Shenton Safaris

When a serval meets a melanistic friend

Daylight retreats fast on the equator, quickly overtaken by the night. In Africa, the empty darkness is full of possibilities. We were looking for lions with no luck but the dusty pinks of a Kenyan sunset were solace enough, and the bar beckoned us as we headed home across the darkening plains.

serval

All of us trapped in end-of-the-day-thoughts, eyes focused on the narrow beam of light as the spotlight swept. Rhythmically, back and forth, and then someone yelled, “Stop! Eyes!” But what eyes? Too tall for a nightjar, too suspicious for a hare. Worth a closer look.

As we moved, so did the animal. We stopped, our action mirrored again. Slowly, we got close enough to see through the tall grass… An elegant serval cat, on a soundless night-time patrol. The cat started to move again but stopped, ears pricked. We swung the spotlight around and found another set of eyes.

melanistic serval

Bright eyes caught the spotlight, but what was it?

But this approaching creature failed to take a form in the darkness, just a set of illuminated orbs floating towards us. My brain scanned for a match, and found none. This was something new.

The spotted cat in front of the vehicle made a mewing sound, reciprocated by the approaching shadow. And then I realised, it was a rare melanistic form of the same species, black as the night sky.

melanistic serval

The beautiful black coat of a melanistic serval is caused by a rare genetic mutation.

A meeting seemed inevitable, but how would it end? Two cats, identical in shape and form but for a genetic mutation that had left one with a black coat. The dark animal approached with caution, nearer and nearer until the two bumped heads.

Watch the two servals interact here:

And the sounds began. Meowing, purring, hissing, low guttural statements. The one cat seemed interested, the other apprehensive. The two rubbed heads and pawed softly at each other, seemingly oblivious to our presence. We watched, mesmerised. The two animals continued to interact for about fifteen minutes, moving around but never moving away from one another. Eventually, reluctantly, we decided to leave them in peace in case our presence was influencing the outcome of what we were watching.

 

serval
serval

The two cats alternated between seemingly friendly behaviour, and moments of more aggressive hissing and baring of teeth.

I have no idea what kind of behaviour we witnessed. Maybe it was a courtship ritual, maybe it was two acquaintances refreshing bonds, maybe it was an exchange of passive aggression and acts of submission. What I do know is that this was a once in a lifetime experience, and driving home I was elated, and excited to remember that every trip into the African bush can produce unbelievable surprises.

melanistic serval

Some experiences are completely unforgettable, and this was one of them.

Mjejane



Jeremy Goss

I’m a simple guy and know what makes me happiest - time spent in wild natural places, preferably with awesome rocks, amazing clouds and my camera. After a number of years in the eco-tourism industry in Botswana and a backpacking stint around eastern Europe and Asia, I recently completed my MSc in conservation biology. My belief is that human population expansion, the root cause of the majority of our conservation problems, will eventually peak and reverse. My goal in life is to try to make sure we still have as many natural places as possible left at that time. See a portfolio of my photographic work or like my Facebook page for more constant updates from wherever I happen to be.

Africa Geographic