Serval Leptailurus serval
This is a medium-sized, well-built, long-legged cat. Its body length is 65 to 100 cm, height at the neck is up to 60 cm, and weight only about 20 kg. The serval's appearance is rather peculiar. It has the tallest legs and largest ears among cats (relative to the body size). But its head is disproportionally small, and the tail is rather short, 25 to 40 cm. According to some morphological characteristics, the serval is considered a close relative of lynxes and the caracal, even though its coloration looks closest to that of the cheetah. Because of its long neck, the inhabitant of the jungles and savannahs of Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa received in its native land the name «Giraffe Cat», which distinctly describes its body structure. Its light brown fur with dark spots serves as good camouflage, enabling the serval to remain practically invisible among the burnt by the glaring sun savanna vegetation. Every serval has its own unique color pattern, while another specific mark is the white stripes on the back side of the ears. These white spots that look like eyes, showing above the surface of the grass, help inexperienced little kittens who have come out to hunt with their mother not to lose her from sight.
The servals are distributed practically throughout the whole Africa, excluding the Sahara, the forests of the equatorial zone and the extreme south of the continent (The Cape Province). To the north of the Sahara (Algeria and Morocco) this animal is extremely rare, but it is common enough in Eastern and Western Africa. The largest population of the servals is found in the famous Ngorongoro crater (Tanzania), where this cat’s population density is up to 40 specimens per 100 square kilometers. The servals inhabit open spaces with bushes and grassy growth, usually settling close to the water. They avoid deserts, dry plains and humid tropical forests, keeping to their outskirts. Servals are active mostly at dusk and at night. 90% of their diet consists of prey weighing 200 grams or less, predominantly rodents. Besides, they eat hares, hyraxes and small antelopes, as well as various birds, like flamingoes and guinea fowl, and even frogs, and sometimes plants, which provide them with minerals and raw fiber. However, they seldom eat carrion. Large ears and excellently developed hearing help them track rodents and lizards, and long limbs facilitate moving in the tall grass of the savannahs, looking over the top of it. While looking for prey, a serval can cover a distance of three to five kilometers, but it is unable to pursue its prey for a long time. The serval’s hunting strategies are quite varied. They dig rodents out of their dens, and can climb a tall tree chasing hyraxes, hit a flying bird by a vertical jump up to 3 meters high. But their preferred hunting method is waiting for the prey while hiding in the tall grass. As opposed to its relative the cheetah, the serval does not pursue its prey, but using the unexpectedness effect, jumps out of hiding and presses the victim to the ground by its weight, then grabs it by the throat without giving it a chance to realize what has happened. This tactic is very successful. It enables the serval to retain the prey in every second case, while most felines reach success only in one of five or six cases. This carnivore is so agile and flexible that it can jump to over 3.5 meters from the spot, and the cat’s legs help it develop the speed of up to 80 km/hour
The serval is a solitary animal, establishing pairs only for the short breeding period. Servals mark their territories and remain there for many years. While defending them, they prefer not to enter into a direct confrontation with the adversary, but to use a system of warning signals, e.g. hissing, arching their backs and flattening the ears. In case of danger servals prefer to hide or run, making unexpected jumps or drastically changing the direction of running, or more rarely, climbing trees. A serval can easily swim through a river on the way to safety.
The gestation period of a serval lasts 65 to 75 days. Kittens are born in old aardvark burrows or in nests among the grass. An average litter consists of 2 to 3 blind and helpless kittens. The mother nurses them till they are 5 to 7.5 month old. At one year of age they leave their mother and find their own territory. Young females stay with their mothers longer than young males. The servals become sexually mature at the age of 18 to 24 months.
Servals can be quite easily tamed and can be kept in captivity as pets. The servals' beautiful fur is a valuable trophy for poachers, and some African peoples use their meat for food. The numbers of these carnivores are drastically reducing throughout their whole range. The northern subspecies of the serval is on the verge of extinction and is included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.