The serval (Leptailurus serval) is a species of big cat that lives in
Africa. Relatively small - only about a metre in length (including the tail)
and just over half a metre high, it is believed to be a close relative to the
African golden cat and caracal. Ancient servals were probably descended from a
common ancestor as the African lion, and the modern cheetah probably evolved
from an early serval species. They also purr.
They're graceful creatures, with small heads (as you can see from the drawing) and large ears. Those huge ears give them amazing hearing, and they can often pinpoint, and jump on, their prey by sound alone. You can see the elongated spots spattering its fur and the long legs, suitable for seeing over tall grasses. Their tails are slightly bushy, and ringed with dark stripes, and their colouring is dark brown-black on pale tawny (yellow brown) fur. Rarely, melanistic servals have occurred (white, with silver spots) but only in captivity.
They were worshipped by the Egyptians, and have been kept as pets in Europe and the USA - more recently, being interbred with domestic cats to create the 'Savannah' species. Obviously, these are becoming popular, exotic, pets â€“ larger and lovelier than their domestic parent, and less wild than their wild side. However, quite apart from being expensive and rare, they are difficult to breed past the first generation. Most later generation Savannahs are crossbred further with domestic cats. While size can be variable, most Savannah cats are only slightly larger than a normal house cat.
Servals mostly live on the savanna, near water, hunting small prey such as rodents (although they will hunt larger prey if possible) and are notoriously intelligent. They also have the highest kill ratio of any wild cat species. Other reported habitat includes open woodlands, bushland, forests, grasslands, marsh, sub-alpine and bamboo forests. A few do live in the mountains, and are more likely to display variable colour patterns. Their sleeping patterns reflect the activity of their prey â€“ they can be diurnal or nocturnal, depending. They are solitary creatures, only coming together to breed, and the mother drives away the cubs after they come of age â€“ but interestingly, the Serval, and the hybrid Savannahs, are gregarious, enthusiastic and inquisitive pets, that interact well with humans. They either don't mind â€“ or enjoy â€“ water, depending on which reports you read, and generally their behaviour is an exaggerated version of a normal domestic cat â€“ loud purr, pouncing, friendly head butts (although my own cat could probably have them beat there!).
They are a popular target for the fur trade, and are "not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled." [CITES Appendix 2]. In the wild, their natural enemies are leopards, hyenas and African wild dogs. Servals live up to twenty years.
Picture Credits: Pencil sketch of a Serval by myself [Flynn the Cat] from a photograph by Michael Nichols, taken in Zakouma, Africa, and published in a National Geographic magazine.