All you need to know about Sable Subspecies
Jet-black with flashes of white, powerful scimitar-shaped horns, the proud, pugnacious posture. Is there a more compelling animal in the antelope world than a mature sable antelope bull? I think not. Though not necessarily rare, sables are not commonly encountered on safaris due to their highly localized distribution and retiring nature. This makes sable sightings even more special.
Not all sables are alike. Geographical barriers such as mountain ranges and rivers often cause speciation among land animals by impeding genetic exchanges, and the sable has evolved to separate into four acknowledged subspecies, (or races), over millennia. I have been fortunate enough to encounter three of the four, and I present them here.
Hippotragus niger roosevelti (“Roosevelt’s sable”)
This subspecies is found in Kenya, (Shimba Hills National Park) and coastal Tanzania, (Selous Game Reserve and the margins of Saadani National Park). It is the smallest of the subspecies, adult male horns rarely exceeding 40 inches. The males are jet-black with a lot of sheen in the coat, and females are chestnut brown. White facial stripes extend all the way down to the nose. Though the Selous is a stronghold for this subspecies, the Roosevelt’s sable is rarely encountered in the tourist sector of the Selous. The only realistic opportunity to see them is at Shimba Hills in Kenya, where a dwindling population of about 50-100 hangs on.
Shimba Hills National Park, Kenya – 1995
H. n. roosevelti trivia – The subspecies is named after Kermit Roosevelt, not Teddy.
Hippotragus niger kirkii
This subspecies is found in western Tanzania, (separated in Tanzania from H. n. roosevelti by the mountain ranges of Udzungwa) and Zambia north of the Zambezi River. Adult male horns sometimes exceed 45 inches. Males are dark brown to jet-black. Females are chestnut brown to brown. Kafue National Park and Kasanka National Park in Zambia are excellent places to see them. While present in decent numbers in Ruaha National Park and Katavi National Park in Tanzania, one must make an exceptional effort to see them, as they occur very far from the normal tourist circuits in those parks.
An interesting aspect of this subspecies is that some mature bulls attain facial features resembling those of the giant sable subspecies, (discussed below), notably the two white facial stripes being abbreviated before they reach the nose. Some surmise that there must be a recessive, (or dominant), genetic trait that “clips” the white stripes, but others believe, (as I do), that there is simply a continuum in the degree to which the white stripes persist (or, more precisely, the degree to which the black frontal facial stripe encroaches onto the white). All females and young of both sexes have white stripes extending to the nose. As bulls mature, in some of them the single black stripe that extends from the base of the horns down the middle of the face to the nose, (the “black frontal facial stripe”), expands, thereby “clipping” the white facial stripes to differing degrees. I present three specimens below illustrating the continuum.
Full white facial stripes – Kafue National Park, Zambia – 2011
White facial stripes being encroached upon – Kafue National Park, Zambia – 2011
Clipped white facial stripes – Nchila Wildlife Reserve, Zambia – 2009
H. n. kirkii trivia – Why the hoopla over the facial stripes? Some Zambian game ranchers thought they possibly had giant sable or at least hybrids on their ranches. A genetic test disproved this possibility.
Hippotragus niger niger
This subspecies is found south of the Zambezi River in southern Zambia, the Caprivi Strip of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique. (The sable populations in Malawi and Mozambique are thought by some to be of yet a different subspecies (anselli), but this is not generally accepted. Adult male horns sometimes exceed 45 inches. Males are dark-dark brown to jet-black. Females are nearly as dark as the males. White facial stripes extend all the way down to the nose. Reliable places to see them: Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe; Chobe National Park, the Linyanti/Selinda/Kwando Concessions and the Vumbura, (Quedi), Concession in Botswana; Mahango National Park in Namibia; Liwonde National Park in Malawi; and Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Kruger National Park in South Africa used to be a stronghold, but for various reasons, sables are now extremely localized and rare in Kruger.
Vumbura Concession, Botswana – 2008
Note that the cow on the right is nearly as dark as the bull in the background. Vumbura Concession, Botswana – 2008
H. n. niger trivia – According to Richard Estes in Behavior Guide to African Mammals, the H. n. niger subspecies, which is characterized by very dark females, often forms the largest herds among the sable subspecies: “The reduced sexual dimorphism should enable male offspring to remain longer in female herds and would thus facilitate the formation of large, mixed herds.”
The previously described H. n. roosevelti, H. n. kirkii and H. n. niger subspecies together constitute “common sable”. Now comes the doozy: giant sable. Restricted now only to two separate locations in Angola, the giant sable, (Hippotragus niger variani), is the rarest and the most spectacular of them all. Adult male horns sometimes measure over 60 inches. The white facial stripes are always clipped in the mature bulls. It is my hope to see this magnificent animal in the wild one day, but for now I will have to make do with a surprisingly approachable bull I encountered at the Field Museum in Chicago:
H. n. variani trivia – A herd of giant sable in Angola began to interbreed with roan antelope, thus creating “roble” offspring, a potentially catastrophic situation for the giant sable herd. The remaining pure giant sables have since been isolated and put in a breeding enclosure.
Text and Images courtesy of @Safaridude.
Note: this article was originally intended for publication in issue 4 of the Safaritalk magazine.