At Jukani Wildilfe Sanctuary we have one male Serval and true to his nature; a very shy cat who prefers nocturnal activities. He is a beautiful cat and if patient he will reward you with a peek at his stunning spotted coat.
The serval is a medium-sized cat, measuring 59 to 92 centimetres (23 to 36 in) in head-body length, with a relatively short, 20 to 38 centimetres (7.9 to 15 in) tail, and a shoulder height of about 54 to 66 centimetres (21 to 26 in). Weight ranges from about 7 to 12 kilograms (15 to 26 lb) in females, and from 9 to 18 kilograms (20 to 40 lb) in males.
It is a strong yet slender animal, with long legs and a fairly short tail. The head is small in relation to the body, and the tall, oval ears are set close together. The pattern of the fur is variable. Usually, the serval is boldly spotted black on tawny, with 2 or 4 stripes from the top of the head down the neck and back, transitioning into spots. The "servaline" form has much smaller, freckled spots, and was once thought to be separate species. The backs of the ears are black with a distinctive white bar. In addition, melanistic servals are quite common in some parts of the range, giving a similar appearance to the "black panther" (melanistic leopard).
Servals have the longest legs of any cat, relative to their body size. Most of this increase in length is due to the greatly elongated metatarsal bones in the feet. The toes are also elongated, and unusually mobile, helping the animal to capture partially concealed prey. Another distinctive feature of the serval is the presence of large ears and auditory bullae in the skull, indicating a particularly acute sense of hearing.
Ecology and conservation
Unfortunately, as with most carnivores, serval populations are at risk. They are not only suffering from loss of habitat, but they are also destroyed when suspected of killing domestic fowl.
Servals are important small hunters that, unlike large carnivores, eat a wide variety of smaller prey, such as rodents and birds. Because the over-population of rodents poses such a direct threat to the environment and agricultural crops, servals and other small carnivores are extremely important to the balance of many ecosystems.
The biggest threats to all the lesser cat species are human development, hunting and poisoning. Human development has either destroyed precious habitat or split it up so the cats are forced to approach human territories. Highway accidents cause many deaths each year. These cats are all hunted for their fur, and some for their meat. People also poison their main food sources, causing the deaths of the cats that eat them.
Distribution and habitat
The serval is native to Africa, where it is widely distributed south of the Sahara. It was once also found in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, but may have been extirpated from Algeria and only remains in Tunisia because of a reintroduction programme.
Its main habitat is the savanna, although melanistic individuals are more usually found in mountainous areas at elevations up to 3,000 metres (9,800 ft). The serval needs watercourses within its territory, so it does not live in semi-deserts or dry steppes. Servals also avoid dense equatorial jungles, although they may be found along forest fringes. They are able to climb and swim, but seldom do so.
Status in the wild
13 subspecies of the Serval are listed on CITES Appendix 2, with one listed as endangered.
It is important to note, the Serval cat is classified as a "lesser cat", and should never be grouped with the bigger cats. Even though the Serval is sometimes called a miniature cheetah due to their similar appearance, they are in fact an entirely different species. The Serval coat is tawny in color with black stripes, spots and blotches, with a shorter tail banded with black. The Cheetah's ears are close to the head and rounded, whereas the Serval ears are much taller, pointed and have a disc-like movement.
The Serval's long and disc-like ears are used to detect the sound of movement. The cat has extraordinarily good hearing, and can pick up the ultrasonic high frequencies emitted by rodents and other small creatures. They can easily hone in on prey with their tall ears. Once they pin point the position, from where the sound is emanating, they can easily spot their prey. Prey is stalked and then pounced upon in a leap. Their long legs allows them to see just over the top of the grass, then leap straight up into the air to pounce on a rodent, mole rat, ground squirrel, or maybe a frog.
Rodents make up the bulk of the Serval's diet, but small and medium-sized birds are also regularly preyed upon. The Serval captures the birds in flight by leaping ten feet straight into the air and slapping them to the ground. Servals are not shy about entering water to hunt for ducks and other waterfowl. Frogs, reptiles and even fish are captured and eaten whenever the opportunity arises. The Serval is not known for attacking anything larger than a bird and will definitely not harm livestock. Even though they are sometimes blamed for sheep and poultry losses, jackals are more likely the culprits. Therefore, they are able to coexist with humans in the farmland areas of Africa.
While Servals pose no threat to humans, people are the main threat to Servals. They are hunted by people for their attractive coats and in some areas for their meat. Servals are losing their fight for survival in the wild, and have now dwindled down in numbers due to human over-population taking over their habitat and hunting them for their pelts. They are also preyed upon by the bigger cats and hyenas (Wild Dog). The big cats have been seen hunting and feeding on Servals. Spotted Hyenas are a major threat because they are often in direct competition with the Servals and will kill them. There have been records of leopards and lions catching and feeding on Servals in various parts of the continent. Nile Crocodiles and African Rock Pythons pose a further threat to the adult Servals, while the young are most at risk to the Martial Eagle and other large birds of prey.
As far conservation goes, Servals breed easily in captivity. Some differences were discovered between the captive and wild Servals. It has been noted that captive bred (domesticated) Servals are much smaller in size and weight. TSCO will be conducting an extensive research project in the future to compare the different physical characteristics of the wild Serval in relation to the captive-bred domesticated Serval.
Facts about serval cats
Servals have long, powerful legs that are important for jumping. They have been known to jump as high as 3.6 m (12 ft.) to catch birds in mid air.
The spotted coat is important in breaking up the pattern on their body. This is essential for stalking prey. It is a protective camouflage against larger carnivores that will kill and eat the small cats.
Servals, unlike other small cats, are much more diurnal, or crepuscular, meaning they are active in early mornings and late evenings.
Servals, like most cats, live a solitary existence. The only associations formed are during mating and between a mother and her kittens.
Did you know?
Servals large ears act as radar dishes to locate food. These cats listen for the movement of animals in the grass before they pounce. It is believed that they use their ears as much as their eyes.