Successfully breeding the magnificent sable antelope

2009-08-27 00:00

DURING a recent visit to the Selati Game ­Reserve near Gravelotte in Limpopo ­Province, I had the good fortune of visiting the sable breeding herd that has been ­established there.

Ian Bester, general manager of the Big Five Game Company, took us to the breeding enclosures where we could view some of the animals kept there.

The Selati Game Reserve, situated north of the Olifants River between Gravelotte and Phalaborwa, was formally constituted in September 1993 when seven landowners in the area, the founder members of the reserve, signed an agreement committing their private properties to a single communal unit under the management of The Big Five Game Company.

The land had formerly been used mainly for cattle ranching, and the creation of the reserve involved the erection of a single ­perimeter fence, the dropping of internal fences and a general pooling of resources. Since those early days, the membership has grown from the initial seven owners to 15 owners with 30 000 hectares of land.

Apart from the general running of the ­reserve, The Big Five Game Company’s mandate has been to establish a sable breeding programme to ­provide animals for resale to other landowners and this project has proved to be very successful.

A wide variety of general plains game is to be found here and there are about 60 white rhino in the reserve. In June 2004, a pride of six lions was introduced with an ­accompanying lion research project that monitors the daily movement and activities of the pride, and also ascertains the effect on other animals in the ­reserve. There are also several herds of elephants in the ­reserve, totalling about 80 animals, the movements of which are monitored in the same ­manner.

A section of land within the ­reserve is also home to the rare ­cycad, Encephalartos ­dyerianus, described for the first time in 1988, and which does not occur naturally anywhere else in the world. The ­Internet has this to say about the plant: “E. dyerianus ­occurs mainly on a low granite hill, a few kilo­metres north of Mica in the north-­ ­eastern Transvaal. This area ­consists of plains covered with ­mopane trees and interrupted by a ­series of rather similar granite hills. ­Inexplicably E. dyerianus grows on ­only one of these hills.” Of equal importance though, are the sable antelope herds of the area.

The male sable antelope is regarded by many as the most regal and handsome of our antelope . They were, at one time, known as the Harrisbuck — named for the collector of the original specimen in 1838, Captain W. Cornwallis Harris — but this name has long since fallen out of use. There appears to be a considerable variation in the coloration of sable bulls from different parts of the continent, but the one favoured by breeders in South Africa, because of the larger horns and darker colouring of the males, is generally known as the Zambian sable. For many years, the record length for sable horns was 155 centimetres but an ­animal recently shot in Zambia may now have surpassed that figure. The females and young animals by contrast are reddish-brown in colour.

Animals of the savannah woodland, sable are to be found in herds of 20 to 30 animals, with the territorial bulls defending their territory vigorously from intruders. Fights ­between males can lead to the death or to the serious injury of contestants. Female ­sable will normally commence breeding at the age of two years and may continue to do so for up to ­seven years in the wild.

The Selati breeding unit was started in 1996, three years after the establishment of the reserve, and today comprises six large game enclosures and a quarantine centre. There are in the region of 200 sable in these enclosures and the one that we visited held about 40 animals, including a very fine Zambian sable herd bull. This magnificent animal was acquired some time ago for R800 000, which was considered to be ­money well spent to ensure the superior bloodline of future progeny.

The antelope are fed on a mixture of ­eragrostis grass, dried citrus peel and a ­nutrient supplement, formulated to a secret mix of ingredients that has not been ­revealed. To reach the drinking troughs, the animals have to enter an enclosed area through an opening that has been left in the fence. As they enter or leave this area they trigger a device set into the ground that sprays a stream of tick repellent onto their bodies.

To ensure the welfare of the animals, ­Bester’s assistant monitors them on a daily basis. His diligence will have its own ­reward, as he will be paid a bonus for every calf that is weaned.

The need for vigilant observation of the condition and behaviour of the animals is well founded, for the herd will attack and kill any animal that they perceive to be weak or injured. This is perhaps an ­instinctive ­reaction in the wild to ensure that weak or diseased animals are eliminated for the welfare of the rest of the herd.

This is the reason for the establishment of the quarantine pens, for it is here that sick or injured animals are housed until they have fully ­recovered. So aggressive can the herd be, that Bester told me that when an animal is darted with an anaesthetising dart, he and his men have to move rapidly to get between it and the rest of the herd, to avoid the darted animal being ­seriously injured.

There are a number of game farmers in this area of Limpopo now specialising in the breeding of ­sable as well as general game and, to a large degree, this activity has replaced ­traditional cattle ranching — the returns are far more rewarding.

Sable, in particular, are in great demand at the annual Gravelotte game auction sales held in October each year, with selected bulls going at around R1,3 to R1,4 million and sable cows selling at R300 000.

An indication of the demand for prize ­animals and the rewards that they can bring is reflected in the sale of a sable bull for R3 million at the game auction, held in the Selati Game Reserve in October 2008 — a world record price for one of these magnificent beasts.

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