Way back when I was about waist high and still wearing the kind of shorts that would make any Zimbabwean PH proud, with long knee high socks and shirts my mother dressed me in, we used to hunt in the western part of Zambia, across the Kafue river in the territory of the Royal Barotse King, the Lewanika. The area was called Kaoma, an open hunting concession that Zambia had so much of in those days where game was abundant, access easy and still affordable for working families. We'dmake regular trips these during the hunting season for both meat and after the great big elephants that would cross out of the park in search of marula's and maganga nuts.
The habitat was prime Miombo woodland, open forest with soft leafy trees interspersed with those massive magnificent dambo's you only find in this part of the world, long winding swathes of open grassland with thousands of termite mounds and the occasional stunted wild fig trees from which fat green pigeons would burst as you approached. It was idyllic country, still relatively unknown to the Lusaka crowd who still flocked to the Italian rocks near Mumbwa where they would party till the early hours and then head of and shoot whatever appeared. Instead our focus turned to the western plains of Zambia and a new quarry - residents were allowed to hunt elephant in these days and having an abundance of these giant beasts, many were hunting them for their ivory which they would sell. This was not abandoned wholesale shooting of these beasts, it was merely another way to supplement an income - residents were allowed at most 2 elephant licenses per year so there was no manner in which this could be abused.
Kaoma lay along the western most boundary of one of Africa's most famous and largest reserves, the Kafue National Park and in these early days the game numbers were astounding especially the elephant numbers - they were the massive kind, towering bodies with their huge soft imprints in the kalahari sand to be found everywhere. However Kaoma to me was always about the Sable antelope, those magnificent black bulls you found standing proudly in the early morning mist of the dambo, holding their heads up high with glistening horns and their pure white bellies. There was no sight more heart stopping than coming through the trees into the clear dambo and finding a herd of black sable bulls before you - sometimes 15 in total, all black bulls in their tuxedoed finery.
Being meat hunters, we never looked at horns and chose the closest animal that would present the best shot - it was simple, our goal was to make biltong and not look at inches and in this way we would take about 3 bulls a year oblivious to their size. I remember it taking quite a while before I eventually shot a pitch black bull, always being told to take the closest and easiest shot to make sure it was a quick kill.
Zambia is Sable country, without a doubt! In the countries that you find this regal prince, Zambia is where you still consistently find the gold medal bulls - perhaps a world record. You see, much of Zambia's habitat or vegetation is suited to the Sable - of course others also thrive - but the Zambezian Miombo that occupies large swathes of Zambia's 753000 sqkms is as if it was designed for Sable antelope. Here they have thrived for centuries with the most abundant populations in Zambia's famous Kafue region, one of the continent's largest protected areas for wildlife. Indeed it is here that the new world record Sable was taken in 2006 in Mumbwa West, a feat which is not often repeated these days - world records are usually deep rooted in the early 70's and 80's.
In the early settler days Sable were so abundant in Zambia that sometimes, if you were a good shot, you'd be able to shoot enough of them to see you through a whole years meat supply in one day. My grandfathers would tell of stories where they'd walk into a herd of 100 Sable, not too distant from the capital city and shoot only bulls with no regard for horn size, meat was their objective and return by wagon the next day laden with fresh meat, leaving behind the horns for Hyenas and vultures.
Sable compare with Kudu and Gemsbok as the classical African antelope - the Elk or Stag of our continent - a trophy so immense in its propensity that often you can only stare in wonder. Sable were first named by that avid British sportsman, Capt. William Cornwallis Harris, possibly one of the very first trophy hunters - on his epic journey through the southern part of the continent. He named it the Harris buck and donated the specimen to the Natural History Museum in London.
There are four known sub-species in the group Hippotragus niger (which means horse-goat if directly translated from Greek) - the common Sable antelope (HippoTragus niger niger) which is listed as stable with no concern; the Giant Sable (HippoTragus niger variani) found only in parts of Angola and considered critically endangered, yet a few survived the long civil war there; then one which is rather unknown to most the Zambian Sable antelope (Hippotragus niger Kirkii) which inhabits parts of Angola with the home range in Zambia, their status listed as vulnerable; the last, Roosevelt's Sable (Hippotragus niger roosevelti) found in northern parts of Zambia and southern Tanzania. With the exception of the Giant Sable, all others are hunted in good numbers each year across southern and central Africa and most hunters are not aware of this slight species variation.
You can hunt Sable in many countries, some introduced and some still indigenous populations - South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and of course the all time favorite for many, Zimbabwe. Prices vary yet most of the time I see hunters raise an eyebrow and mutter something to themselves - disbelief I guess. Yet those who know what Sable are worth simply ask about the expected size and hand over the cheque. However, if you're looking for a bull at the top end of the range, a true monster, then you'll not find a better country than Zambia. Although the wilderness hunts in the Kafue are rather highly priced, you are assured of a hunt that will challenge you to the full and you'll more than likely, if your PH knows what he is doing, come away with a sable in the 45 inch plus range. There is no sight more breathtaking than a Sable bull standing his ground on the freshly burnt dambos while the sun rises slowly behind him and the morning mist entangles his legs - believe me, this is a picture of classic Africa.
In this sense the wild areas are still with us and it is possible to hunt sable much the same way it was done 20 or 30 years ago - in concessions so large it takes more than a day to drive from end to end and you still find the majestic black bulls standing in the dambos as the sun rises, sometimes in bachelor groups of 10 or more - the proper pursuit of one of Africa's most sought after antelopes is still there for the taking.