A Melanistic Serval Cat Sighting
The Joy of Seeing the Rare Feline
For most African tribes, seeing a completely black animal is not considered good because many believe these animals to be bad luck. But we know that isn’t true. For us, a small black wild cat brought good luck one day out in the Western Serengeti bush.
African serval cats normally have tan fur with small black spots much like a cheetah, but legend is that a small handful with jet-black fur roam sub-Saharan Africa. The melanistic serval cat as it’s known, is often discussed, but rarely seen. To begin with, the serval is a relatively small cat. So small that it is very hard to spot in relation to their vast environment. Their long limbs and big ears that seem slightly too large for their small heads are almost the only way to tell that they are not domestic cats.
The melanism is from a gene mutation that causes more dark pigment to be created than light pigment. It’s present in 13 of 38 known cat species, but is rare in servals. They can survive best by hiding during the day and hunting and night, making spotting them even harder.
We had not seen much of anything our first day out. We’d heard from the network of guides active in the area that some type of black cat had beethisn spotted and we spent the first day looking. However, not only hadn’t we seen any black cat, we hadn’t seen much of anything. So we really had no hope of finding him at all.
Other jeeps we encountered had the same stories to tell – there just wasn’t much going on in our part of the Serengeti that week. We began to believe that nothing was there for us – especially not such a tiny black mystical creature. But what we forgot is that when one is outside in nature, the unbelievable can happen.
When I was a schoolboy, on a class trip to the Aberdares National Park in Kenya, we came across a pure black cat that was too fast for anyone to identify. No one could explain what we had seen. The black cat remained just a flash in my mind, but it lived with me for years. Years later, I heard reports that a melanistic leopard had been spotted in that area. Then another one was spotted at Laikipia National Park, also in Kenya. This one had been photographed with camera traps, so proof of his existence was finally presented – he wasn’t just a myth. The flash in my mind had been real after all. Now, hearing that a black cat was seen in the Serengeti got my attention again.
This black beauty would have been more expected in the highlands more than 2km above sea level because of animals living at higher altitudes having a tendency towards melanism. This phenomenon allows them to absorb more heat from the sun. We were well below that altitude in our part of the Serengeti, so this black cat seemed to be a new discovery in our ecosystem. So to say that we woke up on the second day really hoping to see him is a great understatement. All the guides were still all abuzz about the legend of the black cat, but everyone we came across had failed to find him. We went from spot-to-spot following possible sightings. After a while, we really did began to believe it really was just a myth. A black cat shouldn’t be here.
Then finally! We saw just a speck of black. We slowed and tried to focus to see him. We could feel his presence. After a few minutes we saw something pouncing from the tall grass, and our excitement grew. The little black serval cat was hunting so it moved along purposefully. We creeped along watching him hunt rodents, lizards and birds. It felt like stalking a house cat. This was the rarest animal sighting that I have ever encountered in my career. The black cat that the guides had gotten a glimpse of was a serval cat – very rare and unexpected! No one knows where he came from but we guessed it may have been from the Ngorongoro highlands.
The sun was so beautiful in a way that you could see how beautiful his black fur was. We were able to see many magnificent things on this day. We went back to camp being the happiest people in the whole Serengeti.