Serval cat: the complete story of Africa’s wildest cat

Serval portrait, standing in the bushes in the Masai Mara

A wild cat found all across sub-Saharan Africa, the serval is an expert hunter and a symbol of wild Africa. However, it’s often forgotten as safari goers seek leopard, lion and cheetah. With its beautiful fur and hunting prowess a serval could be the premier highlight of any safari.

Unfortunately, servals have become an idolised pet in many countries. Owning one is legal in around half of the United States. While some people believe they make great companions, these exotic cats are extremely wild and belong in the African wilderness.

Servals are the most successful hunters on the African savannah yet their range is diminishing due to human contact.

This article has everything you need to know about the serval cat.

Meet Africa’s Most Successful Hunting Cat

Serval cat licking its lips in the Masai Mara

Lions typically succeed in one in six or seven of their hunts. Leopards and cheetahs are a little more efficient and one in three would be considered an excellent ratio.

Servals are successful with half of their hunts! That’s better than any other African predator other than wild dogs – read the complete wild dog story here.

These remarkable cats lie deathly still in the grass and use their exceptional hearing to locate prey. Sometimes they will also stalk this prey. But often they lie and wait for the prey to unwittingly come closer.

Jumping three metres above the ground the serval attacks, landing feet first on its quarry. With a single blow from the forepaws the prey is incapacitated. Then a bite to the neck or head finishes the job.

Typical serval prey

Serval swallowing a small rodent, probably a rat

Often a serval immediately swallows its prey, especially if it is a vlei rat or African grass rat. Rodents make up the majority of its diet and most of these weigh under 200 grams.

Yet this hunter doesn’t just pick on the small and weak. Servals also attack snakes, chasing them along the ground and eating them while they are still slithering off.

Young antelope, especially duiker, are another part of their diet. These large kills are hidden away in the grass for eating later.

Hunting through hearing also enables a serval to catch birds, with that three metre jump helping them pluck flying prey direct from the air.

How are servals so good at hunting?

Serval with hare in its mouth

Part of their secret lies in stealth. Lions are conspicuous and find it difficult to hide. Cheetah may be the world’s fastest animal but they must still creep very close before pouncing. Servals are smaller and easily blend into the grass.

Like leopards and lions these wild cats have an exceptional strength to size ratio. Their leap is the most impressive – relative to its size – of all cats, and they can carry off prey heavier than they are.

But like all skills, practice makes perfect. A lion pride eats once ever three to four days. A serval hunts over 20 times every single day. They are a continuous threat and will attack during the day and night.

Just think about this – wild serval cats are hunting prey 80 times more often than lions. They are Africa’s most successful hunting cats. Yet some people think they can tame them as pets!

Servals Should Never Be Domestic Pets

Serval looking for prey in the Serengeti

It’s a beautiful and exotic cat that comes from Africa. And people from around the world like to own beautiful and exotic things from Africa, such as rhino horn, elephant ivory and serval cats. Why? 🙁

Pet websites suggest that these animals can be very affectionate but difficult to train. Difficult to train? Well, duh, they are wild animals.

We are confused: why would anybody want to take a cat out of its natural habitat for a purely personal pleasure? Serval cat pets are not rescued but poached from Africa. Rhino, elephant, a beautiful cat…when it comes to poaching and hunting the crime is the same regardless of the animal.

While it is possible to buy a serval from a domestic breeder it will still be a wild cat.

Their wild behaviour does lead to some unfortunate situations for the owner. Servals will pee all over a house to mark their territory, including peeing on their owner. They are also known to repeatedly slap and hiss at children.

Can a serval kill you?

Servals are expert predators capable of hunting prey many times their size. There are no reports of them killing adults but they are very capable of killing babies and small children.

What does it cost to own a serval?

Owning a serval has a cost attached to buying the cat itself. The bigger cost is to the serval. Having a pet involves taking a wild African cat, introducing it to a captive environment and depriving it of the opportunity to breed.

There is a large market for savannah cats descendant from serval. These kittens are priced based on how much wild serval is bred into the cat. Kittens with 65% wild serval cost over USD 15,000!

A Mythical History and Egyptian Gift

Serval in backlight, pictured at ground level

21st-century pet owners aren’t the first to be hypnotised by the serval. These beautiful cats have been traded since the time of Tutankhamun.

Roll back 2500 years and servals were exotic gifts in Ancient Egypt. They were poached in sub-Saharan Africa and taken across Sudan, where they were idolised by Egyptian rulers and landowners.

The cat was later traded with Europe. It became the symbol of a distinguished Sicilian family and the Italian island of Lampedusa. Really, what is with everyone stealing wild animals from Africa and passing them off as their own?

Habitat and Conservation

Serval family of 3 in its natural habitat

Servals have evolved to be one of Africa’s most widespread predators. They are seen in Morocco and Tunisia, along with large areas of West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa.

They prefer habitat that provides excellent cover, usually tall grass and reeds. Proximity to water is important and it is rare for a serval to den more than 5 kilometres from a permanent water source.

However, servals can thrive in a mix of habitats, including wetlands, savannah, moorlands, grasslands, gallery forests and woodland. They have even been spotted 3,800 metres up Mount Kilimanjaro as well as in the Congo.

Threats to serval populations

Although widespread across the continent their exact population is unknown. They are considered least concern on the IUCN red list yet their stability is also unknown.

Poaching and hunting are major threats. Servals are captured alive for the illegal pet trade and hunted for their spotted fur, which is sometimes sold as baby leopard.

Chickens and turkeys are no match for this impressive predator. When the cat comes into contact with a farm they hunt quickly and efficiently. This makes them a hunting target for farmers. It’s due to these reasons that servals are now extinct from the south of South Africa.

Other conservation threats include habitat loss and habitat degradation. Naturally, as these animals lose their habitat and food source their population will decline.

Know a Serval When You See One

Serval cat in hunting mode

This slender cat can be easily mistaken. When seen from a distance it can be mistaken for a baby leopard, due to its spotted fur and lean frame.

Look specifically at the legs. Servals have the longest legs (proportionally) of all Africa’s cats, whereas leopards have shorter legs and a much longer tail. In comparison a serval’s black-tipped tail is just 30-40 cm long.

Africa’s most successful hunter measures up to 70 cm and can weigh up to 18 kg. Most of these cats are in the 10-15 kg range. This is larger than the African wildcat, a species that doesn’t have the same spotted fur.

Above a serval’s small head is a protruding pair of ears. These are evidently oversized and provide the keen sense of hearing.

Understanding a Wild Serval

Serval cat with baby in tall grass

Like most of its feline cousins, servals are solitary animals and shy away from any social interaction.

The only genuine bond is between a mother and her cub – they don’t have kittens out in the wild. 🙂

Rather than fight to decide territories these cats will mutually avoid each other. Shows of aggression are very rare out in the wild, other than during a hunt.


A newborn is blind and only opens its eyes after one to two weeks. The motherly bond lasts for 12 months as the cub grows in strength and develops hunting skills. The cub starts hunting with its mother after six months before eventually departing for good.

They are sexually active from two years old and females leave their estrus scent in urine. Males and females have overlapping ranges but only usually come into contact during mating.

Fathers don’t play any part in bringing up cubs. Like male lions they are known to hunt and kill their male offspring, so mothers must regularly move their cubs to new dens.

A day on the savannah

Servals are out exploring during the day and night, although it is very rare to see them out in the open. They move slowly, creeping through the high grass, staying inconspicuous at all times.

In a single day a serval could roam up to 4 km, usually sticking to core hunting areas within its established home range.

On a successful day the cat will hunt anywhere from 10-20 different meals. However, servals are also prey to other cats, especially wild dogs and hyena.

How fast is a serval?

Serval cat leaping over a small stream

For most of the day the serval lies quiet and undisturbed. Then suddenly it leaps almost three metres towards its prey. Or it jumps up a tree and escapes a predator.

These cats are incredibly agile and can change direction on a whim, using a zigzag pattern to escape their pursuers.

Servals reach an incredible top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph). This is as fast as a lion and faster than a leopard. Like the cheetah, these cats have very long legs and strides, helping them to reach this top speed.

What sounds does a serval make?

These sublime hunters make a wide variation of sounds but are mostly silent. Most distinguishable is the low-pitched purr, a sound similar to that of a cheetah cub.

Servals complement purrs with hisses, grunts, growls and a very high-pitched chirp.

Help Preserve Serval Cats

Serval cat looking up in tall blades of green grass

These cats are under threat, like so many of Africa’s most enchanting animals.

There needs to be a total ban on owning servals as pets, rather than the current partial ban.

You can contribute to their survival by going on safari. Servals shouldn’t be encountered in the home but in the wild, where they have their natural home.

Luckily, servals are present in most of Africa’s national parks and game reserves. Small and secretive animals are hard to spot but they make for a good focal point, especially during a nighttime game drive.

Even just to witness one move fleetingly through the grass impresses their wild character and need for preservation.

Happy safari! 🙂

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