By Craig Boddington
The magnificent sable antelope, Hippotragus niger “black horse-goat” was identified to Western science by Cornwallis Harris in 1836, initially called “the Harris buck.” The body is indeed horse-like, tall at the withers with powerful shoulders, thick neck and an erect mane. Black is also apt, except only mature males attain the glossy black color. Young animals are yellow-tan, mature females varying from mahogany to chocolate. Face mask and underparts are bright white. Weighing up to 500 pounds, it’s a large antelope, with thick sharp-tipped, heavily ringed horns that rise up and sweep back, often curving down into a “C” formation. We refer to it today as the common sable.
Its closest relatives are the roan antelope and extinct blue antelope (bloubok), which share its body shape and curved horns. It is also closely aligned with the several oryxes and addax, which have distinctly different coloration and horns.
Two subspecies of sable have been identified: giant sable and Roosevelt sable. Both are slightly smaller in body as compared to the common sable. But H. n variani — the long-protected giant sable of Angola — is indeed a giant in headgear. Giant sable horns frequently exceed 60 inches, a mark never approached by a common sable. The third sable is the Roosevelt sable, H. n. roosevelti, of coastal Kenya and southeastern Tanzania.
This sable is also slightly smaller in the body than the widespread common sable. Horns are identically shaped, but distinctly shorter. Common sables will rarely exceed 50 inches, while the biggest known Roosevelt sable bulls have reached into the mid-40s. Similarly, a common sable with 40-inch horns has always been thought of as excellent; a Roosevelt sable is equally excellent at about 34 inches. So, there’s about a 15 percent difference in average horn size. That’s important to know in field judging.
The Roosevelt is almost identical to the common. Sables vary in facial markings, but both common and Roosevelt sable are typically white on lower muzzle and jaw, black above the lower jaw, black from horns to muzzle, with a white stripe from eye to muzzle. This stripe is absent in giant sable, also often not seen in the sable of western Zambia, which is not far from Angola. The primary visual difference: Roosevelt sable bulls aren’t exactly glossy black, but upon close inspection have distinctly reddish highlights, especially on neck and shoulders.
It is commonly thought that the Roosevelt sable is named for Theodore Roosevelt. It was indeed “discovered” during the 1909-10 Roosevelt safari, but actually named in honor of Kermit Roosevelt, the President’s son, who was present throughout the epic expedition. During the course of the safari, American zoologist Edmund Heller visited the Shimba Hills in coastal Kenya and first described this sable as different from the long-recognized Harris buck. These animals were sometimes called East African sable, a poor choice because, although common sables don’t range north into Kenya, they are widely distributed in central and western Tanzania. More commonly, the Roosevelt sable was called Shimba sable, in the belief that they were confined to Kenya, primarily in the Shimba Hills.
Sable antelope are well-distributed throughout the huge Selous Reserve in southeastern Tanzania. Average horns are shorter than is likely farther west in the Rungwa and up toward Lake Victoria, so hunters just accepted that, for whatever reason, Selous sable didn’t get big. I could have taken a nice sable on my first hunt in Selous in 1988, but I passed because I had a better bull from Zambia. Did the same in 1995. You don’t know what you don’t know!
Up until Edition X of our SCI Record Book (2002), the Roosevelt or Shimba sable was listed as only occurring in coastal Kenya. There were no entries. Kenya’s small sable population, threatened and dwindling, had not been legally hunted within living memory. The much older Rowland Ward records list a dozen “East African or Roosevelt’s sable” from Kenya, the most recent taken in 1934.
Biologists long suspected that the smaller, red-highlighted Roosevelt sable extended south into Tanzania. In the late 1990s the Berlin-based Institute for Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research (IZW) began doing DNA research comparing tissue samples from both Kenyan and Tanzanian sables. Officially published in 2002, the results were definitive: Sables in eastern Tanzania are Roosevelt. Roosevelt sables extend in a narrow band from Kenya down the Tanzanian coast, then westward throughout the vast Selous Reserve, to the Kilombero Valley.
Exact southern and western boundaries have not been determined. They probably extend some distance west of Selous and must eventually hybridize with common sables. They also extend south of Selous, probably to the Ruvuma River on the Mozambique border but Selous is the limit of the scientific research.
These days, some hunters refer to sable in coastal Mozambique as “Roosevelt.” This is problematic because sable occur throughout the northern three-quarters of Mozambique, and on west across Malawi through Zimbabwe and Zambia. The vast majority of these must obviously be common sable. However, there is reason for suspicion, at least along the Indian Ocean coast. To my eye, the sables in coastal Mozambique are smaller in body than in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I have no data to support that, but they definitely average shorter in the horn, and the bulls I’ve taken and seen taken have reddish tints in their coats. At a minimum, it seems likely they show cross-breeding between common and roosevelti.
I’ve long been curious about this. The narrow Ruvuma River is not a natural barrier, but the mighty Zambezi could be. Right now, the answer is simple. The Roosevelt sables in Kenya are down to a couple hundred threatened individuals, hanging on and protected. The sable in and around the Selous Reserve are Roosevelt. Population estimates are 7,000 to 12,000 animals, about half in the Selous proper.
To the west, and to the south, we don’t know where the real boundaries should be because the research has not been done. If you want a Roosevelt sable, you must hunt within the known huntable range, which is in and around the Selous Reserve. Within this large area, the various hunting blocks have a sustainable and conservative quota between 70 and 80 bulls, not huge, but you won’t be chasing a unicorn.
For reasons I can’t articulate, I wanted a Roosevelt sable. In part I suppose, forbidden fruit. No one will ever hunt a sable in Kenya, and as the new research came to light, I realized I’d passed chances in the Selous. We didn’t yet know the Selous sable were roosevelti. I was back in the Selous in 2000. Although not official yet, the word on the street was that these were Roosevelt sable. Fine, but they aren’t behind every tree (or in every block), and the Selous is huge. I saw some cow herds, but never saw a mature bull. One of our group, Sean Dwyer, then with Remington, shot a good bull. Very mature. Thick, well-shaped horns in the mid-30s, an awesome sable. I suppose that’s the first Roosevelt I ever saw in a skinning shed.
In 2006, I did a 21-day hunt in Lukwika Game Reserve southwest of Selous. It was mostly an elephant hunt, but I figured we’d pick up some other game along the way. Surely a sable was possible. They typically aren’t that hard to hunt, if you can find them. With southern and western boundaries not defined, I was only assuming these were Roosevelt sable. I figured, if I got one we could argue about it! I didn’t get one, so there will be arguments.
Early in the hunt, just starting an elephant track, a nice bull elephant stood on a ridge above us. I didn’t shoot, and of course we didn’t get the elephant. Later, we saw a nice bull with a long horn. Note singular; the other horn was broken off short. I thought about it, passed. Got a nice tusker late in the hunt and never saw another sable.
Now the game was on. I wanted a Roosevelt sable! In 2010, just before Ron Bird’s SCI auction lion hunt, I went into the Kilombero Valley with Michel Mantheakis, specifically for a sable. In that area, there is no question, they are Roosevelt. But they aren’t common.
Lord, I missed a shot. Having done that, I suppose I didn’t deserve another chance.
We tracked that bull along a long, flat-topped ridge, caught him at the end, just about to drop into a deep valley. I took the shot offhand because I had no time for sticks. It was my last chance. At the shot, he whirled and vanished over the edge. The outcome was uncertain. We eventually found him 100 yards down. He was an awesome old bull, just shy of 40 inches, secondary growth well up on the horn bases. Still can’t tell you why I wanted a Roosevelt sable so bad, but he’s one of my favorite East African animals.