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Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
      Order: Artiodactyla
        Family: Bovidae
          Subfamily: Hippotraginae
            Genus: Hippotragus

Hippotragus niger

      Sable antelope


Hippotragus niger [Harris, 1838].  
Citation: Athenaeum, 535:71.
Type locality: South Africa, Transvaal, Cashan Range (= Magaliesberge), near Pretoria.

Click on the pictures above for a larger view of the photographs

General Characteristics

Body Length: 190-255 cm / 6.3-8.5 ft.
Shoulder Height: 117-143 cm / 3.9-4.7 ft.
Tail Length: 40-75 cm / 1.3-2.5 ft.
Weight: 190-270 kg / 420-595 lb.

Sexual dimorphism is present in this antelope, although the exytent varies depending on location and subspecies.  Colouration is the most obvious difference, with females and young being bright chestnut to dark brown and mature males being chestnut to jet black.  The white belly contrasts greatly with the back and sides.  The face is white with a black facial mask consisting of a wide black stripe on the bridge of the nose, and stripes running from the eyes to the nose.  The thick neck is enhanced by a mane of stiff hair.  The semicircular, ridged horns are found in both sexes, although they are smaller in females.  In males they grow 80-165 cm / 2.6-5.5 feet long, while those in females grow 60-100 cm / 2-3.3 feet in length.

Ontogeny and Reproduction

Gestation Period: About 9 months.
Young per Birth: 1
Weaning: At 8 months.
Sexual Maturity: At 2-3 years.
Life span: Up to 17 years.

Breeding is seasonal, with births coinciding with the region's rainy season.  After birth, the calf lies concealed for at least ten days.

Ecology and Behavior

Sable antelope are most active during the early morning and late afternoon.  Where not persecuted, they are not excessively wary, often running a short distance when startled, then stopping and looking back.  However, when closely pursued, they can run as fast as 57 kmph / 35 mph for considerable distances.  When wounded or cornered, sable antelope viciously defend themselves with their saber-like horns.  The "critical distance" - the point at which an animal defends itself instead of fleeing - for sable antelope seems to be smaller than for comparable species.  Old bulls are believed to be territorial.  When fighting, males males drop to their 'knees' and engage in horn wrestling.  Fatalities from these combats are known, but are rare.  Maternal herds are led by a dominant male, who defends an area of 300-500 meters extending outward from the herd.  Recorded population densities vary between 0.4 and 9.2 per square kilometer, although the maximum sustainable density is believed to be less than 4 animals per square kilometers.

Family group: Maternal herds of 10-30 animals led by an adult male.  Males form small bachelor herds.  Larger mixed herds of over 100 animals have been recorded.
Diet: Medium high grasses, leaves.
Main Predators: Lion, leopard, spotted hyena.


Wooded savannas in south-eastern Africa.

Range Map (Redrawn from IEA, 1998)

Conservation Status

The sable antelope is considered a low risk, conservation dependent species, while the giant sable antelope, H. n. variani, is classified as critically endangered by the IUCN (1996).


In heraldry, 'sable' means black, a reference to the dark colouration of mature males.  Antelope is from anthalops (Greek) a horned animal, probably an antelope.  Another possibility, and also possibly the stem of anthalops, is anthos (Greek) a flower and ops (Greek) the eye which seems to refer to the beautiful eyes of the animals.  Hippos (Greek) a horse; tragos (Greek) a he-goat: a horse-like goat.  Niger (Latin) black, dark coloured.

Literature Cited

IEA (Institute of Applied Ecology).  1998.  Hippotragus niger.  In African Mammals Databank - A Databank for the Conservation and Management of the African Mammals Vol 1 and 2.  Bruxelles: European Commission Directorate.  Available online at

Nowak, R. M. [editor]. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World (Fifth Edition). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Walther, F. R. 1990.  Roan and Sable Antelopes.  In Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals.  Edited by S. P. Parker.  New York: McGraw-Hill.  Volume 5, pp. 437-447.

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder [editors]. 1993. Mammal Species of the World (Second Edition). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.  Available online at

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