando and Cuanza rivers. It is the largest of the sable subspecies and its status has given rise to the name “royal sable”. An issue that requires further scientific investigation is the close resemblance between the giant and the large Zambian sable. Several populations of Zambian sable have been introduced into private game farms causing concern over the mixing of subspecies.

This stunning antelope rivals even the greater kudus as the most handsome of all antelope, with its powerful, robust build, vertical mane and fantastically long, curved horns, which arch majestically backwards. Newborn calves are born with a camouflaging, sandy-brown coat, but as they grow and achieve herd status their coats continually darken. Mature females eventually become a rich chestnut-brown to dark brownish-black and fully mature males are a glossy brownish-black to pitch-black, varying with the subspecies. Coat colour appears to be controlled hormonally, with castrated males losing their black colour to become brown again, and it is thought to help communicate age, and therefore social status, to others. Both sexes have sharply contrasting white abdominal, rump, and facial patches, and black facial stripes running down the bridge of the nose and from the eyes to the nostrils. The semi-circular, ridged horns are longer and thicker in males, growing up to an incredible 165 centimetres in length, while those of females reach a worthy 100 centimetres. These massive horns are very effective defensive weapons against natural predators and are used in dominance fighting.

Comparison To Man



Found in the southern savannah of Africa from southeastern Kenya, eastern Tanzania and Mozambique to Angola and southern Zaire, mainly in the Miombo Woodland Zone. The Critically Endangered giant sable antelope is confined to central Angola, where it is primarily located in the Luando Reserve and Cangandala National Park.


The habitat preference parameters are:

  • abundant stands of dense, intermediate to tall grasses 45-150 cm high of both sweet and sour species
  • open savannah woodland with scattered large trees and a lower stratum of moderately dense shrubland
  • flat to slightly undulating topography
  • well drained, sandy soil especially those derived from granite and quartzite
  • clean surface drinking water for daily consumption

Open grassy plains, short grass environments and thickets are avoided, except for adult bulls taking refuge in thickets. Sable are extremely susceptible to droughts with a severe, rapid depletion of forage quality. These often result in high mortalities. As they are intolerant of severe cold spells, it is essential that the habitat includes patches of thicket vegetation that allow refuge against cold and winds. However, if not confined by a lack of space or game fencing, they may migrate away from these conditions.

Preferred habitat is a mixture of open savanna woodlands and grassland, consisting of fire-resistant, broadleaf deciduous trees scattered over an under-storey of sparse grasses that are grazed during the rainy season. During the dry season, feeding grounds are floodplain grasslands that produce new growth after the annual fires, although extensive open plains are generally avoided.

Sable require a constant, high crude-protein and low crude-fibre intake. Thus they are highly selective of specific plant parts and least selective towards plant species. Young shoots and new growths on mature stems of intermediate to tall perennial grasses are grazed in preference. The preferred feeding zones are in seepage lines, areas around termite mounds and in ecotones between woodland and adjacent grassland savannah.

The diet consists of 85% grass, 10% woody browse and 5% broadleaf forbs. Roaming is mostly restricted to cooler daylight hours and daily water consumption is approximately 9 litres. Sable teeth wear rapidly especially after 10 years. Most sable that reach 13 years or older, die from starvation as their molars are worn down to the gums and they are unable to chew.


Sable antelope mate during the dry season from May to July when sub-populations congregate on remaining green pastures. Maternal herds of 15 to 25 breeding females and their young are led by a single alpha female. Young males are driven out of this herd at about three to four years of age and join bachelor herds of around two to twelve individuals. When around five or six years of age, males will establish and defend a territory at choice feeding grounds which attract females. The dominant male allows subordinate males to graze in his territory as long as they are submissive and show no interest in his females, but will fiercely fight any male that challenges his authority. Fights involve males circling one another, shaking their heads, dropping to their knees and engaging in ‘horn wrestling’. Fatalities are known, but rare. A bull also uses urine and faeces to scent-mark the perimeter of his territory to warn off all other rival bulls.

Peak mating activity occurs in June, and after a gestation of eight to nine months, females typically give birth to a single calf at the end of the rainy season, when food is abundant and the long grass provides sufficient cover. After birth, the calf remains concealed for at least two weeks, joined by its mother for the first week, before she returns to the maternal group that the calf will eventually join. The calf is weaned and fully independent at six to eight months of age. Females start to breed at two and a half years of age and attain rank status in the herd hierarchy based on seniority, while males are evicted from the social group at three to four years old. These males then join bachelor herds of two to twelve individuals until they reach sexual maturity at five years.

Most active in the early morning and late afternoon, sable antelope graze on a variety of short grasses abundant during the growing season and survive during the harsh dry seasonby browsing on herbs, bushes and trees. Water is visited at least every other day and no sable antelope will travel more then two miles from a watering hole or river. Adults are rarely attacked by predators such as lions because of their large horns and formidable fighting abilities, but the young, injured and old are vulnerable to predation by lions, leopards, hyenas, African hunting dogs and crocodiles.

Social structure

Sable are gregarious by nature and form stable family groups of 6-40 individuals (mean 14). Family groups consist of several adult cows of >3 years age, their young offspring of both sexes, some heifers and usually, one dominant bull of >6 years age. The young often form a crèche and are accompanied and guarded by 1-2 cows. Bachelor herds are unstable and consist of 2-10 bulls aged between 3-6 years. Post mature and non-dominant adult bulls of >10 years tend to become solitary nomads. Territorial bulls are single during the rut but outside it, most dominant bulls abandon their territories and join a family group. Family groups follow a matriarchal system with a strict hierarchical order of female dominance. Cohesion between family members is tight and females may bond for life.

Intensive production

Sable antelope adapt well to confined, manipulated, intensive production systems. In a natural optimal habitat without supplementary feeding, the size of breeding camps can be reduced to a minimum of 50-80 ha, while in marginal habitats such as the Kalahari Desert, a minimum size of 200 ha is advised.


In contrast to the roan antelope Hippotragus equinus of the same genus, the sable antelope is immune to anthrax. Sable are susceptible to frostbite in the marginal habitats of the cold, frosty areas of South Africa and ear tips, nostrils and the outer tissue of the lips can be destroyed. This does not kill the animal but causes permanent scars that reduce the animal’s trophy status and commercial value. In habitats such as the central regions of the Eastern Cape Midlands where the diet lacks sufficient trace metals such as copper, the hide coloration of sable antelope turns a dirty yellow-white instead of being dark brown to black. This decolouration reduces the sable’s commercial market value. The copper problem can be overcome with a two monthly inoculation of copper-sulphate but requires the capture, darting and physical handling of each animal at great cost and effort.


Sable antelope have been eliminated from large areas of their former range due to a combination of disease, drought-caused food shortages, and habitat loss and degradation, compounded by interspecific competition. Subsistence hunting poses an additional threat, and its powerful stature and imposing horns have also made this species a prized trophy animal to many big-game hunters, some of which are willing to pay thousands of dollars to hunt them. As the African human population continues to grow, the rate of habitat loss due to pressure for agricultural land, and poaching for protein-rich meat are likely to grow. The giant sable antelope (H. n. variani) occupies a particularly precarious position in Angola, and was classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List even before the commencement of 20 years of civil war. With the onset of civil war, most of the protected areas in which the giant sable antelope was found were evacuated, and have been left unattended and unprotected for more than 25 years.


With three quarters of the wild population living on protected natural habitat in national parks, national game reserves, private game reserves, conservancy lands, and private farms, this species is currently considered stable. Sable antelope are held in a number of zoos throughout the world, and the North American Regional Studbook has recently been published, helping to keep captive populations genetically healthy by coordinating breeding between institutions. However, due to their aggressive nature and strong social inclusion and exclusion structures, sable antelope can pose difficulties to captive management.

The Critically Endangered giant sable antelope occurs in the Luando Reserve and Cangandala National Park, but its future nevertheless remains uncertain. Strict legislation and enforcement are required to protect this magnificent animal from poachers, but before this is likely to become a viable prospect or priority, it is essential for the Angolan government to reach stability and for the quality of life of the Angolan people to be improved.


Seasonal breeders. Males may court and produce year round, but peak of rutting activity usually aligns with period following rainy season (in Africa). Gestation period of 8.5 to 9 months, birthing 1 calf. Males become sexually mature at a year and a half while females typically around 2 years of age.

Life Span

Up to approximately 17 years.

Keeping Sable

Very aggressive. Mature bulls may injure or kill other males as well as species like greater kudu and waterbuck, even humans. As selective grazers, can try fertilizing selected areas specifically for sable. Take to sodium salt blocks readily. If space is limited, removing maturing bulls may be appropriate, but may cause a drop in conception rate if only with female herd part-time.

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