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The African Serval: That Wild Ancestor Of The Savannah Cat

People who want to buy a Savannah cat are fascinated by its African Serval heritage and want to know more. How can a wild animal be so beautifully domesticated with seemingly minimal cross-breeding?

The African Serval cat is a medium-sized wild cat living south of the Sahara although it was once found in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria and has now been reintroduced to Tunisia.

Its main habitat is the savannah although black Servals may be found in the mountains at elevations up to 3,000 metres (9,800 ft).

The Serval needs water within its territory so it does not live in very dry areas. It also avoids dense forests but will live along forest fringes. Servals are able to both climb and swim.

The Serval measures 23 to 36 in (59 to 92 centimetres) in head-body length. Its shoulder height is about 21 to 26 in (54 to 66 centimetres). The tail is relatively short. Females weigh from 15 to 26 lb (7 to 12 kilograms) while males are 20 to 40 lb (9 to 18 kilograms).

They are strong but slender cats with long legs and a small head relative to their body. Their tall, oval ears are set close together and their fur pattern is variable although it is usually spotted black on tawny with 204 stripes from the top of their head down the neck and back.

Appropriate cross-breeding over a number of generations is producing many variations of Savannah cats. Breeders can "create" cat traits to match the look and feel that the Savannah buyer is looking for.

The Serval Habitat

Black servals are quite common in eastern Africa but white servals have only been documented in captivity.

Servals have the longest legs of any cat, relative to their body size and their toes are long and agile to help them capture their favorite prey which is rodents. Their diet also includes birds, hares, reptiles, insects, fish and frogs.

They have also been seen killing larger animals such as deer, gazelle and springbok... although most of its prey weighs less than 200 g (7 oz). Its long ears and acute sense of hearing help it to catch its elusive prey.

The solitary African Serval cat
Solitary Serval

The Serval has a very characteristic pouncing technique when hunting rodents. It leaps high into the air and then lands on the prey with its forepaws, stunning the prey in the process.

Servals are solitary, nocturnal animals that may travel 3-4 kilometres (2-2.5 mi) each night in search of food. Females defend home ranges of 10-20 square kilometres (4-7.6 sq mi) while males will defend 12-30 square kilometres (5-12 sq mi).

They mark their territory by urinating onto prominent objects such as bushes and occasionally scraping fresh urine into the ground with their claws.

When threatened, the serval will flatten its ears, arch its back, bare its teeth and nod its head vigorously. During an actual fight, it will lash out with long forelegs and make sharp barking sounds and loud growls.

When not defending its territory, the serval has a high-pitched chirp and can hiss, cackle, growl, grunt, meow... and also purr.

Serval Reproduction

Servals can give birth to multiple litters throughout the year. Gestation lasts from 66-77 days and commonly results in the birth of two kittens but up to four have been recorded.

The kittens weigh around 250 grams (8.8 oz) at birth, and are initially blind and helpless, with a coat of greyish woolly hair. They open their eyes at nine to thirteen days of age, and begin to take solid food after around a month.

They acquire their permanent canine teeth and begin hunting for themselves at around six months and leave their mother at about twelve months. They reach sexual maturity at anything from 12-25 months.

Life expectancy is about 10 years in the wild, and up to 20 years in captivity.

Threats And Honors

Servals are increasingly rare in the wild as their habitat is destroyed and they are hunted for their pelts. Not yet threatened with extinction, they may be if trade is not controlled. It's no longer in the Cape Province in South Africa.

Fortunately, increasing demand for the Savannah cat emphasizes the need to preserve the African Serval. Buyers want that personality that has a touch of the wild side that's charming, not nasty.

The Serval was the symbol of the Italian Tomasi family whose best known member, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, authored one of the most famous Italian novels of the 20th century, Il Gattopardo.

In English, the novel is titled The Leopard but the title actually refers to the Serval cat which is on the Tomasi family's coat of arms.