Leptailurus serval


Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family

Scientific Name: Leptailurus serval
Species Authority: (Schreber, 1776)
Common Name(s):
English Serval
French Chat-tigre
Caracal serval (Schreber, 1776)
Taxonomic Notes: Taxonomy is currently under review by the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group.  A recent molecular phylogeny reveals that the Serval is closely allied with the African Golden Cat Caracal aurata and Caracal Caracal caracal (Johnson et al. 2006), diverging from a common ancestor approximately 5.4 million years ago (O'Brien and Johnson 2007).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern ver 3.1
Year Published: 2015
Date Assessed: 2014-04-20
Assessor(s): Thiel, C
Reviewer(s): Nowell, K., Hunter, L., Hoffmann, M., Breitenmoser-Würsten, C., Lanz, T. & Breitenmoser, U.
Contributor(s): Henschel, P. & Sogbohossou, E.
Listed as Least Concern the Serval is relatively abundant and widespread.Within the last few years there are many new records of Servals implying an expanding and recolonizing of some areas (Herman et al. 2008, Bout 2010, Thorn et al. 2011, Hickisch and Aebischer 2013, Mugerwa 2013). There is no data confirming the new findings to be an enlargement of the Serval's distribution range or to be a shift of the range due to habitat loss and/or degradation, climate change or human impact, etc. However, habitat loss and degradation of wetlands is of concern, as is the level of skin trade in west Africa (Ray et al. 2005).

Servals are rare south of the Sahara in the Sahel region such as Senegal (Clement et al. 2007). A 2007 Mediterranean Mammal Assessment workshop classified Servals north of the Sahara as regionally Critically Endangered. The isolated population along the Mediterranean coast, where it is known to occur only in Morocco (Cuzin 2003), possibly in Algeria (K. de Smet pers. comm.), and has been reintroduced (from East African stock) in Tunisia (Hunter and Bowland 2013), is classified regionally as Critically Endangered under criterion C2a(i). There are fewer than 250 mature individuals; each subpopulation is smaller than 50 and completely isolated (from each other and from sub-Saharan African populations). The status of these populations has not been reassessed and since 2003 there are have been no new confirmed records.

2002 Least Concern

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The Serval occurs widely through sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of tropical rainforest and the Saharan desert (Nowell and Jackson 1996). North of the Sahara, there are few records from Morocco (Cuzin 2003), possible records in Algeria (K. de Smet pers. comm.), and after they went extinct in Tunisia, Servals have been reintroduced using animals of East African stock into Feijda National Park (Hunter and Bowland 2013). Servals are rare south of the Sahara in the Sahel region such as Senegal (Clement et al. 2007). Gadsby (1991) proved the occurrence of Serval in Nigeria based on furs of this species being commonly traded on local markets. Trade evidence is used by Maisels et al. (2001) for occurrence in Cameroon and by Sayer and Green (1984) for occurrence in Benin.

Within the last years there are new records of Servals implying an expanding and recolonizing of some areas, such as central South Africa, Gabon, North West province of South Africa, eastern Central African Republic, south western Uganda and central Namibia (Herrmann et al. 2008, Bout 2010, Thorn et al. 2011, Hickisch and Aebischer 2013, Mugerwa 2013, C. Thiel pers. comm.).
Angola (Angola); Benin; Botswana; Burkina Faso; Burundi; Cameroon; Central African Republic; Chad; Congo; Congo, The Democratic Republic of the; Côte d'Ivoire; Djibouti; Eritrea; Ethiopia; Gabon; Gambia; Ghana; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Kenya; Liberia; Malawi; Mali; Mozambique; Namibia; Niger; Nigeria; Rwanda; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Somalia; South Africa; Sudan; Swaziland; Tanzania, United Republic of; Togo; Uganda; Zambia; Zimbabwe
Possibly extinct:
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population: Outside northern Africa, where it is considered to meet the Red List Criteria for Endangered (Cuzin 2003) and the Sahel, where it is rare (Clement et al. 2007), the Serval is commonly recorded from most major national parks and reserves. Their status outside reserves is uncertain, but they are inconspicuous and may be common in suitable habitat as they are tolerant of farming practices provided there is cover and food available (Bowland 1990, Thiel 2011). The minimum density of Servals in optimal habitat in Ngorongoro Crater was 0.42 animals/km² (Geertsema 1985) and 0.1 animals/km² in Luambe National Park in Zambia (Thiel 2011).
Population Trend: Stable

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology: Sunquist and Sunquist (2002) stated, that the Serval has quite specific habitat requirements, so it may be locally restricted to smaller areas within its broad distribution range; it is not found in areas of rainforest or desert like habitats.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Servals are found in well-watered savanna long-grass environments and are particularly associated with reedbeds and other riparian vegetation types (Thiel 2011). Geertsema (1981) associated Servals with well-watered habitats like grass savannas along river reed beds and swamps, in brush and open woodlands and along the edge of forests. Van Aarde and Skinner (1986) showed significantly higher usage of riverine habitats than expected. Grimshaw et al. (1995) and Andama (2000) even reported Servals on high altitude moorlands and bamboo thickets. They also range up into alpine grasslands, up to 3,800 m on Mount Kilimanjaro (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Servals can penetrate dense forest along waterways and through grassy patches, but are absent from the rainforests of Central Africa, and from desert environments. In North Africa, they are found from semi-desert to cork oak forest on the Mediterranean coast (De Smet 1989, Cuzin 2003). Servals are able to tolerate agricultural areas provided cover is available (Geertsema 1985, Thiel 2011), and may also benefit from forest clearance and the resulting encroachment of savanna at the edges of the equatorial forest belt (Ray et al. 2005). 

Serval specialize in preying on small mammals, in particular rodents, with birds of secondary importance, followed by reptiles and arthropods (Geertsema 1985, Bowland 1990, Thiel 2011). In Zambia Servals feed mainly on small mammals weighing in average ca 70 g and up to 1.5 kg, which mostly are nocturnal and have a preference for grassland, wetland or habitats associated with water; birds have an average weight of ca 250 g, in form of smaller birds (up to 200 g) or larger Galliformes (ground dwellers up to 4 kg) (Thiel 2011).
Systems: Terrestrial; Freshwater

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: For uses, see under Threats.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): The major threat to Serval is wetland habitat loss and degradation (Thiel 2011). Wetlands harbour comparatively high rodent densities compared with other habitat types, and form the core areas of Serval home ranges. Of secondary importance is degradation of grasslands through annual burning followed by over-grazing by domestic livestock, leading to reduced abundance of small mammals (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Ray et al. 2005).

International legal commercial trade is generally declining (Nowell and Jackson 1996), although skins are still traded in large quantities in some countries, such as Senegal, Gambia and Benin (Burnham and Di Silvestre in Hunter and Bowland 2013), and exported to North Africa (K. de Smet and F. Cuzin pers. comm. 2007). Serval pelts seen in trade in Morocco could come from elsewhere, or could indicate the species continued existence in that country (Arce and Prunier 2006). In Zambia pelts are rarely used for traditional clothing, often it is used as substitute for Leopard skins (C. Thiel pers. comm.) Trade in West Africa appears to be primarily for ceremonial or medicinal purposes. For example, they are highly valued for traditional medicine in Nigeria, where, among markets surveyed in five south-west Nigerian towns in 1994, Servals were the second most commonly offered mammalian species (Sodeinde and Soewu 1999 in Hunter and Bowland 2013). Gadsby (1991) proved the occurrence of Serval in Nigeria based on furs of this species being commonly traded on local markets. Trade evidence is used by Maisels et al. (2001) for occurrence in Cameroon and by Sayer and Green (1984) for occurrence in Benin.

Although Serval very rarely prey upon livestock (and indeed may even be beneficial to crop farmers due to their predilection for rodents), in rural areas throughout Africa, they are sometimes persecuted for taking poultry and indiscriminate predator control methods practised by pastoralists frequently kill them (L. Hunter and J. Bowland pers. comms.).

Sometimes other predators, such as leopards, hyaenas or lions, kill young and even adult Serval (Thiel 2011).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The Serval is listed on CITES Appendix II. Hunting is prohibited in Algeria, Botswana, Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa (Cape province only), and Tunisia, and hunting regulations apply in Angola, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Malawi, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tanzania, Togo and Zambia (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

Servals occur in a number of protected areas across their range, including: El Kala National Park (N.P.) (Algeria), Feidja N.P. (Tunisia), Ifrane N.P. (Morocco), Comoé N.P. (Côte d’Ivoire), WAPO complex (Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Togo), Zakouma N.P. (Chad), Simien and Bale Mountains National Parks (Ethiopia), Odzala N.P. (Congo Republic), Virunga N.P. (DR Congo), Queen Elizabeth N.P. and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda), Aberdare Mountains N.P. (Kenya), Serengeti and Selous National Parks (Tanzania), Moremi G.R. and Chobe N.P. (Botswana), and Kruger N.P. and Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park (South Africa). Odzala N.P. in Congo Republic could be a key site for protecting serval as it is the only currently known protected population in the Gabon-Congolian savanna region, which are isolated from the Miombo woodlands south of the Congo River (P. Henschel pers. comm.).

As Geertsema (1985) and Bowland (1990) mentioned the key to Serval conservation is Wetland conservation. For these reasons it is crucial to investigate the Serval’s habitat requirements and to create an updated action plan for this species (Thiel 2011). The Serval can be used as an umbrella species for savanna biotopes; and as an indicator for the heavily endangered humid savanna biotope.

Bibliography [top]

Andama, E. 2000. Status and Distribution of Carnivores in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Southwestern Uganda. Makerere University, Uganda.

Arce, S.S. and Prunier, F. 2006. Report on serval pelts in Morocco. Cat News 46: 16-17.

Bout, N. 2010. Recent direct observations of the savannah felid Serval Leptailurus serval in a degraded rainforest-savannah mosaic of south-east of Gabon. African Journal of Ecology 49: 127-129.

Bowland, J.M. 1990. Diet, home range and movement patterns of serval on farmland in Natal. Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Natal.

Clement, C., Niaga, M. and Cadi, A. 2007. Does the serval still exist in Senegal? Cat News 47: 24-25.

Cuzin, F. 2003. Les grands mammifères du Maroc méridional (Haut Atlas, Anti Atlas et Sahara): Distribution, Ecologie et Conservation. Ph.D. Thesis, Laboratoire de Biogéographie et Ecologie des Vertèbrés, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Université Montpellier II.

De Smet, K. 1989. The distribution and habitat choice of larger mammals in Algeria, with special reference to nature protection. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Ghent.

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Gadsby, E.L. (1991). 1991. Comments on Nigeria. Unpublished MSc.http://www.catsg.org/catsglib/recordetail.php?recordid=420

Geertsema, A. 1981. The servals of Gorigor. Wildlife News. African Wildlife Leadership Foundation, Washington D.C. 16(3): Nairobi, Kenya.

Geertsema, A. 1985. Aspects of the ecology of the Serval Leptailurus serval in the Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania. Netherlands Journal of Zoology 35(4): 527.

Grimshaw, J.M., Cordeiro, J. and Foley, C.A.H. 1995. The mammals of Kilimanjaro. Journal of the East Africa Natural History Society 84: 105-139.

Herrmann, E., Kamler, J. and Avenant, N. 2008. New records of servals Leptailurus serval in central South Africa. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 38: 185-188.

Hickisch, R. and Aebischer. T. 2013. African golden cat, caracal and serval in the Chinko/Mbari Drainage Baisin, CAR. Cat News 58(Spring 2013): 2.

Hunter, L.T.B. and Bowland, J. 2013. Leptailurus serval. In: J. Kingdon, D.Happold, T. Butynski, M. Hoffmann, M. Happold, J. Kalina (ed.), The Mammals of Africa. Volume V: Carnivores, Pangolins, Equids and Rhinoceroses, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

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Johnson, W.E., Eizirik, E., Pecon-Slattery, J., Murphy, W.J., Antunes, A., Teeling, E. and O'Brien, S.J. 2006. The late Miocene radiation of modern Felidae: a genetic assessment. Science 311: 73-77.

Johnson, W.E., Eizirik, E., Pecon-Slattery, J., Murphy, W.J., Antunes, A., Teeling, E. and O'Brien, S.J. 2006. The late Miocene radiation of modern Felidae: A genetic assesstment. Science 311: 73-77.

Maisels, F., Keming, E., Kemei, M. and Toh, C. 2001. The extirpation of large mammals and implications for montane forest conservation: the case of the Kilum-Ijim Forest, North-west Province, Cameroon. Oryx 35: 322-331.

Mugerwa, B. 2013. First photographic record of a serval in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, south-western Uganda. Cat News 59(Autumn 2013): 2.

Nowell, K. and Jackson, P. (compilers and editors) 1996. Wild Cats. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. (online version)

O'Brien, S.J. and Johnson, W E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American July: 68-75.

Ray, J.C., Hunter, L. and Zigouris, J. 2005. Setting conservation and research priorities for larger African carnivores. Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, USA.

Sayer, J.A. and Green, A.A. 1984. The distribution and status of large mammals in Benin. 14(1): 37.

Sodeinde, O.A. and Adepipe, S.R. 1994. Pangolins in south-west Nigeria: current status and prognosis. Oryx 28: 43-50.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. University of Chicago Press.

Thiel, C. 2011. Ecology and population status of the Serval Leptailurus serval (SCHREBER, 1776) in Zambia. Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum A. Koenig, Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, Bonn.

Thorn, M., Green, M., Keith, M., Marnewick, K., Bateman, P.W., Cameron, E.Z. and Scott, D.M. 2011a. Large-scale distribution patterns of carnivores in northern South Africa: implications for conservation and monitoring. Oryx 45(4): 579-586.

van Aarde, R.J. and Skinner, J.D. 1986. Patterns of space use by relocated servals Felis serval. African Journal of Ecology 24: 97-101.

Citation: Thiel, C 2015. Leptailurus serval. In: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 31 August 2015.
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