The “Speckletacular” Cats! – Article by Gareth Jones
The “Speckletacular” Cats: The Nairobi Servals
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 around a corner on the Mbuni loop, suddenly a serval stood looking at me on the right side of the road. I immediately stopped and switched off the engine, thankfully my camera was already in hand and I was able to take some good close-up photos before the serval walked off into the long grass towards some trees. The serval stopped below one tree and reached upward and in a typically cat way, stretched its body while briefly clawing the bark. In a moment the serval walked away to the next tree and disappeared into the grass. I was just about to go, when suddenly the serval leaped out of the grass and landed about three metres up the previous tree, the intended prey, a bird, just managing to fly away by a fraction. The serval stayed up the tree for a few moments allowing me the opportunity for some action photos, before jumping down and bounding away into the long grass. WOW!!…what a rare moment to witness, it is a special moment to see any serval, but leaping up a tree is incredible!
Yes! Serval sightings cannot be planned, but it is good to have some tactics that increase the possibilities to see them. On another occasion I was driving slowly through the Sosian Valley early one morning, then suddenly a serval cat crossed the road about 50m ahead of me. I deliberately drove past the point of the serval crossing and parked at an angle so that I could see back down the road. The parked position was also better for photography should the serval return. After sitting quietly for quite a few minutes, the serval slowly moved back onto the road and began to walk towards me. These types of moments are very special, especially when creatures behave naturally, the serval appeared to be very relaxed and did not appear to be concerned about the vehicle parked next to the road. After a short while, the serval walked off the road and pasted my vehicle, and I was thankfully privileged to be able to take a few decent photos of these special moments.
The serval (Leptailurus serval) is a medium-sized African wild cat. Three subspecies are recognized as valid since 2017.
L.s. serval in Southern Africa
L.s. constantina in Central and West Africa
L.s. lipostictus in East Africa
The sub-species of serval in this article found in the Nairobi National Park is classified as Leptailurus Serval lipostictus. However, it should be noted that even with the more than 50 servals I have sighted within the Nairobi
National Park over a period of about 20 years, there has been quite an interesting variation in body markings as well within this localized population.
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. Another distinctive feature of the serval is the presence of large ears and auditory bullae in the skull, indicating a particularly acute sense of hearing. 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 miniature cheetahs, 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. Actually, their marking patterns are so amazingly beautiful, especially when seen from close up, that I have given them the name “Speckletacular Servals”. “Speckletacular” is a word I made up by blending two words, speckle & spectacular.
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, They are quite small cats, that could look a bit like a cheetah, but are much smaller. Although serval sightings are quite rare, I have had a few unexpected sightings by simply responding to the alarm calls of various birds, especially guineafowl alarm calls. I simply wait a few minutes, a then a “suddenly” moment happens as a serval emerges from the thick vegetation.
On another occasion very early one morning just after 06h15, we drove down what remains of the tar road from No2 to No3 junction, then suddenly in the distance I saw the unmistakable profile of a serval cross the road. I observed the approximate place where the serval crossed over and stopped there while waiting quietly for a few minutes. Then we saw some movements, WOW! 2 servals, a mother, and a kitten near the road in the long grass. As we sat very quietly they began to relax, and soon seemingly forgot that there was any threat. They began to behave in a wonderful way, as the kitten began to play with “mom”. The kitten would repeatedly run away, and then stalk back behind the mother, and pounce. I believe that these sorts of games that young cats play prepare them and train them for when they mature and need to catch their own prey. We watched the servals for some time, until the mother succeeded in catching a rodent for breakfast, and disappeared into the thick shrubs.
So next time you are in the Nairobi National Park, or any other wildlife area where servals can be seen, or perhaps “spotted”. if you see a serval, please note that they are normally very sensitive to noise and are quite shy. So it is important to be patient and as quiet as possible, by switching off the noisy car engine and waiting about 10-15 minutes for the serval to emerge from their hiding place. Be extra alert and watch out, hopefully, you may be blessed by having a “Speckletacular serval” sighting.