It was 06:30 in the morning and we were all getting settled in the Land Cruiser as we left Babu’s Camp in Mkomazi National Park, Tanzania. Everyone on this year’s Africa Geographic Birding Tour of the Eastern Arc Mountains was elated with the pickings of the trip. We were headed to the drier sectors of the reserve in search of fringe-eared oryx, golden pipit, pink-breasted lark and some other dry country specials to add to our burgeoning tally.
I was fussing about creating a soft nest with my fleece for my camera to weather the bumpy and rutted road (even though Mkomazi has just graded its roads and they were in very good condition). We had not yet engaged into cruising speed, but as we nearly drove past a right hand track both driver and myself were startled by a big black lanky… something, 20 metres up the track.
I had never seen anything like it, and I first thought it was big, scrawny, black, stray dog. But then it moved slightly, and it did so with that unique feline fluidity. In fact it moved with the very “sexy” stride of a serval, and the cry went out… SERVAL! But its BLACK? Melanistic, like panthers. The guests’ binoculars went up, some still bearing a bruise from the haste required by the moment.
A different instinct kicked in for me, my binoculars were still lying down somewhere on the floor; but my 400mm lens was glued onto the black cat, hoping, praying, and begging that it would turn. And turn it did, I shot about 10 frames, checked the shots, swapped to my binoculars and enjoyed five more seconds as it slinked into the bush. We tried to chase after it for but Mkomazi’s bush and long grass forbade us. The car erupted in awe, elation, victory and euphoric laughter about the utterly unexpected sighting at such low altitude.
Back in Cape Town, the team has been unable to find more than five images of melanistic servals in the wild, and indeed that highlights how rare this morph is. But something that had me truly intrigued is that I always thought that melanistic servals occurred only in the highlands of Kenya (Aberdares) and Ethiopia. An article in the Journal of East African Natural History mentions that there are four known locations of melanistic serval populations in East Africa, and all four occur in highland rangelands. These are: Mt. Kenya and the neighbouring Aberdare highlands (Kenya) whilst further south in Tanzania Mt. Kilimanjaro and North Pare Mountains, the latter range a stone throw away from Mkomazi Game Reserve. However thanks to Google and social media we have found another sighting of melanistic serval in the Serengeti, thus the question remains: did these individual descend from nearby highlands, or are they happily settled in the lowlands defying our understanding of justification for being melanistic.
Allow me to explain… melanism in felines is not unique to servals, we have all heard about panthers being melanistic leopards, but the “power of the dark side” does not end here. There are 37 known feline species worldwide and at least 13 of these species display melanistic morphs, these are Asian golden cat, bobcat, colocolo, domestic cat, Geoffroy’s cat, jaguar, jaguarondi, jungle cat, kodkod, leopard, marbled cat, oncilla, and serval. And of the latter subset the highest incidence of melanism occur in populations living at higher elevations.
Conventional thinking argues that melanism provides a survival advantage to the individual by absorbing faster calories and heat from sun rays in a heat and light deprived environment that otherwise offers perfectly good territories to survive in. Whilst beyond this high altitude realm, a “black” colouration is deemed maladaptive or a handicap to their survival by not allowing them to conceal themselves adequately against predators, prey and competitors.
However, this observation from Mkomazi National Park, and others from Serengeti National Park, could be defying such notion, especially if the individuals documented are not on an altitudinal migration but the lowland version of this morph.
If you have yourself encountered a melanistic serval before, even better photographed it, and even better if it was in a low lying area, please share your account with us or email email@example.com.