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08 Dec, 2023
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super sensitive servals

Super Sensitive Servals!!!- Article by Gareth Jones

Super Sensitive Servals Of The Nairobi National Park

When driving in the Nairobi National Park, always be prepared for those “suddenly” moments when you see something rare or special. It is good to drive with your camera ON! and READY! and next to you if possible, plus if you have binoculars have them out as well, slow driving is obviously necessary for good sightings.

Well such a “suddenly” moment happened late one afternoon a few years ago, when I was driving on the tar road near junction no2, suddenly a serval stood looking at me on the right side of the road. I immediately stopped and switched off the engine. By that time the Serval had already disappeared, but knowing their shy and secretive nature I decided to sit quietly and wait, in the hope that the serval would relax and behave naturally. Sure enough, after several minutes, the serval emerged from behind a thick patch of long grass.

As I watched, the serval suddenly froze, standing still. Its large radar-like ears tilted forwards. Then as if in slow motion, its long-legged beautiful sleek body crouched ready to pounce. After a few moments, the serval sprang into action, launching its body high above the tall grass and then purposefully diving straight into a small shrub. Then this specialist cat emerged victoriously carrying a large rodent in its mouth, and proceeding to walk confidently away into a thick patch of bush to eat dinner in peace.

The serval (Leptailurus serval) is a medium-sized African wild cat. DNA studies have shown that the serval is closely related to the African golden cat and the caracal. Servals have the longest legs of any cat, relative to their body size. Most of this increase in length is due to the greatly elongated metatarsal bones in the feet. The toes are also elongated, and unusually mobile, helping the animal to capture partially concealed prey. However, a very special distinctive feature of the serval as a species is the presence of large almost radar-like ears and auditory bullae in the skull, indicating a particularly acute super sensitive hearing. The serval’s huge, oval-shaped ears, are perhaps the biggest ears of all the cats. They are designed to pick up the sound of small prey animals hidden in undergrowth. The serval has much larger ear bullae compared to the caracal, which reflects its keen sense of hearing. The auditory bullae are the middle and inner structures which convert sound waves to nerve impulses, which are in turn understood by the brain. We humans are technically deaf, in comparison to the incredible hearing ability of the serval cat. Imagine for a moment that you can actually hear a small creature like a rat or a field mouse while these little creatures are still underground. Hearing so sensitive and acute that the serval can actually tell the exact moment that the potential prey emerges from their hiding place. Allowing the serval to use its long leaping legs to spring high into the air and strike its prey with a forceful surprise attack.

When compared to other wild cats, researchers have found that their strike rate of success per hunting attempt is one of the highest success rates of all the wild cats. Servals have a hunting success rate of about 48% (1 out of every 2 attempts), higher than other members of the cat family. This is even more impressive when considering that servals hunt alone. By comparison, single lions only have about 18% (a less 1 out of very 5 success rate), this increases to close to 30% (almost 1 in every 3) success rate when a full pride hunts. The petite and vicious black footed cat holds the title of Africa’s most successful hunter, with a kill rate of about 60% per attempt (almost 2 out of every 3 hunts).

To see a serval cat anywhere is very special, and the Nairobi National Park is a good place to find them. They are not common and are difficult to see due to their markings, some people could mistake them for a miniature cheetah, but they are much smaller than cheetahs. They also have a shy, reserved nature, and as a result their habits are often sneaky and secretive.

Servals are indeed an incredible creation, particularly designed for efficient and effective hunting in a unique way, unlike any other cats. Drive slowly and be on the lookout for birds like guinea fowl that seem to be alarmed, or small antelope that are all standing still looking in a particular direction. While there is no guarantee, serval sightings are always very special moments.

The park is open daily from 06h00 to 19h00

super sensitive servals
Gareth Jones – Nairobi Park Diary – A passionate writer & photographer