The Cat Survival Trust

The Serval

Felis (Leptailurus) serval Schreber

Photo: Sue Barr


  • Description
  • Distribution
  • Diet
  • Behaviour
  • Reproduction
  • Conservation Status
  • Captive Breeding and Servals in Captivity
  • Further Reading

  • Other names

     French:chat-tigre, lynx tachetť


    Servals have relatively the largest ears and the longest legs in the cat family. Their feet are actually elongated rather than their legs. With long necks, their heads are small and slim. Their pelage is tawny-gold in colour and marked with round black spots. Ground colours vary from pale yellowish to buffy-red. Generally the spots are large and they tend to merge into longitudinal stripes on the neck and back. Sometimes there are numerous small spots, giving a speckled appearance.
    The so-called servaline cat has very fine or almost indistinct spots, and is said to be smaller than the larger spotted forms. In general, the spots are more bold in the drier parts of the servalís range. Melanistic or all-black forms have been reported to live in some mountainous areas.
    The tail of the serval is short, down to the hocks. It is tipped with black, is spotted, and ringed in the distal half. A servalís ears are black with central white bars. Their skulls are distinctly elongate and the upper anterior premolars are present.
    Wozencraft (1993) in the latest review of cat taxonomy has placed the serval (usually considered to be in the genus Felis) in the genus Leptailurus.
    There are 14 recognised subspecies:
    F. (L.) s. serval Cape Province
    F. (L.) s. beirae Mozambique
    F. (L.) s. brachyura Servaline cat: Sierra Leone to Ethiopia
    F. (L.) s. constantina Algeria-Atlas
    F. (L.) s. hamiltoni East Transvaal
    F. (L.) s. hindeio Tanzania
    F. (L.) s. ingridi South Zimbabwe, Botswana, southwest Africa
    F. (L.) s. kempi Uganda
    F. (L.) s. kivuensis Congo and Angola
    F. (L.) s. liposticta North Angola
    F. (L.) s. lonnbergi South west Angola
    F. (L.) s. mababiensis North Botswana
    F. (L.) s. robertsi West Transvaal
    F. (L.) s. togoensis Dahomey and Togo
    The subspecies of many animals are often of doubtful validity. Populations show considerable variation, and many classifications were allocated before the current rigorous systematic techniques were developed.

    Principal dimensions

    Head and Body lengths (cm)67-100  
    Height at shoulder (cm)40-65  
    Tail lengths (cm)24-45  
    Weight (Kg)8-18  
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    Distribution and Habitats

    Servals prefer well watered grasslands, and are confined to areas near water and with adequate shelter. They do not live in densely forested areas.
    Widely distributed, they are reasonably common over all of Africa south of the Sahara except for rainforest and semi-deserts or desert areas.
    There was a North African relict population in the Atlas mountains. If it is still extant it is extremely endangered - they have not been reported in the Atlas for 20 years.
    The most dense serval populations occur in the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania, with 40 per 100 km2.
    The caracal has a very similar African distribution to the serval, which is more commonly associated with wetter habitats. Servals are quite common in rural areas and seem to be able to coexist with humans.
    The map shows the present distribution of Servals in grey.
    The map are based on information in the Wild Cats Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan published by the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group in 1996. See our Books page for more details.
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    Servals are rodent specialists, 89% of their kills have been estimated as mammalian. Caracals, although quite similar in ecology, tend to take rather larger prey. More than 90% of the servalís prey weighs less than 200 grammes, less than two percent of the average body weight of a female.
    Servals prey on hares, ground squirrels, hyraxes, snakes, lizards, mole rats, frogs, insects, birds (quails, flamingoes, quelea, and teal). They have been known to take domestic poultry. Larger animals such as vlei rats and even small antelopes are preferred, if they can be easily taken.
    Both caracals and servals are opportunistic hunters, a fact which may create conflict. The caracal seems to outcompete servals in southern Africa.
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    As highly specialised rodent predators, serval hunt exclusively on the ground. They walk slowly through tall grass and listen for movement, if it is windy they wait. Using their relatively tall vantage point, they rely on their ears to accurately fix the position of their potential victims. Then they pounce, they leap high with all four feet off the ground. Their prey is stunned or killed as the cat hits them with its forefeet. If the serval misses it makes a series of swift, successive stiff-legged jumps in attempt to remedy the situation.
    Servals also use a high bouncing pounce to flush animals from cover, galloping zig-zag fashion through the grass with high leaps. Nearly one in every two pounces results in food for a serval, making it one of the most effective feline hunters. For most species of cat, success once in every ten attempts is a good average.
    Servals can also detect prey underground. They dig for the animals and hook them out. They have been observed to dig holes in mole rat tunnels and sit and wait. When a mole rat comes to repair the damage the serval fishes it out.
    Often said to hunt in shallow water, they will stalk wading birds, catching frogs and fish.
    Female servals hold exclusive territories from about two to nine km2 in area. Male ranges usually twice the size, will overlap two or more female territories. Boundaries are delineated with frequent scent and scrape marks.
    Males have been observed to display very ritualistic aggression behaviour. They sit and face one another as one individual puts his front paw on the otherís chest. The second animal bobs his head and may bite the upraised paw. This exchange can escalate into a full fight, but more often remains as a protracted stare-off.
    Adult males have been observed to display some social behaviour, by resting together during the day (Van Aarde and Skinner 1986).
    Servals in the Ngorongoro are mainly nocturnal, this reflects the activity peaks of their main prey species: vlei rats and frogs. In the Serengeti they tend to be more diurnal as the basic prey are Nile rats, which are active in the day.
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    Female servals display very overt oestrus behaviour over four days. One to three, or even as many as five, kittens are born after a gestation period of 66 to 77 days. Weighing 260 grammes at birth, their eyes are fully open by nine days. By four weeks the kittens have their first solids and are weaned in four to seven months. Full adult dentition may be present in 190 days. The mother will give birth and rear her offspring in a den in dense vegetation or in an abandoned burrow. When the young servals are one year old they will leave their natal range.
    Captive servals have lived for 20 years.
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    Conservation Status

    The serval is reasonably widespread and relatively common throughout Africa. It also breeds well in captivity.
    The IUCN Red List has the North African serval (F. (L.) s. constantinus) as Endangered but all other servals as Least Concern. (Cat News 23, 1995, p.21)
    In the Cape region of southern Africa servals were historically restricted to the coastal belt, and inland to east of 24° East Longitude. This is where most of the human pressure is concentrated. They are now extinct in the Cape Province of South Africa. Natural repopulation seems unlikely, so reintroduction is the only option.
    Caracals seem to have been able to adapt to the habitat degradation better than the servals (Serval Extinct in Cape Province of South Africa. Cat News 4, 1986, p. 10-11).
    Servals are reputed to be easy to hunt, and will run up a tree if chased by dogs. Then they can be easily shot.
    The principle threats they face in the rest of their ranges are habitat loss and persecution (Serval Research in South Africa. Cat News 13, 1990, p. 18). Servals are believed to be responsible for sheep and poultry losses. Blackbacked jackal and caracal are more likely to be the culprits. Servals also get trapped easily.
    It is unfortunate for the serval that it has such beautiful fur. People still demand the skins of spotted cats.

    Thirteen adult servals are killed to make one fur coat.

    The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have prohibited all international commerce in serval products, under Appendix I (Conservation and Legal Status of Wild Cats. Cat News 12, 1990, p.26).
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    Captive Breeding and Servals in Captivity

    Zoos with Servals

    Back to Wild Cats of the World Back to CST Home Page

    Latest update: 27th November, 1999

    © September 1996 The Cat Survival Trust, The Centre, Codicote Road, Welwyn, AL6 9TU, England.
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