Big cats and wild sides

Eastern Cape

East London - Although widely distributed south of the Sahara, the serval became extinct in the Cape provinces over the last century mainly due to habitat loss, hunting and poaching.

Recently, however, private game reserves in the Eastern Cape have begun reintroducing the species in the hopes of contributing to the eventual re-establishment of these wild cats in the region.

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Male serval Killian adjusting to his new environment at a Kariega Game Reserve boma enclosure.Female serval Artemis at the boma enclosure at Kariega.

The serval is one of 10 indigenous wild cats found in Africa. Only three other small wild cats are found in South Africa: the caracal, African wild cat and the black-footed cat. The other three species – the sand cat, golden cat and jungle cat – are found in limited areas in north and central Africa. The remaining big cats of Africa – lion, leopard and cheetah – receive much more attention than their smaller cousins.

The serval is a medium-sized cat that can weigh up to 20kg. They have particularly long legs that help them to jump up to 3m and they have been seen to catch birds in flight. They also have large ears, giving them excellent hearing and enabling them to detect prey moving underground.

The Eastern Cape area was once dominated by stock farming, but in recent decades has seen an increase in private game reserves. This is good news for wildlife predators such as jackal, caracal and even leopard, which are hunted and killed for the threat they pose to livestock. In the case of the serval, it was wiped from the area, but as private game reserves grow, so does their capacity to reintroduce indigenous wildlife to the area.

Kariega Game Reserve is one of the private game reserves in the region that recently released four servals – two male, two female. The Kariega servals were bred by the Cat Conservation Trust, an organisation specialising in the conservation of South Africa’s four small wild cat species – serval, caracal, black-footed cat and wild African cat.

Before their release on Kariega, the young servals were transferred to a boma enclosure to enable them to adapt to their new surroundings, as well as to be fitted with tracking collars for effective monitoring. The two males have since been released and the females are soon to follow.

A number of other private game reserves in the Eastern Cape have also implemented serval reintroduction programmes, including Shamwari Game Reserve and the Great Fish River Reserve.

- Saturday Star

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