Giant sable antelope

The giant sable antelope, (Hippotragus niger variani), also known in Portuguese as the palanca-negra-gigante, is a large, rare subspecies of sable antelope native and endemic to the region between the Cuango and Luando Rivers in Angola.

Giant sable antelope
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Hippotraginae
Genus: Hippotragus
H. n. variani
Trinomial name
Hippotragus niger variani
Thomas, 1916
Geographic range

There was a great degree of uncertainty regarding the number of animals that survived during the Angolan Civil War. In January 2004, a group from the Centro de Estudos e Investigação Científica of the Catholic University of Angola, led by Dr. Pedro vaz Pinto, was able to obtain photographic evidence of one of the remaining herds from a series of trap cameras installed in the Cangandala National Park, south of Malanje.

The giant sable antelope is the national symbol of Angola, and is held in a great regard by its people. This was perhaps one of the reasons the animals survived the long civil war. In African mythology, just like other antelopes, they symbolize vivacity, velocity, beauty and visual sharpness.

The giant sable antelope is evaluated as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


Both sexes have horns, which can reach 1.5 meters in length. Males and females are very similar in appearance until they reach three years of age, when the males become darker and develop majestic horns. The male antelope weighs an average of 238 kg (525 lb) with a height of 116–142 cm (46–56 in). Females weigh 220 kg and are slightly shorter than males. The horns are massive and more curved in males, reaching lengths of 81–165 cm (32–65 in), while females' horns are only 61–102 cm (24–40 in) in length. Coloration in bulls is black, while females and young are chestnut, except in southern populations, where females turn brown-black. Most sable antelopes have white "eyebrows", their rostra are sectioned into cheek stripes, and their bellies and rump patches are white. Young under two months old typically are light brown and have slight markings.

Ecology and behavior

Like all antelopes, giant sables are shy by nature, but they can also be very aggressive. The males can be especially dangerous when hurt, attacked, or approached. In fights, males avoid some serious injuries by kneeling down on their front legs, and engage in horn-wrestling fights. Fatalities from these fights are rare.

Juveniles are hunted by leopards and hyenas, while adults are only threatened by lions and crocodiles.[2] When startled, the antelope normally run for only a short distance before slowing and looking back; however, when they are pursued, they can run at speeds up to 35 mph for a considerable distance.[2]


Mitochondrial DNA evidence from a specimen preserved in the Museu da Ciência da Universidade de Coimbra before the Angolan Civil War, suggest that the giant sable is monophyletic within the sable antelope group, and that it split from other subspecies around 170 thousand years ago.[3]


The giant sable antelope lives in forests near water, where leaves and tree sprouts are always juicy and abundant. It is an endangered species; it is protected in natural parks, and hunting it is forbidden. Typically, sable antelopes are specialized browsers feeding on foliage and herbs, especially those growing on termite mounds. One of the reasons for the decline in antelope numbers could be the animals' very specific feeding patterns. Typically, they will feed on tree leaves, which make up to 90% of their diets, at heights of 40–140 mm (1.6–5.5 in) from the ground, taking only the leaf.

Relationship with humans

The giant sable antelope is a national symbol of Angola and is portrayed on numerous stamps, banknotes, and even passports of the nation.[2] The Angola national football team is fondly known as the Palancas Negras in honor of the antelope.[2]


  1. IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group (2008). "Hippotragus niger variani". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2008. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 29 March 2009. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of critically endangered.
  2. Ellis, Richard (2004). No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species. New York: Harper Perennial. p. 139. ISBN 978-0-06-055804-8.
  3. Espregueira Themudo, Gonçalo; Rufino, Ana C.; Campos, Paula F. (2015-02-01). "Complete mitochondrial DNA sequence of the endangered giant sable antelope (Hippotragus niger variani): Insights into conservation and taxonomy". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 83 (1): 242–249. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2014.12.001. PMID 25527983.
  • Walker, John Frederick. A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola. Atlantic Monthly Press. 2002.
  • Cabral, C. & Verissimo, L. (2005) - The Ungulate Fauna of Angola, systematic list, distribution maps, database report. Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical, Estudos Ensaios e Documentos, 163, Lisboa
  • Mellon, James African Hunter Safari Bress (185)
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