May 24, 2011
In 1837 Cornwallis Harris first described to the western world the wondrous animal we call the sable antelope. No sensible list of the world's most beautiful creatures could fail to include the sable somewhere near the top. The mature sable bull has a glossy, coal-black coat offset by a white face mask and underparts. This plus his powerful shoulders and regal bearing would be enough to set him apart, but he's crowned with thick, heavily ringed scimitar horns that on a big bull seem to nearly reach his rump.
The sable antelope is just plain magnificent, and it is one of Africa's most prized antelope trophies. Paradoxically, by both habit and habitat the sable is often not especially difficult to hunt. It is a herd animal of the fringes, preferring woodland habitat but often coming out into open dambos to feed. When caught in the open, its shiny black hide can be seen at great distances, and the sable isn't generally as wary or difficult to stalk as the greater kudu, eland or a dozen other antelopes I could name.
That always depends on the sable's relative density and the thickness of the cover. Sable seem to be sensitive to drought and also to man's intrusion. In today's Africa there aren't many areas where sable can still be considered plentiful. Where they're thin on the ground, they can be extremely difficult to find.
Sable are "on quota" in a couple of the Lower Zambezi areas where I do a lot of hunting. This is a region of thick mopane woodland with few openings, big country with a small quota, reflecting a scattered population. I've hunted this region annually since 2004, several months in total. I can count on one hand my actual sightings of sable antelope. However, I've never actually hunted sable in this area. If you dig around in the right places, you can find them.
It's somewhat different in good sable country in coastal Mozambique, western Zambia and western Tanzania, where the sable is one of the most common large antelopes. Add a large population and more open country, and sightings are common. In September 2010 I hunted the Kigosi Game Reserve in western Tanzania. I saw herds of sable almost every day, generally with good bulls in their midst. Sable were on license, but I very much wanted not to take one, because these weren't the sable I was looking for.
There are actually several races of sable. These in western Tanzania were of the most widespread common race,
Hippotragus niger niger, found from southern Africa northeast to western and central Tanzania. Tanzania has another sable, a bit smaller, often with reddish highlights in its coat. This is H. n. roosevelti, named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt. Though they were once believed to exist only in
Kenya's Shimba Hills, recent DNA testing has proven that the sable of southeastern Tanzania are in fact Roosevelt's. After Kigosi, I had a chance to spend a few days in the Kilombero Valley south and west of Selous, the sole purpose being to take Roosevelt's sable. There's just one sable on a Tanzanian license, so I had to ignore an awful lot of temptation.
Kilombero is a beautiful area of rugged hills rising from brushy valleys. Best-known for big herds of buffalo and notoriously ill-tempered lions, it holds quite a lot of sable, but the cover is thick and, as I quickly discovered, they aren't easy to find. We got on a nice herd late the second evening, but it was just too dark to sort them out. That group vanished utterly, but on the third evening we got onto a nice bull feeding in open mopane. My friend and PH Michel Mantheakis thought we might do better, but the clock was running out fast so I insisted on a stalk. We got on him, but remembering
Michel's uncertainty, I held off and the moment passed. We never saw that bull again.
This set us up for the greatest sable hunt of my life. That plus one more thing. Late the next morning, after seeing almost nothing since dawn, a gorgeous sable bull stood on a timbered ridge 200 yards above us. It was a thread-the-needle shot between trees, and although the shower of bark was spectacular, the sable was unimpressed.
We moved to the top of the ridge and briefly saw sable moving in a thick hollow below--four or five cows, a black bull, then another black bull, the two sparring. It was too thick to determine which was which, and after a brief scuffle they moved on. Much later we realized that the young bull had the herd and the old boy was shadowing, looking for an opening. I was sick, but Michel was determined. These hills had been burned, and in the powdered ash we had a chance to follow their tracks.
Mind you, it wasn't a great chance. The ridges were steep and rocky, with wide areas where tracking was impossible. We went very slowly, time and again losing the tracks and circling ahead. In our favor was that it was now blistering midday, and only the one bull had actually been spooked. What little wind was present was in our favor, and visibility in the burn was pretty good. If we could just hold the tracks, we had a good chance to find them resting in shade.
Up one ridge, down another, running short of water. Michel's trackers performed miracles, circling far ahead to find just one of the faint triangular tracks. Eventually, the spoor led us to a narrow table on top of a mountain. Here the sable had rested, leaving several piles of dung, but which way had they gone? This was the worst tracking of all--sun-baked ground the fire hadn't reached. We were moving very slowly when sharp-eyed young Andy MacDonald, our cameraman, stopped us and pointed ahead. How in the world he saw a slightly blacker spot in black shadow is beyond me, but binoculars showed it to be a sable bull, thick horns and partially seen curve confirming that it was the correct one.
There was no shot, and then, nervous, the bull took a few steps and there was another thread-the-needle shot. He bailed off the ridge, and we found him in a deep gully just below the crest, an incredible old bull at the end of his life, blind in one eye with massive secondary growth at his horn bases. I have much bigger sable of the common race, but I'm sure he will stand as my most memorable Roosevelt's.