Sable spotting from the Chobe

There are only three places I have seen Sable Antelope in southern Africa.  Many years ago, I saw a herd of Sable in the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve. There is a herd in Borokalalo Nature Reserve. I have heard there are Sable in Kruger Park but I have never seen them there. I have frequently seen Sable along the Chobe river, which flows along the northern Botswana border with Namibia. I would describe many of our antelope as beautiful but this is one antelope that I think takes the mantle of regal.

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.”

~Rachel Carson

Just down stream from the Chobe Safari Lodge we came across this Sable nursery. Around six or seven females were looking after a large group of youngsters.  It is interesting that they have a roan colouring before they mature. They already have the white markings on their face with the black malar stripe from their eyes.

This female Sable separated from the nursery group. She was looking for a place to drink and being extra careful as away from the herd there were no extra eyes to watch for crocodiles or “flat dogs” as we like to call them.

As a Sable matures its coat changes colour from its brownish roan colour to a black with a beautiful sheen. The males begin darkening and turn black after about three years. Their facial colouring becomes more distinct.  The Sable’s underparts, cheek, and chin are all white while its back and flanks are dark brown to black. The Sable’s has a black stripe on top of its forehead and nose. The hair around its eye is dark and a dark malar stripe extends down to between its nostril and mouth. The dark colouring around the eyes is presumably to reduce glare as these antelope are diurnal.

“We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
~Rachel Carson

These semi-adults were very skittish coming down to drink from the Chobe river around mid-morning. One of their favourite drinking spots seemed to be Elephant Valley, which is located  upstream of the Chobe Safari Lodge. This area gives the drinkers a fairer chance against their underwater predators because the approach to the water is flat and the water is shallow.

Adult female Sable have semi-curved horns while adult bulls have full curvature horns. The horns arch backwards and are ringed. Females horns are smaller and vary between 61cm and 102cm. The male’s horns grow to between 81 and 165 cm long.

Elephant Valley is a wide drainage gully leading down to the river’s edge. There is thick vegetation either side of the gully. This is a good ambush area for predators, so at least one member of the drinking group  watches the area behind them.

The slightest disturbance triggers a flight response.

It is interesting to see this female kneeling down to drink. Sable bulls often kneel down when they fight using their head and horns to push each other around. 

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew i would never see it again?”
~Rachel Carson

A Sable has a robust frame with a strong looking neck. The Sable antelope is sexually dimorphic meaning its colouring and shape looks the same. The adult males are physically bigger and have longer fully curved scimitar-shaped horns.

Sables change color as they mature. 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.

It is unusual to see a lone Sable drinking down at Elephant Valley given it is an ideal ambush ally.

“We are not truly civilized if we concern ourselves only with the relation of man to man. What is important is the relation of man to all life.”
~Rachel Carson

This adult female Sable was on her way to drink from the river but was very wary around the water’s edge.

Sable antelope prefer woodland savanna areas and graze on grass in these areas and their muzzles are suited to browsing on leaves.

Sable are never found very far from water and are especially dependent upon it during the dry season which is why we regularly see Sable along the Chobe river.

Having sated his thirst, this Sable bull was strolling back into the bush alongside the Chobe river.

“Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”
~Rachel Carson

A lone Sable bull drinking from a pool in Chobe National Reserve.

The same lone Sable bull alerted by a noise in the surrounding bush.

The pedestrians were impressed with the passing Sable bull.

Another lone Sable bull came down to the Chobe River to drink. He seemed unfazed by possibility of crocodiles or “flat dogs” in the water.

“Drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see.”
~Rachel Carson

Beautiful reflection of the same Sable bull.

This large powerful Sable bull sated his thirst and strolled back into the treeline away from the openess of the riverbank. Look at the sweep of those horns, he was a mature bull. Big cats have died while fighting Sable antelope. They defend themselves from lions and other predators using their sharp scimitar-shaped horns. The Sable has a powerful and very flexible neck so when a predator attacks a Sable from behind, the Sable will arch its neck back and sweep those horns across its back. Any lion trying to hang onto the Sable’s back will get impaled. It is known that a fight to the death can be mortal for predator and prey, with a lion dead still impaled on a the dead Sable’s horns. These massive horns are very effective defensive weapons against natural predators and are used in dominance fighting.

The Sable Antelope is classified in IUCN Red List as of least concern with the population (wild and farmed) estimated at 75,000 in southern and east Africa. That said the Giant Sable is all but extinct. IUCN record total numbers of the Giant Sable surviving in 2007 at 200-400 and is classified as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red list. The giant Sable Antelope is the national symbol of Angola and revered for its power, beauty and visual sharpness.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home’. It is all these things but one thing – it is never dull.”

~Beryl Markham

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


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