Medium sized cat (59-92cm) with a very short tail relative to body size. Weight ranges from 7-12kg in females and 9-18kg in males. Has long legs (the longest of any cat for body size) and is the tallest cat relative to body size. The head is small with large ears giving them an acute sense of hearing. The fur is variable in pattern with spots and stripes present. The backs of the ears are black with a white marking. Melanistic forms are known to be common in some areas. Can leap up to 3m in the air. Closely related to the African golden cat and caracal.
Habitat and Distribution
Serval habitat ranges from tall grasslands, savannah or forest fringes. Serval require water courses within their territory so are not found in the desert. They also avoid dense equatorial jungle.
Between 13 and 19 sub-species of serval have been recognised.
The IUCN red list of threatened species lists Servals’ wild status as Least Concern with a stable population trend. They are relatively abundant and widespread although wetland degradation and pressure from the skin trade in West Africa is putting pressure on some populations. There is an isolated population in Morocco and possibly in Algeria along the Mediterranean coast and servals have been reintroduced from East African stock to Tunisia, after becoming extinct there. This population north of the Sahara has a regional classification of Critically Endangered, with less than 250 animals fragmented into sub populations smaller than 50 and completely isolated from one another and from Sub-Saharan populations (IUCN Red List 2008: Leptailurus serval).
Generally servals have declined particularly at the bottom of South Africa and West Africa, but are still common in some areas. They are still hunted for sport in South Africa and persecuted for the perception that they are livestock killers. The North African Serval has been isolated from the sub –Saharan Servals for thousands of years and are rarely, if ever seen in the wild.
Three captive bred servals have been successfully released into the Rustenburg Nature Reserve in Tunisia of which two survived.
Listed as CITES Appendix II.
Small to medium sized birds, rodents, frogs, insects, reptiles, hares. Have been known to dig in burrows to excavate prey. Is able to grab birds and insects in flight. Over 90% of the servals prey weighs less than 200g but they have been known to tackle small deer. Small prey are devoured whole and they often choke and regurgitate from eating too quickly. Serval have an exceptionally high hunting success rate for cats, of 50% or more.
Breeding and Lifecycle
Female oestrous cycle lasts up to four days and usually timed to coincide with peak rodent breeding season. Can give birth to multiple litters throughout the year. Gestation is 66-77 days with usually 2 kittens born but between 1 and 4 have been known. Kittens weigh around 250g at birth and are born blind, opening their eyes between 9 and 13 days. They start eating solid food around 4 weeks of age and acquire permanent canine teeth around 6 months of age when they begin to hunt for themselves. Serval remain with their mother until around 12 months of age and are sexually mature between 12 and 25 months. Life expectancy in captivity is around 20 years although many outlive this age and around 10 years in the wild.
Serval are nocturnal and solitary with males defending much larger territories than females.
Serval are kept as exotic pets in North America and have been bred with domestic cats to produce a ‘savannah cat’.