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Sable, sable and more sable

Text: Pieter van Wyk | Photographs: Johannes D Welman, Morne Coetzer, Pieter van Wyk, and guest Paula Hammack

Wild sable antelope numbers in South Africa are so low that they are on the verge of local extinction. Sable along with roan, tsessebe and eland form a group that has been coined ‘Kruger’s Rare Antelopes’. With that in mind our recent increase in sightings can, at the very least, be described as phenomenal, extraordinary and unforgettable. Over the years, a handful of sable sightings during the dry months have been commonplace at MalaMala (derived from the local name for sable) with the majority of those being skittish lone bulls – even then we counted ourselves as being extremely lucky! Few could’ve dreamed of experiencing the sightings we’re having now. Since October we’ve viewed a couple of different herds, the biggest of which numbered 17, but they had to be viewed from a distance. Sightings of lone bulls have been higher than normal which in itself is exceptional but the major talking point on everyone’s lips is the very relaxed herd of 16 strong!

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Our first glimpse of this herd came a couple months ago and although they didn’t run away at the sight of our vehicles, they were by no means comfortable. Boy how that has changed! Today they can be viewed from a mere 20 meters. The herd initially consisted of 15 members, mostly adult females, one young bull and two calves, however they have recently been joined by a magnificent bull. Sightings occur almost on a daily basis now as they spend most of their time in eastern Flockfield, only venturing to the Sand River (often in front of Rattray’s Camp) to drink around midday. We’ve viewed some incredible interactions within the herd from the adults playfully entertaining the calves to the bull asserting his dominance over the younger male. On top of this we’ve also watched in awe as they interacted with other species – from chasing leopards to being chased in turn by elephants.

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The one issue I’ve had since being afforded the privilege of these lengthy sightings of relaxed rare antelopes is that, after a few minutes of talking, my tank of sable information ran dry! The tidbits and facts that normally sufficed for a brief and distant sighting were now insufficient and I was found wanting. Below I have highlighted some of the more interesting discoveries my resulting research yielded:

  • African tribes believed the sable to be a symbol of the unity of nature and the duality of life – of light and of darkness, the fierce and yet graceful, the strong and yet delicate, the sable was the embodiment of yin and yang. In days gone by, on the open African plains, people would dance and sing with joy when they come across a sable, as this was a sure sign that good fortune was on its way and the darkness was moving on. This animal was treated with such reverence that only kings were allowed to sit on the skins of this animal, and only those that could see into the future were allowed to own the horns of this great antelope. The sable was so revered that it was only allowed to be hunted once every 5 years and even then, only an old adult bull was allowed to be killed.
  • In the 1940′s it was estimated that there were over 36,000 sable in the Lowveld area outside the Kruger National Park.
  • They were so widespread that landowners used to shoot them for rations for their staff.
  • In the last 30 years, the Kruger’s sable antelope population has decreased by 75% and today, shockingly, there are fewer than 300 left.
  • Many of the herbivores in the park began to decline in the late 1980s, due mainly to several years of below-average rainfall. With the increase in rainfall in the late 1990s, numbers of most species began to increase, but the roan, tsessebe, eland and sable numbers failed to pick up.
  • This did not seem to be alarming as their populations are known to have cycled over the last century, with park management expressing concerns over low sable numbers in the late 1920s and early 1970s, and then reporting increased numbers in the following decades.
  • When the numbers of the rare antelope continued to dwindle, several linked research projects were started to try and find out more about the root cause of the decline and much of the work has focused on sable.
  • In 1960 Tol Pienaar showed that sable are vulnerable to lions even when their numbers are low. Furthermore he expressed their susceptibility in terms of lion’s ‘preference ratings’, which is a percentage of recorded lion kills in relation to the relative frequency and abundance of the prey species. Sable made up just 0.58% of the prey community but comprised 1.52% of lion kills- over two and a half times as frequent as their abundance merited.
  • The Kruger’s old style of intensely managed ecosystems with extensive water provisioning through artificial waterholes disrupted predator-prey relationships- a very delicate balance and an ongoing evolutionary struggle.
  • These watering holes, in previously dry areas, led to an influx of wildebeest and zebra and this may have altered the composition of the grasses and taken something off the sable’s menu. Sable are fussy eaters favouring speargrass, red grass and various species of Panicum. Even then, they only nibble specific parts of the plant.
  • Researches have found that sable are suffering from some nutritional deficiencies despite appearing healthy to the naked eye. It is possible that the lack of something in their diet is causing them to roam further in search of food and thus increasing the chance of predation.
  • One of nature conservations most important parameters is the size below which a populations ceases to be viable over the long term. A steep decline in numbers along with a marked contraction in herd sizes may have given rise to Allee effects which are density dependent mechanisms in very small populations that can create critical thresholds, beyond which the chances of population recovery diminish.
  • Some believe that the best hope for Kruger’ rare antelopes lies to our east in Mozambique, namely the Limpopo National Park. This huge piece of pristine land is virtually free of humans and contains suitable habitat for sable with relatively fewer predators. Reports have already emerged of small but increasing populations.

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Although these sable are safe from human persecution, the threat posed by lions on MalaMala is very real as they traverse the territories of two different prides as well as a coalition of males.

There is no way of telling how long this herd will stay on our property but with no rain in sight for at least four months… I’m optimistic.

MalaMala, it’s all about the wildlife.

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