In the shadow of the big cats such as the lion, the leopard and the cheetah live small felines that are just as beautiful and interesting, including the serval. About the size of a jackal, the serval can be distinguished from other felines by its oversized ears, which are used to detect rodents in tall grass, its long legs which are proportionally the longest of all felids, its short tail and its cheetah-like spotted coat. The serval can be melanistic in mountainous areas such as Ethiopia. The serval is widespread in most of the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to South Africa. It is absent from the rainforests of Central Africa and from desert areas.

Serval with prey (Serengeti, Tanzania)


Length: 96-125 cm
Shoulder height: 60 cm
Weight: 8-15 kg


Habitat: The serval is adapted to grassy savannahs and meadows but can also be found in reedbeds and marshes, mountain meadows and at the edge of forest biotopes.

Food: As its morphology suggests, the serval specializes in catching rodents, which it locates in tall grass thanks to its large ears, which give it exceptional hearing acuity. Once located, the serval leaps vertically with its back arched and paws together like a fox, before suddenly landing on its prey pinning it to the ground before finishing it off with a bite to the nape of the neck. It also feeds on lizards, amphibians, various species of fish and even snakes, including venomous ones such as the  puff adder. It can also prey on birds as big as a flamingo or a stork and on gazelle fawns and newborn antelopes and even on small antelopes such as diks-diks, sunis but this remains rare.

Behaviour and social structure: Servals are like most felids solitary and territorial animals but sometimes pairs are seen hunting together. Males and females defend exclusive territories within home ranges that they share with other servals. Exclusive territories are marked by urine and feces. These territories are several dozen of km2 (10 to 30 km2) in size and the territories of the males include those of several females. Servals are mainly nocturnal but can be active in the early morning and late afternoon.

Breeding behaviour: Servals breed all year round but there may be breeding seasons in some localities which seem to correspond to the rainy seasons (Uganda). The male and female remain together during the mating season. After a gestation period of 67 to 77 days, the female gives birth to litters of 1 to 5 young, which she hides in dense vegetation. She brings them food. The young become independent after six to eight months.

Predators: The leopard seems to be the main predator of the adults who are also threatened by hyenas and wild dogs. Lions, Nile crocodiles, African rock pythons are also potential predators. Jackals, large raptors, snakes, baboons and ratels are likely to prey on the young.

Best places to see it: Unpredictable. If you are very lucky, you can see it in the big national parks. Of my five serval sightings over a period of time going from 1997 to 2016, two were in the Ngorongoro Crater, which is often cited as the most likely place to encounter them. One sighting was in the Serengeti in Tanzania, another in Tsavo East in Kenya and one in a reedbed in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana.