The Sable Antelope

The sable antelope is an incredibly handsome antelope. Characterised by its glossy black coat with white under parts and white facial markings. A rotund, barrel-chested antelope with a short neck, long face and a dark mane. Both males and females boast impressive ringed horns that rise vertically and curve backward. When they arch their necks and stand with their heads held high and tails outstretched, they resemble horses. This flexed-neck position makes sables appear larger than they really are and is an important manifestation of dominance amongst males.

The Sable Antelope | Wild Eye | Travel | Photography | Michael Laubscher

The sable antelope is a special creature. In my eight years of hosting safaris I have only been lucky enough to view and photograph these animals twice. Once in the Okavango Delta and a second time on a recent trip to Tswalu. This was actually a subtile reminder to myself. These magnificent creatures are not a common sight and should be taken advantage of when presented.

Where can you find Sable Antelope?

The historic range of sable is much reduced today. In South Africa, the Kruger National Park is the distributional stronghold of this rare and endangered antelope. They can also be seen in other protected areas. Areas to which sable have been reintroduced, or introduced in areas where they have never occurred previously.

The best reserves to try your luck in finding and photographing sable antelope in the wild are:

  • Zimbabwe: The Matetsi Safari Area is probably your best bet, followed by Hwange National Park. You can also try the Zambezi National Park and Kazuma Pan National Park.
  • Zambia: Kafue National Park is not the only park in Zambia where sable occur, but probably your best bet.
  • Tanzania: Ruaha National Park or Selous Game Reserve.
  • South Africa: You stand a great chance of seeing this animal in Tswalu Private Game Reserve. The western parts of Kruger National Park. The area around Pretoriuskop camp seems particularly fruitful.
  • Namibia: Only in the Caprivi strip might you be lucky enough to spot the sable antelope.
  • Kenya: Shimba Hills National Reserve is the only reserve in Kenya with sable antelope.
  • Botswana: Chobe riverfront between the Kasane and Chobe Game Lodge; or if you're in the Okavango, try the Linyanti/Savuti area or the Vumbura concession.
  • Angola: Luando Integral Nature Reserve (Giant sable).

Distribution

The sable antelope occurs in savannah woodlands in southeastern Africa. In Southern Africa, sable antelope can be found in Zimbabwe, northeastern Botswana, scattered subpopulations in Mozambique, the northeastern part of the Caprivi Strip in Namibia and South Africa. Sadly, sable antelope have been eliminated from large parts of their former range. This is a result of by bushmeat hunting, habitat loss to agricultural expansion, habitat degradation and competition with other grazers, including livestock. This special antelope has the tendency to settle near water, in areas with good drainage and good grazing. Due to this they put themselves in direct conflict with humans who also value this type of land for agriculture and livestock.

The Sable Antelope | Wild Eye | Travel | Photography | Michael Laubscher

Population

The sable antelope occur at low densities compared to other ungulates of similar size in semi-arid savannahs, ranging from an estimated density of four individuals per km² in the Matetsi area of Zimbabwe  and three individuals per km² in Matopo National Park, Zimbabwe to a density not exceeding 0.5 animals per km² within the Kruger National Park. The total estimate of the wild and free roaming population is between 818–1,346 mature individuals. Sable antelope numbers in Kruger National Park crashed from an estimated 2,240 in 1986 to 1,232 in 1993 and again dropped to 507 in 1999. Over the period 1991–2015, there has been an estimated decline in the Kruger National Park of 71% (from 1,365 to 400 individuals) and an overall decline, based on 10 protected areas within the natural distribution range, of 65% (1,952 to 675 individuals).

However, studies done by Friedmann & Daly in the Kruger National Park tells us that this subpopulation appeared to have stabilised between 2004 and 2012. Sable population estimated at 400 in 2004 and 385 individuals in 2012. The initial decline was attributed to deteriorating habitat quality and increased predation pressure following artificial water point installation. More recently, Owen-Smith proposed that the reason behind the lack of current population recovery is a combination of reduced herd size (and thus increased vulnerability) and allee effect (lowered probability of finding mates). A recent study in the Kruger National Park found no differences in habitat features between the areas where herds still persist and areas from which herds have disappeared, suggesting that deteriorating habitat conditions are not the primary reason for the sable antelope decline.

Social Structure

The sable antelope group social structures will change with the seasons. Generally, this antelope's social structure is made up of small female herds shepherded by a territorial male during the rainy season and a merging of groups sharing grazing pastures during the dry season.

Males with the best territories have the best mating success. The herds have home ranges that encompass several male territories. Once a female group wanders into a male's territory, he tries to keep her there, especially if any females are in heat.

In some areas, breeding females give birth during a two month period, the timing of which changes slightly from year to year. When ready to give birth, the female, often in the company of several other pregnant females, leaves the herd and seeks a secluded place in the bush. After birth, she leaves the calf hidden in the tall grass or bush, returning once or twice a day to suckle the infant. After a couple of weeks, when the calf is strong enough, she takes it back to her herd. As the calves obtain adult coloration, the territorial males and the females push the young males from the natal herd. The young females remain, taking their place at the bottom of the herd hierarchy.

The Sable Antelope | Wild Eye | Travel | Photography | Michael Laubscher

Diet

The sable antelope are grazers of perennial grasses and are found mainly in medium to tall grasslands. Looking at the image above doesn't really back what I'm saying here. Guess this is the magic of Tswalu?

However, these intact grasslands are highly threatened in South Africa and only 10% are well protected. Now these beautiful creatures do mainly eat grass, but at times, will eat herbs and leaves from shrubs and trees in the drier months. They are never found very far from water and are especially dependent upon it during the dry season.

The Sable Antelope | Wild Eye | Travel | Photography | Michael Laubscher

Behaviour

The best time to be around the sable antelope is either in the early morning or late afternoon. Not only is this the time of day where the light is at its best, but the sable is also most active during these times. As the day starts to warm up, they will look for a cooler area to lay down to rest. But do not lose hope if you come across a herd resting in the late morning. I say this because usually around midday, they will get up, stretch and go and enjoy a drink of water which is usually not too far off.

Photographing Sable

With the sable being a very dark subject you may encounter a few challenges while photographing them. One factor that plays a large role is the environment they're in. The exposure can be tricky at times. Photographing herds can be challenging. This list can go on for a while but here are a few things to bare in mind when you photograph your next dark subject;

  • Less is more

If at all possible, try to single out an individual from the group. This will ensure that your viewers eyes fall directly onto your subject.

  • Think about the background

As for most photographs, your background plays a big role in making or breaking the image. But for photographs of black animals, it is especially important to consider how your background is affecting your subject in the photo. I say this because a very dark subject will usually blend into the environment a lot sooner than a lighter coloured subject.

The reason for this is because you have a subject that already easily loses detail due to its colour, you want to have a background that doesn't detract further. Backgrounds that are particularly busy will distract from your subject, so try to position yourself with a soft, minimal background to help your subject out stand out.
  • Get enough light

The important part of showing off the details of a dark animal is getting a balance between shadow and highlight, and not letting the animal be too dark in the photograph. This is where shooting using manual exposure settings (either in aperture or full manual) is invaluable. Be sure that you're exposing for the animal as the primary subject. You'll be able to adjust your settings so that your subject is perfectly exposed.

I believe that in post processing, it is easier to correct shadows than it is highlights. This is why I tend to expose more for the highlights when I shoot. I am still very aware of the darker areas when I shoot a scene like this. I will keep my eye on the histogram to ensure that I do not blow out my shadows/dark areas.

  • Don't be afraid of shadows and silhouettes

You have a 'walking silhouette' in a dark subject.

While you may be trying to learn tricks that will allow you to capture the most detail and dimension in a dark subject, don't be afraid to have fun with what comes easiest; shadows and silhouettes.

This image was created in good light conditions at 17:00, the so called golden hour. You might be wondering, why shoot the scene like this then? Remember, with a dark subject, you will always have a walking silhouette, so play with that! Have fun looking for these gaps and set yourself in a position to potentially capture a silhouette. If your patience and plan works out, trust me, its so worth it!

I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that the few tips I provided will help you in the future.

Please feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comments below.

Until next time.

Michael

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