Dec 092009
photo provided courtesy of Just chaos on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSoutheast Africa
Habitatmoist grassland
NicheLarge grassland herbivore
Favorite Foodgrass
Lengthbetween 6 and 8 feet long
Weightbetween 300 and 650 pounds
StatusLower Risk
ThreatsHabitat loss from ranching and farming

From a distance, the sable antelope looks like a small horse with horns. Although both the male and the female sables have the same markings on their bodies, the male is jet black and the female is a golden brown. Their fantastical appearance brings African unicorns to mind.

Sable antelope are peculiar relatives of horses, sheep, and goats. Both sexes sport two heavily-ringed horns the size and shape of curved swords atop their heads. These are the mark of their species, how males will determine dominance, and how the next generation will come about as a result.

The dry season has ended in Central Africa on a wide strip of grassland running from Kenya to South Africa. During this difficult season, the local sable antelopes had gathered into herds of 100 or more to protect young and locate food. But now, as the rain comes down with force to mark the opening of the new season, things get wet. It’s the mating season and the males have broken off into small gangs to prowl the moist grasslands for females. In fact, sable antelope prefer moister grasslands than most of their antelope cousins. For these young men, finding the ladies is only half the battle. The real test comes when the gang members square off for breeding rights.

Dipping his head into a bow, the dominant male shows off his gravitas to others thirsting to challenge him. There’s a lot at stake. Whichever sable antelope male earns the wary submission of the others gets to mate with a harem of females, sometimes 20 strong. Big horns, loud snorts, and dogged willpower decide the day.

When the dominant male has driven off the competition, he corrals his prize (often less than willing) to the territory he now controls. You might say sable antelope society is something like the human equivalent of territorial rule by warlords. A handful of males in a region control a zone of land and everything in it, but not beyond. Stout-hearted male sables have been observed defending and holding their territory for two years or more.

photo provided courtesy of prilfish on Flickr Creative CommonsAlthough a big 600 pound male can drive even formidable predators from his territory, he doesn’t have such a cordial time of it with humans. After years of neglect by the developed world except for the exploitation of its living and physical resources, Africa is coming into its own. And as the young continent starts to assert its own destiny in the 21st century, the future of the sable antelope – alongside all the great mammals of the Serengeti,¬†will once again be directed by one of two paths: one towards conservation or one of destruction.

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