Diet of the sable antelope, part 1: Hippotragus niger roosevelti, with special mention of osteophagy

@paradoxornithidae @dejong @matthewinabinett @jakob @jwidness @simontonge @tandala @ldacosta

In the late 'sixties, the late Richard Estes ( spent 10 weeks in the Shimba Hills in coastal Kenya. The dates were 17 Oct.-8 Dec. 1968 and 1-14 March 1969.

His purpose was to study a rare and threatened subspecies of large bovid, namely the eastern sable antelope (Hippotragus niger roosevelti,

Richard Estes was, at the time, an authority on the western white-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes mearnsi), and he went on to become the global authority on the sable antelope.

The eastern sable antelope was originally restricted to a limited strip of coastal East Africa, straddling the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

Its habitat was the northernmost, attenuated form of miombo woodland (, in which only one species of Brachystegia persists under the equatorial regime of bimodal seasonal rainfall.

Estes undertook this study nearly 60 years ago. At that time, the eastern sable antelope still remained in small numbers on the coastal plain in Kenya, in attenuated woodland of Brachystegia spiciformis ( and Afzelia quanzensis (, and at the edges of fire-free forest containing Manilkara and Diospyros. These populations at low altitudes, which Estes did not field-study, have since been exterminated.

The species has survived in Kenya only in the Shimba Hills. Here, the vegetation ( is a picturesque forest/savanna mosaic, only vaguely related to the northernmost miombo woodland.

The Shimba Hills were protected, before Estes' study, mainly for the purposes of watershed and forestry (with part of the area cleared for plantation of Pinus). The National Reserve was designated in 1968 ( and

The main purpose of this Post is to record, electronically, previously unpublished information that risks being lost to Science with the passage of time.

In this, part 1, the topic is the diet of the eastern sable antelope in the Shimba Hills.

My reference (xeroxed) is:

*Richard D Estes and Runhild K Estes (1969) The Shimba Hills sable population. First progress report. National Geographic Society, hippotragine antelope study.

The above report includes data from:

+Table 15 in Glover P E (1969) Report on an ecological survey of the proposed Shimba Hills National Reserve. East African Wildlife Society. 148 pages (as referred to in the above report). This study was made in March through May 1968.

In the following dietary list (as well more generally as in all three parts of this series of Posts), I have updated the species-names, several of which have been revised/synonymised since 1969.



*Cyperus hemisphaericus


*+Andropogon schirensis
eaten intensively in October and March

*+Ctenium concinnum

+Cymbopogon caesius

*+Digitaria milanjiana
eaten intensively in October and November

*+Diheteropogon amplectens

*Eragrostis perbella

+Eragrostis racemosa

*Hylebates chlorochloe

*+Hyparrhenia filipendula
eaten intensively in October and November

*+Hyperthelia dissoluta

+Megathyrsus infestus

*+Megathyrsus maximus
eaten intensively in November and March

*+Panicum trichocladum

*Paspalum orbiculare

*Setaria parviflora

*Setaria sphacelata
eaten intensively in March

*+Setaria trinervia (possibly synonymous with sphacelata)

+Sporobolus pyramidalis

*Sporobolus sp.

*+Urochloa brizantha
eaten intensively in November and March

*unidentified grass, possibly Pennisetum sp.
eaten intensively in November



*Justicia sp.


*Crotalaria emarginata

*Galactia argentifolia



*Rourea coccinea ssp. boiviniana


+Albizia adianthifolia

+Albizia gummifera


*+Securidaca longipedunculata


+Ximenia caffra

The following excerpts from the text in Estes and Estes (1969) are relevant to diet.


Pages 9-10:

"The sable is primarily a grazer on grasses of medium height, preferring the greenest and tenderest available plants. The Longo Magandi herd often specialised on one or two common grasses for a few days while the plants were at the preferred stage of growth, changing to others when the first ones became a little taller and coarser. Plants were usually not grazed shorter than about four inches. Two areas that were burnt in November and December were unutilised by sable until the leaf table exceeded six inches, although tall unburnt grassland was the only alternative. However, the unburnt grassland offered an understorey of green grass. The usual grazing method is to gather in a clump of blades with dexterous lip movements, then to bite off and chew a length of up to a foot...Generally speaking, the sable grazed most intensively around the edges of the copses, in hollows and on termite mounds in open grassland - i.e. in the places where the lushest, tenderest grasses grow...[several] of the grasses, which grow most abundantly in these situations but are not among the commonest grasses, were heavily grazed by sable so long as they were green and young: Megathyrsus maximus, Digitaria milanjiana, and Urochloa brizantha. An unusual habit of Shimba Hills sable is bone-chewing. It was observed on 30 different occasions, and appeared to be a practice indulged in by all herd members. It was usual for an animal to spend up to half an hour chewing a bone, meanwhile frothing at the mouth, and even to transport small pieces from one place to another when the herd moved. The sites of an elephant and of a buffalo skeleton were among the places most frequently visited by the Longo Magandi herd. At those places animals were seen apparently seeking pieces of bone to chew. Long bones were evidently preferred, but probably because few remained at these sites, sable were also seen to chew pieces of pelvis and even vertebrae. Glover also comments upon bone-chewing behaviour. The pronounced deficiency of calcium and phosphorus in Shimba Hills soils is a probable explanation. Yet the sable and other wildlife had failed to discover salt and bone meal put out on a cleared piece of ground the previous November by the following March. Although it was sited near a route not infrequently used by the sable, apparently it remained undetected. The obvious solution would be to establish a lick at one of their 'bone yards'."

Page 6:

"The grassland consists mainly of tufted perennials, separated by bare ground; basal cover averages probably less than 5 percent. While there are many species, tall stalks of Hyparrhenia filipendula and Hyperthelia dissoluta appear dominant following the long rains unless burnt off during the dry season. Andropogon spp., especially A. dummeri and A. schirensis, are co-dominant and may actually be more plentiful though less conspicuous. In Makin's (p. 14) view, Andropogon is an 'unpalatable and poorly nutritious grass which characterises burnt-over and infertile soils.' This genus is nevertheless heavily utilised by sable in most of the areas we have investigated. A far more unpalatable grass, which grows in widely separated clumps and dominates on gravelly slopes, is Trachypogon spicatus []; neither it nor Cymbopogon caesius was ever seen to have been grazed."

For the crucial role of mineral nutrients in the diet and drinking water of the sable antelope, please also see

to be continued in

Posted on November 25, 2023 04:50 PM by milewski milewski


Interesting @milewski! the following paper you might find of interest:
Butynski, T.M., Parker, I. & De Jong, Y.A. 2015. Historic and Current Distribution, Abundance, and Habitats of Roosevelt's Sable Antelope Hippotragus niger roosevelti (Heller, 1910) (Cerartiodactyla: Bovidae) in Kenya," Journal of East African Natural History 104(1-2), 41-77

Roosevelt's sable Hippotragus niger roosevelti is one of Kenya's most distinctive and threatened large mammals. Historically, sable herds occurred in the vicinity of Taveta, and in the miombo and Diospyros woodlands of the coastal hinterland from the Tanzania-Kenya border northward for at least 210 km. Most of the historic distribution of sable in Kenya lies 15–35 km inland from the coast at 100–200 m altitude where mean annual rainfall is 800–1200 mm. In terms of numbers, however, most sable occurred in the higher and wetter Shimba Hills (150–460 m; mean annual rainfall 1000–1200 mm). Bachelor males sometimes moved >150 km inland. Much of the decline of the distribution and size of Kenya's sable population occurred during 1950–1980. Sable in Kenya not reported outside of Shimba Hills National Reserve after 1994. Geographic distribution of sable herds in Kenya declined from roughly 5000 km2 in 1884 to 70 km2 today (>98% decline in 132 years). The number of sable in Kenya was already small as of 1884, when there were probably <400 individuals. Kenya's sable population declined from >235 individuals in the mid-1970s to ca. 60 individuals in 2015 (>74% decline in 40 years). Given the low number, small distribution, and rapid decline, sable in Kenya qualifies as a nationally ‘Critically Endangered' species. Recommendations for the conservation of sable in Kenya are provided.

Posted by dejong 8 months ago


Many thanks for mentioning your useful publication, and giving us the abstract.

Posted by milewski 8 months ago

Shimba Hills National Reserve is the only location in which Hippotragus niger roosevelti is likely to survive in the wild in Kenya, with a total population numbering in the mere hundreds.

How large is this reserve, compared to small reserves in South Africa that are similarly dedicated to particular rare species/subspecies of ungulates?

The area of Shimba Hills National Reserve is 192.5 square kilometers.

This is far larger than Bontebok National Park (27.9 square kilometers), but smaller than Mountain Zebra National Park (284 square kilometers including its two disjunct outliers).

Other relevant reserves are as follows:

Smaller than Shimba Hills National Reserve is the Cape Point section (77.5 square kilometers) of Table Mountain National Park.

Larger than Shimba Hills National Reserve are De Hoop Nature Reserve (340 square kilometers) and West Coast National Park (362.6 square kilometers).

Posted by milewski 8 months ago

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