Selati’s Sable Antelope

One of the main features of Selati Game Reserve (SGR) are Sable antelope. I spent a week with CNP Safaris in September last year at SGR with a group of wildlife photographers visiting the newly commercialised Klipspringer Lodge to experience its photographic hide and unique wildlife, flora and landscapes opportunities.

“The most beautiful gift of nature is that it gives one pleasure to look around and try to comprehend what we see.” ~ Albert Einstein.

The Selati Game Reserve is a large reserve, with diverse topography and biodiversity. In the east, there are large granite hills, where Verreaux’s eagles and Klipspringers can be found. The dominant vegetation types are Combretum and Mopane woodland. This habitat is well-suited to the large elephant and giraffe population found there. Special species occurring in this reserve are Sable and Eland.

This game reserve hosts several wonderful lodges nestled below and among magnificent granite outcrops and pockets of verdant indigenous flora, which provide SGR’s unique topography and lowveld vistas.

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” ~ Edward Abbey.

The reserve has a strong conservation orientation where its objective is to manage the area back to its original state of biodiversity while keeping the indigenous species intact and tourism impact low.

There are four species of Sable antelope in Africa : Southern, Zambia, Eastern and Giant or Angolan. The Sable species found in SGR is the Southern species. Between 1930 and 1960 in the Letaba/Gravelotte area of Limpopo, the number of Sable antelope decreased from an estimated 20 000 to 1 500. Research revealed that the development of livestock farms, deterioration of habitat and uncontrolled hunting were the main reasons for this dramatic decrease in animal numbers. Sable had been freely roaming in SGR when the reserve was formed in 1993 and SGR focused on breeding Sable as a crucial source of income to fund the nature reserve.

The populations of several herbivores in the Kruger National Park (KNP) declined further in the 1970s and 1980s, partly due to several years of low rainfall. With the increase in rainfall in the 1990s, numbers of most species increased, but the Roan, Tsessebe, Eland and Sable numbers failed to pick up. The population growth rate of Sable and Roan remained depressed despite improved rains, suggesting that rainfall was not the only contributing factor to their low recovery rate. The young male in the next image is attempting to improve the low recovery rate with a young female.

Sable antelope numbers in KNP crashed from an estimated 2 240 in 1986 to 1 232 in 1993 and again dropped to around 507 in 1999 and around 300 today. The population estimate does not include formally and privately protected areas outside the natural distribution range which expand the population of mature individuals to a range of between 643 and 857 individuals. Available census methods are not accurate enough to determine the exact size of this small population.

Over the period 1991–2015, there has been an estimated decline in KNP of 71% ; and an overall decline, based on 10 protected areas within the natural distribution range, of 65%. The KNP subpopulation appeared to stabilise between 2004 and 2012 at around 385 to 400 individuals.

There is an estimated 6 995 individual Sable existing on private game farms and ranches within and outside the natural distribution range. Less than 10% of these individuals could be considered wild (at least 68% existing in breeding camps or enclosures). The total number eligible for the Red List ranges from between 84 and 490 mature individuals, bringing the total estimate of the wild and free roaming population of between 820 and 1350 mature individuals.

Between 1930 and 1955, KNP built earthen dams to sustain water supply in the more arid central and northern parts of the park. More artificial water points were built between 1955 and 1959 on concerns of reduced access to sections of the Sabie river at that time. In the following 20 years, park management began to notice, especially along the western boundary of Kruger, that the seasonal migrating species such as Zebra and Blue Wildebeest were no longer following their summer / winter grazing routes but rather begun to anchor around these artificial water points. Sable need water daily so they also began to concentrate on the artificial water points.

“All things are bound together. All things connect. Whatever happens to the Earth happens to the children of the Earth.” ~ Chief Seattle.

The initial decline in Sable numbers was attributed to deteriorating habitat quality and increased predation pressure following the installation of artificial water points.

The increase in herbivores around the water points attracted lions and hyaenas, increasing predation. At the same time, the Zebra, Wildebeest and Buffalo probably changed the types of grass growing in the erstwhile Sable strongholds. Sable are known to be selective herbivores while zebra and buffalo are less selective and graze on all types of grass.

The Sable Antelope is an “edge” species which frequents the woodland/grassland ecotone. They are selective feeders with a preference for fresh growth grasses (40– 140 mm) of both sweet and sour species, found in mixed veld. Sable are dependent on drinking water and will drink daily so are susceptible to droughts when there is a rapid depletion in forage quality. They also do not like severe cold spells and seek out thick vegetation to shield against the cold and winds.

The Sable and Roan antelope are members of the Hippotragus family. The scientific name, Hippotragus is a composite of two greek words, where “hippo” means horse-like and “tragus” meaning goat. The Sable antelope has horse-like physical features with a long face and caprine (goat-like) ears. It has a powerful neck and shoulders. The adult Sable antelope is characterised by its glossy black coat with white under parts and white facial markings. Cows and young are dark brown in colour. Both sexes have stiff black manes along the dorsal aspects of their necks. The shoulder height of bulls is around 1.4 metres, and they can weigh up to 270 Kg. The bull only reaches full maturity around six years of age.

“Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.” ~ Matt Hardy

There is little dimorphism in body size. A mature bull is larger than a female and his scimitar shaped horns are longer and more curved. Females and juveniles form herds, while sub-adult males tend to stay with the herds for longer than other antelope and eventually form bachelor groups.

Both sexes have long horns, which are ridged, and which curve backwards. Tips of horns are smooth and sharp pointed. The scimitar-shaped horns of mature bulls can be up to 1.6 m in length. Horns on females are shorter and slimmer. A Sable’s ears are brick red at the back and shorter than that of the Roan antelope. The horn of young become visible at the age of two months.

A young sable bull. His pelage was darkening and his horns were not fully developed. His gender is evident from the penal sheath at the base of his belly.

Sable antelope occur in herds between 10 and 30. As they grow older, Sables change colour. Calves are born reddish-brown, with virtually no markings. As they age, the white markings appear, and the rest of the coat gets darker — the older the animal, the more striking the contrast.

A small herd of adult Sable bulls. Bulls compete for females and territory. The fights are ritualised. Initially they posture and attempt to show their dominance without resorting to battle. When bulls do decide to fight they drop to their knees and engage in robust horn wrestling battles.

“Photography helps people to see.” ~ Berenice Abbott

You will notice, lighter coloured skin patches on male’s foreleg knees where the hair has been worn away and callouses have formed as a result of them kneeling down to horn wrestle.

“The pictures are there, and you just take them.” ~ Robert Capa

When attacked a Sable antelope can run at speeds of just under 60 kilometres per hour for up to three kilometres. When cornered or wounded, a Sable antelope will fight back. The Sable will slash with their horns back and forth across its back at great speed in an attempt to impale their adversary. Many years ago, Dr John Condy, a family friend’s father and wildlife vet in Zimbabwe, told a story of finding a lioness and a Sable both dead but with a lioness impaled on the Sable’s horns.

The Sable together with the Roan antelope are considered rare antelope. They are both striking in appearance. The first time a Sable emerged from the trees behind the waterhole it was a real thrill to see this regal antelope approach the waterhole. It would stop and listen at the edge of the open area around the waterhole and when satisfied there were no threats it would approach the water.

Invariably the Sable would stand at the edge of the water and listen and look around again before bending down to drink. This gave us many opportunities to capture their poise and stature. The Sable came to drink every day, mostly during the day but sometimes at night. The Klipspringer hide proved to be a wonderful feature from which to photograph Sable in numbers.

“If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.” ~ Jay Maisel

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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