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Author: Craig Boddington
Many African species stirs the hunters heart, but few evoke the raw emotions as the one dressed in a striking black tuxedo. Follow along with noted author, Craig Boddington as he pursues Africa's best dressed antelope - the sable.
Gentleman-adventurer Cornwallis Harris gets credit for first bringing the scimitar-horned wonder that is the sable antelope to the attention of the western world. In fact, his Wild Sports in Southern Africa, published in the 1830's, did much to fuel the thirst for adventure that, over the next half-century, led a generation of European hunters and explorers into Africa's hinterlands. Harris was almost certainly not the first European to encounter the sable; hardy Dutch hunters venturing inland from the Cape certainly preceded him, probably by more than a century. But Harris, like so many who followed him, was captivated by the striking appearance and regal bearing of this magnificent antelope. He brought skins and horns back from his long sojourn in Africa, and for many years the antelope we call the sable was widely known as "the Harris buck."
The sable takes its name from the glossy black coat carried by mature males. The dark body is offset by snowy white underparts and facial markings, with a long, black mane and tail. He is one of the larger antelopes, with bulls weighing perhaps 400 pounds or more. He has a thick neck and tall withers sloping down to his rump, giving him an impressive carriage. Even without his wondrous horns he would be a striking creature-but his horns are indeed fabulous. Heavily ringed and curving sharply back in wickedly tipped ellipses, the sable has horns that perhaps only the greater kudu can match for magnificence.
The sable (Hippotragus niger, "black horned horse") is of a genus that, historically, had three distinct species, the most distinct difference being color. The blaawbok (blue buck), so called for its odd blue color, was a herd animal found on the open plains of South Africa's Orange Free State. It became extinct by the middle of the 19th Century, and only a handful of skins and horns remain. The sable's closest living relative is the larger-bodied, shorter-horned roan antelope, aptly named for its russet color. The roan antelope actually occupies a larger range than the sable, but is rarely common, more cover-loving, and is generally far more difficult to hunt. If hunters were rational, the roan would be considered a greater prize than the sable-but a good roan has horn length in the upper 20 inches, while 40 inches is the magic number for sable (with horns exceeding 50 inches possible).
The sable is found discontinuously from coastal Kenya south to Mozambique and on west to Angola. There are essentially three races. The smallest and shortest-horned is the Roosevelt's sable of Kenya's Shimba Hills, with some populations in Tanzania recently identified as genetically identical. The common sable is found from central and western Tanzania down through Mozambique and on west to northern Namibia and southern Angola. The giant sable, not tremendously larger in the body but much longer in the horn, was known to occur only in isolated habitat in central Angola. Never plentiful and protected for many years, these magnificent creatures were believed to have been exterminated during Angola's long bush war. Still, their known habitat is extremely remote, and recently there have been many rumors-none proven to my knowledge-that a few may still exist.
The sable has always been highly prized for his appearance, but in years gone by he was also considered a most difficult prize. To a great extent this is because earlier hunters were obligated to seek him in the wrong places! Kenya's small population has been protected for generations, so when virtually all safaris took place in East Africa it was necessary to penetrate deep into then-Tanganyika to reach sable country. This was the situation when Hemingway hunted sable on the 1935 safari that yielded The Green Hills of Africa; and when Ruark took his sable on his Horn of the Hunter safari in 1951.
Later things changed. Sable were found to be extremely plentiful-at least locally-when safari hunting got underway in Mozambique, Rhodesia, Zambia, and Botswana. In recent years supply and demand have entered the picture, and the supply of mature sable bulls is never unlimited. So trophy fees have escalated, and it isn't unusual for a sable safari to carry "minimum day" requirements (by law in Tanzania and by custom in Botswana, the sable requires a 21-day safari; 14 days is required in Zambia). But this is not because the sable is especially difficult to hunt; in good country just a few days is usually plenty. Properly a creature of the mopane and brachystegia woodlands and miombo forest, the sable is a herd animal and primarily a grazer, tending to feed out into the clearings. He is quite visible and generally not especially wary. Matchless in appearance, in terms of hunting difficulty he is not on a par with the greater kudu or any other member of the spiral-horned tribe.
But of course that depends on where you hunt him, and how lucky you are! The first time I hunted sable I was in very good country in now-Zimbabwe-but I wasn't very lucky. Or, perhaps more accurately, I did a terrible job! I just plain missed a perfectly good bull standing on the edge of a herd in an open field. No excuse. Then professional hunter Barrie Duckworth and I crawled up on a nice bull standing in deep shadow. I simply couldn't make out how the bull was standing, so we kept crawling closer. Good heavens, I was carrying a .375; it didn't make any difference whether he was standing wrong-end to or not! But, having missed already, I had to be sure. So we kept moving in until the bull-who was indeed facing us-departed amid a clatter of brush.
Finally we got the drop on a truly huge bull-and I missed him. This time, smelling a rat, we backed off and I took a shot. My .30-06, always reliable until that moment, was shooting a foot high! We resighted the rifle, relocated the herd moving slowly through a brushy donga. Barrie told me he had seen the bull go behind a certain tree, and for me to get ready. I did, and when the sable stepped out I shot it. Except Barrie had told me to "get ready," not to shoot. I had hammered a big, long-horned cow with a perfectly centered shoulder shot, and we watched the bull run over the ridge! And that was the end of my first sable hunt!
It is actually not difficult to tell the males from the females. Both have similar horns, and (although thinner) cow horns can reach at least into the upper 30's. But only the mature bulls are coal black, while the cows are smaller-bodied and distinctly brownish. There is really no reason for a mistake. Except in shadow, and in haste, and in desperation!
My best sable came from Zambia's Kafue Plateau, always good sable country and today one of few regions that still produces really big sable. It wasn't really a hunt, not at all; we were headed back to camp after looking for buffalo tracks, and there he was. I love him for his beauty, but it was really just a chance encounter that lasted only a few seconds.
My favorite sable was taken in western Tanzania, near the Ugalla River. We had waited in a machan for a sitatunga, and shortly after dawn a beautiful sable bull took his troop of cows to the river to drink. They were far off across a dried floodplain, and we watched them for a long time while they drank, then fed their way back toward the brush line. By then it was clear that no sitatunga would appear that day, so Geoff Broom asked if I would like to stalk the sable. So I did, alone, getting my shot about an hour later. It was a good shot, but not quite good enough. We tracked the herd through much of the morning, finally taking the bull as he lagged behind.
The first bullet had apparently failed to open, passing just behind the heart and exiting the off-shoulder. This is a tribute to the sable's toughness. He is one of the animals that gives credence to the old saw about how tough African animals are. Some are and some are not-but the sable definitely is! His appearance of high shoulders is caused by long dorsal projections off the spine. It is very easy to shoot a sable too high, and if you do you are very likely to lose him-but even if you hit him well he won't give up easily. Together with roan and all the oryx, he is also among very few genuinely fierce antelope. They know how to use those scimitar horns, defending themselves well against lions. Always approach a downed sable with caution-and never from in front!
Today the greatest concentration of sable is found in Zimbabwe, the only country where sable are still available on short and relatively economic hunts. Regrettably, supply and demand are such that the trophy quality isn't what it used to be-it takes at least seven or eight years for a sable bull to reach his full potential, and few live that long today. The best quality still comes from Zambia's Kafue blocks, northern Botswana, and central Tanzania's Rungwa-the catch being that, unlike good country in Zimbabwe, sable are not plentiful enough in these areas for success to be assured! Depending somewhat on the area, sable bulls are generally mature at somewhere near 38 inches of horn. A 40-inch bull, always and forever, is considered a good sable-but just a decade ago there were several places where it was possible to hold out and have some expectation of taking a bull in the mid-40's. Those days are largely over, but I'm not sure it matters. The white face mask and black cape of a mature sable bull are so striking and so beautiful that, with this animal, a few extra inches of horn aren't really that important!
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