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Written by Bronwyn Coppola 

On 4th April, 2017, two servals were released by iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis and Emdoneni cat rehabilitation centre owners Louis and Cecillie Nel into the Western Shores section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, adding to the small resident population of the ‘savannah stalker’.

serval release
Andrew Zaloumis, along with Louis and Cecillie Nel, release one of the servals

As the largest protected area of coastal grasslands and savannah in South Africa, iSimangaliso was chosen as the ideal sanctuary for the servals – whose survival has been threatened by the widespread degradation of these habitats.

“Today’s release is about hope and a brighter future,” says Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of iSimangaliso. “It marks another step towards completing the circle in iSimangaliso’s drive to re-establish viable populations of historically occurring species. Ultimately, our goal is to fully establish a park robust enough to endure for the next generation – not only the survival of a threatened species.”

According to Emdoneni co-owner Cecillie Nel, “The pair was born in captivity in January 2016 at the Emdoneni Lodge Cheetah Project, a certified rehabilitation centre based near Hluhluwe. They remained with their mother until the age of twelve months and have been totally isolated from the public – so they are completely wild and can hunt for themselves. Their mother, on the other hand, remains in our protection at Emdoneni because she was hand reared and has no fear of humans. She was rescued as a kitten when her own mother died from a snakebite.”

Nine serval have been successfully released in iSimangaliso on previous occasions, in the uMkhuze, Eastern Shores and Western Shores sections. The resident animals are thriving and are occasionally seen by fortunate visitors and park staff.

serval
The African serval (Leptailurus serval)

Little is known about the African serval (Leptailurus serval) – but they are an intriguing species. Their exceptional hunting skills have earned them the reputation as the ‘savannah stalker’. The second fastest running cat, after the cheetah, servals are remarkably successful hunters and catch their intended victims about 50% of the time as opposed to other cats that succeed around 20% of the time.

Strong and slender, these beautiful animals could be the Naomi Campbell of the bush. They have the longest legs of all cats relative to their size, making them one of the tallest cats, with longer hind than forelegs. The head is small in relation to the body, and tall, oval ears are set close together. The pattern of the fur is variable and no two are identical. Results of DNA studies indicate that the serval is closely related to the African golden cat and the caracal. Their average lifespan is ten years in the wild. The longest living African serval in captivity is estimated to be 23 years of age.

The serval is sometimes preyed upon by leopard and other large cats, but their numbers have dwindled largely due to human population taking over their habitat and hunting them for their pelts. In South Africa, serval are listed under the Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) Biodiversity Act and as such are subject to rigorous legislation to ensure their welfare and survival.

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iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in December 1999 in recognition of its superlative natural beauty and unique global values. The 332 000 hectare park contains of three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems, 700 year old fishing traditions, most of South Africa’s remaining swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuarine system, 526 bird species and 25 000 year-old coastal dunes – among the highest in the world. The name iSimangaliso means miracle and wonder, which aptly describes this unique place.