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The History of Serval's

Serval (Leptailurus serval). 

Common Name: Serval

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata (Vertebrata)

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae

Genus: Felinae (Leptailurus)

Misc: The name Serval is derived from a Portuguese word meaning “wolf-deer.”

The African Serval (Leptailurus Serval) is a medium-sized African Wild Cat.  DNA studies have shown that the Serval is closely related to the African Golden Cat and the Caracal.


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 the Serval’s are native to Africa, where they are mostly found in South, East and West Africa.

Size and Appearance:

Shoulder height:  17 to 24 inches.

Body length:  24 to 42 inches. (Excluding the tail)

Weight: 20 to 60 pounds males usually being larger than the females

Tail Length: 9 to 18 inches long,

The Serval somewhat resembles a lynx or has been mistaken for a small cheetah. Their fur has large boldly spotted black spots on tan, gold, tawny, brown or reddish coat, with two or four stripes from the top of the head down the neck and back, transitioning into their spots. The more rare colors can be a totally black Serval, which is called a Melanistic Serval or their color can be a White Serval. Their legs have numerous small spots, which give a speckled appearance.  The stomach is usually lighter color than the rest of the body and the color ranging from white to tan.

They have a small delicate head, extremely large tall ears, elongated neck, long slender body and really long legs (the hind legs are longer than the front), and a short tail.   The tail has 6 or 7 rings and a black tip. They have the largest ears and longest legs in relation to the size of their body of any cat.  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.

The ears are black on the back with a distinctive white spot called Ocelli, used to signal kittens when hunting. In the dark this white looks like eyes on the back of their ears, which helps to ward off predators that think they are actually larger than they are.

Servals from West Africa – Had a “speckled appearance, which was called Servalines. They used to be considered a separate species Felis brachyura, until it was demonstrated that the speckled pattern was just a variation or “morph”.

East African Serval Cats are one of the three species referred to as small to medium-sized cats. They are nocturnal and are very difficult to observe even at daytime because the color pattern of the Serval Cat is camouflaged in the long grass. This is one of the reasons why much of the Servals life style remains a mystery.

Serval Cats are often confused with Cheetah cats, yet there are some traits that help to distinguish between the two species. The Serval Cat's body is much longer than it is tall and they have very large erect ears that are one of the most prominent traits.  It is interesting to know that each Serval has a very unique coat patter and there are no identical Serval Cats. They are uniquely identified by their markings.

It is very rare but there is an All-black "Melanistic" variety of Servals, which have been observed in Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Melanistic Servals are similar in appearance to the "black panther"

Even rarer are the White Servals, which have been spotted, but these sightings are rare. Usually white albino felines are killed at a young age but there are a few white Servals in Captivity.  There are three males that were born at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida in 1997 (Kongo and Tonga) and 1999 (Pharaoh)

Habitat/ Territory:

Like most cats, the Serval is a solitary by nature and an nocturnal animal. It is known to travel as much as 2 to 2.5 mi each night in search of food. The female defends home ranges of 3 to 7 sq miles, depending on local prey availability.  The male defends larger territories of 4 to 12 sq miles.  The male marks his territory by spraying urine onto prominent objects such as bushes, or, less frequently, by scraping fresh urine into the ground with its claws.

Their habitat overlaps with the caracal cat that usually preys on larger animals than what the Serval eats.Serval’s occupy a variety of habitats all associated with water sources; Grasses and areas close to streams are also a preferred habitat of the Serval Cat, as they love the water.  They range up into alpine grasslands and can penetrate deep dense forests along waterways and through grassy patches, but are absent from rain forests. They will make use of arid areas in extreme instances, and have occasionally done so in parts of South-Western Africa.

Small groups of male adults have been noted together, usually resting in daytime and become very active at night.

Reproduction and Offspring:

Unlike other animals, they do not have a set breeding period, but usually have 2 litters a year and most of the young are produced during spring  Females produce a litter of 1 to 3 kittens per litter, although sometimes as many as 5 are born, but 2 being the average litter. Oestrus (heat cycle) in the Serval lasts for up to four days, and is typically timed so the kittens will be born shortly before the peak breeding period of local rodent populations. A Serval is able to give birth to multiple litters throughout the year, but commonly does so only if the earlier litters die shortly after birth. . The gestation period is approximately 73 days.

The kittens typically weigh in at around 8.5-9 ounces at birth, and are initially blind and helpless, with a coat of grayish woolly hair.  It will take 9-12 days until their eyes are opened. They begin to take solid foods around the age of 3 weeks, At around six months, they acquire their permanent canine teeth and begin to hunt for themselves and start becoming independent. They leave their mother at about 12 months of age. They attain sexual maturity between 12-24 months, and it is at this time that they will be forced out of their mother’s territory.

Social System and Communication:

In the wild, cats needed to be smart to survive. By natural the smart cat was the one who lived to reproduce. The Serval is extremely intelligent and each generation has become smarter and smarter.  They demonstrate remarkable problem-solving ability, making it notorious for getting into mischief, as well as easily outwitting its prey, and eluding other predators. Servals are solitary animals, and social interactions are limited to periods of mating. Each sex maintains its own territory. They make sounds like chirping, purrs, hisses, snarls, calls, and growl sounds.

Hunting and Diet:

Since the Serval is nocturnal they opt to feed during dawn or dusk.  They have extremely acute hearing and can hear their prey from a long distance and can often times hear things that most other animals don’t.

The Serval’s legs, very keen eye site and acute hearing allow them to be an efficient hunter and to detect their prey in the tall grass. The Serval may pause for up to 15 minutes at a time to listen with eyes closed. Their spotted coat serves as a camouflage and makes the species very difficult to notice.

The Serval’s sensitive hearing allows it to locate small mammals moving through the grass or underground, and to hunt its prey sometimes without seeing it until the final pounce. Once they find their prey they do not have any difficulty in grasping and holding their catch, as they are equipped with very long paws.   

Their springy back legs and shorter front legs help them to have the ability to leap or jump up to 10 feet vertically and catch prey right out of the air.  They do this by “clapping” with their front paws together and striking with a downward blow.  If on the ground they catch their prey by leaping high up on their back legs and landing on their victims with both front paws.

The Serval eats very quickly, sometimes too quickly, causing it to gag and regurgitate due to clogging in the throat. Small prey are devoured whole. With larger prey, small bones are consumed, but organs and intestines are avoided along with fur, feathers, beaks, feet or hooves. The Serval utilizes an effective plucking technique in which it repeatedly tosses captured birds in the air while simultaneously thrashing its head from side-to-side, removing mouthfuls of feathers, which it discards. .

The Serval’s diet includes hares, ground squirrels, hyraxes, mole rats, rodents, birds, reptiles, fish, frogs, snakes, lizards, birds and insects. Occasionally they will eat some grass like domestic cats.

The Serval is an efficient killer, catching prey on an average of 50% of attempts, where most other cats’ success rate is only 10%. Even compared to an average of 38% for leopards and 30% for lions the Serval is a top notch hunter. They are also good swimmers, tree climbers, and exceptionally great runners achieving a top speed of 50 mph.

Principal Threats:

The Serval has dwindled in numbers due to human population taking over its habitat and hunting for its pelts. Other threats to Servals in the wild, are hyenas, leopards and dogs. Because of their beautiful coats, they are a prime target for poachers. Their skins are sold and passed off as young leopards or cheetahs, which are much scarcer. Their pelts are mostly sold for domestic ceremonial, medicinal purposes or the tourist trade rather than for commercial export. These cats are hunted for their fur, and some for their meat. Some tribes hunt and kill the Serval for their flesh, which is considered a delicacy.

Another big threat to all the lesser cat species are human development, hunting and poisoning.  The issue of preserving the land that makes up their homeland, which is destroyed by human encroachment or from annual burning of grasslands.. 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. People also poison their main food sources, causing the deaths of the cats that eat them.

Servals may have been extirpated from Algeria and remains in Tunisia only because of a reintroduction program. Serval became extinct in the Cape provinces of South Africa over the last century mainly due to habitat loss, hunting and poaching. However private game reserves in the Eastern Cape have begun re-introducing the species in the hopes of contributing to the eventual re-establishment of these wild cats in the region


There are fourteen subspecies of the African Servals, 13 are listed in CITES Appendix II, meaning that they are not currently threatened but easily could be if something is not done to protect them. The North African subspecies is on the World Conservation Union’s (IUNC) Red List, declaring it endangered. Many of the other cat species are listed between vulnerable and endangered, with many of the ones listed as least concern by IUCN being listed as “vulnerable” by CITES. Some of the lesser felids are just starting to reproduce in captivity, while others have no captive populations. Several of the Serval species have rarely been seen in the wild.

Serval (L.s. constantina) Barbary Serval thought to now be Extinct

The Serval In Captivity

In captivity, Servals can live over 20 years but in the Wild only average 12 yrs. They require an outside/inside facility with a large enough exercise area to run, a pool in which to swim and dive, and an area with lots of climbing possibilities. Servals will escape from anything that is not totally secure and are unlikely to return once they have escaped. They don’t consider their home as a place to return to as by nature they roam a large area.

Serval Cats are the foundation for the Savannah cat.  They emerged by cross a domestic cat and a wild Serval Cat. The aim of the cross breeding was to create a domestic cat that would resemble the wild Serval cat, with its beautiful coat and physical attributes, yet make a better domestic pet. The result was fascinating and the breed has become very popular with cat fanciers. However, the Savannah cat is not easy to breed and raise the first generation, making this new breed very expensive but each generation gets less expensive but still a very impressive cat.